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Friday, November 2, 2018

Not Enough. Nowhere Near Enough.

November 6. Next Tuesday. It’s not that far away. 

Vote! Get others out to vote! We need to vote! It’s a rare prescription, one on which the majority of Americans agree. The bad news is that all the votes cast from Atlantic to Pacific and from Alaska to Hawaii won’t be enough to make our country better without a whole lot of ongoing effort, over a very long time, in other parts of our lives. 

There is a two-pronged concept in philosophy, that of the necessary and the sufficient. If your car has a gasoline-powered or diesel-fueled engine, it won’t start and run without the proper fuel. Empty tank means no-car-go. You gotta have fuel. Fuel is necessary. 

Fuel all by itself, however, is not sufficient. 

Suppose the fuel line is blocked or the battery dead or the ignition switch has gone bad. Then your car may have plenty of fuel and still not start. And that, unfortunately, is the situation we’re in in these presently Disunited States. Every eligible voter in the country could turn out and vote, and no matter which party came out on top, we would still be not just a country divided but a country at each other’s throats. We’ve been moving away from each other for a long time, our national moral battery is just about dead, and our public communication — political speech, social media posts — has gone from bad to worse.

“Milton, thou shouldest be living at this hour! England hath need of thee!” 

Well, we aren’t England, and it isn’t Milton we need, and it isn’t enough for good men and women merely to be alive. We need good people of integrity, maturity, and wisdom — more of them, that is; there are a few here and there already — in leadership positions in government. We need officials and public servants with the courage of their convictions and the temperamental ability to abstain from name-calling and shouting. We need leaders willing and able to focus on real issues, on what needs to be done, women and men who can put personal issues aside and move forward, rather than bogging down in endless ego battles. 

And the change really needs — this is really the Gordian knot of the present moment — to be top-down, because that’s what leadership is. Leadership is not whining and blaming and taking cheap shots and encouraging the intensification of hatred and intolerance. Leadership isn’t tapping into irrational fears that keep people from seeing or thinking straight. It’s calling on a nation’s strengths, on people’s better selves. And if the man at the very top cannot lead, those whose job it is to advise him — that would Congress first and foremost — need to grow spines (to put it in polite terms) and start standing up to him and for our country’s future. But clearly, most of them are not going to do it if we let them get away with shirking their duty and prancing around like movie stars, so while it has to come from the top eventually, it may have to begin at the bottom.

So we cannot stop with casting a ballot. At the personal and local level, we need to listen to and talk to one another, both one-on-one and in groups. On social media and in other public arenas, we need to remain civil. Remain? Maybe more like return to or initiate and practice civility. But we must also continue to urge our elected officials to keep civil tongues in their mouths, focus on practical matters of government, listen to all their constituents, and not sell their souls for short-term financial gain or temporary political career advancement. (People will remember, Mr. and Ms. Candidate. Keep that well in mind.) We cannot rest secure by electing people and then turning them loose on trust to look out for us. We have to watch them like hawks, every minute, and not let them forget for a minute that we’re watching. 

There are a lot of us, though, so we can take turns. Once we’ve established the habit. Once our fevered brains have a chance to recall that we’re all in this together, sink or swim. That’s the good news. It can be done. We can pull together. We can treat one another decently, with respect. And we have everything to gain.

The question is, will we get it together in time? Vote on Tuesday! But don't expect voting to produce a miracle. It's just not that fast or easy.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Mom and Pop Go For a Picnic They Hadn't Planned

At the beginning of summer, for us not-retired people who make our livings in this one season or not at all, life speeds up and up and up with each passing week, and we run as fast as we can to keep pace. Grass needs to be mowed almost every day, the calendar overflows with commitments, and daily life piles on additional demands. Fourth of July arrives: summer’s peak, we think — and then as it retreats in our mental rearview mirrors we congratulate ourselves for a few minutes on having survived, but summer has only now truly begun. We forgot. Resolutely now, clearer-eyed, we soldier on (some days like automatons, wondering how long we can last). 

Then one fine morning we seem to find our stride. August comes, with hot, dry weather. The grass barely needs mowing any more, and while gardens must be watered twice daily, the expenditure of time there is much less, and we pause and think gratefully of the nearness of September. Already for many in other states, for college and university students, school is beginning. A quiet Sunday in Northport gives the illusion that summer crowds have thinned, and in the evening we drive hopefully to another village for dinner. 

Crowds thinned? Not at all! Finding our familiar old gathering spot still filled to the rafters with strangers and ear-shattering noise, we walk to the grocery store to provision a picnic and there receive another shock, one that would have flattened Rip Van Winkle. What has happened to the little store we remember? It is now a giant, in area and in height, and feels like an emporium in some glamorous, distant, enormous city! We are overwhelmed! Dazed, we wander around and manage to find a deli sandwich and Greek salad to share, plus a cold drink — and then we flee! 

Surely there will be a quiet spot somewhere outdoors? Something familiar?

We seek out a certain bend in the river where we used to pull off the road to leave our vehicle and submerge our younger bodies in cold, flowing water. Now, however, we find a paved bicycle path and a parking lot with one way “Enter only” and another “Exit only” and the earth all beaten bare by the riverside and yet no picnic table or seating of any kind and “No parking at any time” beside the river. Farther downstream at another spot we used to pull off the road, logs have been dragged into place to prevent anyone’s driving in. 

Where is our world of forty years ago? Where are the quiet places? 

Finally we find another old pull-off place, this one still accessible, and though it is just off the main road and hardly hidden from traffic we are grateful to be able to park beside the river at last. Passenger side door open, we picnic in our car (not having brought chairs or a blanket) and reminisce. Days with children playing by the side of the river. Float trips and rowing trips in rubber raft, canoe, kayak. Upstream walks, wading against the current, with visiting friends. Leeches. A raccoon washing its dinner in the reeds. Hundreds of silent salmon around and beneath our boat in the fall.

Another car comes along and pulls off the road in front of us, and a man gets out and walks down to the water. He slips out of his sandals and wades in. He turns and waves to his wife to join him. She leaves her sandals next to his, gathers her summer dress up in one hand, and they wade knee-deep, first downstream, then up, against the current. They are from Ohio, I note from the license plate on their car, so it is probably their first time in this river. Watching them, we seem to be watching a movie of our own past.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Word 'Wash'

After two winters spent in the high desert, the word immediately conjures up for me not an image of wet laundry on a clothesline but a dusty, river-shaped opening through scratchy mesquite. The dry wash. Arroyo. “There were mule deer down in the wash this morning.” On some maps, washes (each, like a river, with its own name) are called ‘canyons,’ but that word to me still means something larger and much grander. 

I do hang my washed clothing and table linens and towels out on a line in the backyard, and sometimes I recall years when I only  dreamed of being at home to do such a thing, but I did not then imagine doing it before the sun came up, as I must often do these busy days. I did imagine chickens pecking around in the grass at my feet, and those chickens’ presence I still have to imagine.

‘Wash’ makes me think also of watercolor, an art medium I will never attempt, content (and sufficiently challenged) as I am with pen or pencil. I am happy, though, that others dare the mystery and chance effects of a watercolor wash.

“Wash that man right outta my….” How I loved singing and acting out that “South Pacific” musical number! 

Dishwasher. I have never had one. Instead, I am one. On good days, washing dishes is a meditative activity, something my hands do while my mind is free to roam. 

‘Washed-up’ is not a good way to be, but treasures may be washed up on shore by the waves.

The sun washes over a field of green wheat, waves of grain rippling dark and light in the spring breeze.

Laver. Se laver. Lavar. Lavarse. Je me lave les mains. And in Spanish? It does not come as quickly, and I wonder if it ever will.

Washed away, carried away, swept away — gone from here but gone altogether or simply deposited somewhere else? Edith Piaf with her new love, sweeping (rather than washing) away the old. In another French song, however, waves wash away footprints in the sand: La mer efface sur la sable….  

Washable. Temporary. Evanescent. Mysterious.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

I Changed One Way, My World Changed Another: Thoughts on American Business and Government

Confession: I used to be a libertarian. Really. It was a long time ago.
I met Ayn Rand in the pages of her novels and essays at the impressionable age of 17 and subsequently subscribed for several years to a magazine called Reason, with the catchy motto, "Consider the alternative." I bought it all — the idea that private enterprise is the solution to all social problems and any constraints on capitalism illegitimate and wrongful assaults on personal freedom. In a nutshell: profits good, taxes bad. Cities should be run like Disneyland, the writers of Reason argued. You want services? Those who do and can afford those services should pay for them, and others should be left alone with their money or their struggles.

What can I say? I was young. I got over it a long time ago. 

Many years after my attitude toward government and altruism had changed, however, I still found myself dreading the phone call to sign up for Medicare. I made fresh coffee and moved a comfortable chair over next to the phone, arming myself with pen and paper and anticipating being put on hold and shuffled from one office to another for an hour or more, but to my surprise it didn't work that way. An automated answering system asked me to leave my phone number so I could receive a callback when my turn came up to talk to someone. What a great system! When I was called back, the woman who called was pleasant and efficient, and getting signed up didn’t take long at all. I was happy and very impressed.

Much more recently I had to call AT&T on business and had a very different experience. I started out on hold (not a surprise) and was put on hold again repeatedly after finally reaching an AT&T representative. I do not, let me be clear, blame the young woman who took my call. I blame a company that has a crap system for taking calls and that clearly does not provide employees with the information they need or a quick way to access it. What should have been a simple transaction stretched out to forty-five L—O—N—G minutes. 

When I go to a local post office, whether in Northport, Leland, or Lake Leelanau, the federal employees who serve me are all pleasant, fast, and efficient. They have a good, solid system in place. Social Security and Medicare have systems that work well. Same for the Michigan Secretary of State's office in Suttons Bay. The Michigan Department of Treasury is not quite up there in the top ranks, but once you manage to reach a live person, they can generally take care of you.

— Then there is AT&T, a private, very large and successful company. A communications company, no less! Good grief! My question: Why can't that huge private, profitable enterprise do what so many ordinary government offices and agencies do so well?

Back in 1994 a visitor to my bookstore wanted me to join his national lobbying organization. The group represented, he told me, people in business who shared my views. He had never met me, but those were. his words: “your views.” I asked what he thought my views were, as we had not yet exchanged a single opinion. "Well, you don't want government getting into business!" he said confidently. "If government gets involved, it will be a big mess like the post office!" At that point, I cried out as if stabbed, "I love the post office! The post office is great!" That little man turned and practically ran out the door -- with his pile of slickly packaged brochures, I might add, the very brochures that had first tipped me off that joining his organization would put money I could ill afford into the hands of people who already had way too much and probably weren’t doing very good things with it. 

Perhaps you disagree?

If you think government screws everything up and that private enterprise can and should take over the country — everything from elementary schools and universities to hospitals and prisons — please take another look. One of the main ways business increases profits, especially these days, is not by making better products or providing better services but by cutting costs. Payroll is a big expense. Cut payroll and you increase profits. Simple. More money for CEOs and stockholders. And if cutting payroll means that customer service goes out the window — the baby thrown out with the bathwater — well, Americans are getting more and more used to doing for themselves what the companies they pay used to do for them, aren’t they? 

Pump your own gas, book your own flight, print out your own ticket and boarding pass, check out your own groceries, etc. Do you save any money this way? Nope. Someone lost a job, and you’re now doing that job for free.

I’m curious. What are your recent experiences with big business, whether in a store, online, or by telephone or online? How often have you been able to reach a live human being to answer questions and/or solve a problem vs. the number of times you have been shunted endlessly (well, it seems endless) from one robotic voice to another, through an automated navigation system that never seems to reach an end, the robotic voice (pretending to be human) saying unhelpfully over and over, “I’m sorry — I didn’t understand your response” or, in a more positive scenario, “Just a minute while I look that up” (that bit of automated dialogue accompanied by what is supposed to sound like a person tapping away at a keyboard — and who is fooled by that bit of phoniness, I’d like to know?), with long stretches of waiting on hold, listening to canned music, periodically and far too frequently interrupted by a recorded voice repeating the unconvincing claim, “Your call is very important to us”?

Do you remember the days when service was more than an empty word, or are you part of a younger generation that never experienced those more leisurely and civilized times? How do you feel about it all? Just the way things are? The new normal? What choice do we have?

Disclaimer 1/24/2018: I must add that my remarks on the efficiency of government apply to agencies, not to the executive or legislative branches in Washington, D.C. I wonder if anyone in Congress has ever read Russian history — the party wars following the Revolution, the phony “trials,” the tortures, executions, and imprisonments. Is this where we’re heading? I suppose you could say that a country as large as the United States of America did well to last for over 200 years. But is that good enough for you?

Friday, December 29, 2017

Mom and Pop Again: Pop Cheers Mom Up

Mom (mournfully): I’m an old woman!

Pop (matter-of-factly) And I’m an old man. (Struck by this thought, he adds enthusiastically): Say, this is workin’ out great!

They laugh.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

American Life as Salad Bar

A restaurant salad bar generally offers more variety than the house salad, but it comes with a price: Having been seated comfortably at your table, you now have to get up again, go through a line, and bring that loaded salad plate safely back to the table yourself. Instead of being served, that is, you must serve yourself. Well, if I wanted to assemble my own salad, I could have stayed at home.

There is a marvelous scene in the movie “Back to the Future” (one of my favorite movies), where actor Michael J. Fox, whose character has been transported back in time, drives into a service station for gas. He has grown up with self-serve gas stations and is astonished by attendants rushing out to fill his tank and clean his windshield. “Check your oil, sir?” they used to ask. Yes, really. A customer never had to get out of the car. Hence the name service station.

All forms of domestic travel and much travel overseas (unless one ventured far off the beaten paths) used to be similarly luxurious, though what was ordinary at the time was not recognized as luxury. Being checked in at the airport, having one’s baggage checked, boarding a train, ordering a meal in the dining car — you didn’t have to be a first-class passenger paying the highest price to be attended by personnel whose job was to take care of you. That’s just the way things were. Nowadays almost every aspect of American life that used to offer customer care is becoming or has already become a serve-yourself  maze. One after another, businesses are hurrying to eliminate staff and cut services, thus cutting costs but not — please note — cutting prices. You can go through a checkout lane that “lets” you scan all items yourself, but you don’t get a price break for doing it. Someone lost a job, and now you’re doing that person’s old job for free. 

Some people like the new way. Maybe you like it. Self-service eliminates the need to interact with other human beings, so maybe you feel more independent, more self-sufficient in this brave new world. Just whip out your smart-aleck phone and sail through life in a self-enclosed bubble. It’s just like staying home, isn’t it? Often it is staying home (shopping online), and when it isn’t, it might as well be (except that Siri is watching your every move and hears your every word).

(On the other hand, one-time luxuries such as manicures and pedicures, facials and massages, have now become part of everyday life for many Americans of all ages and stations of life. Could it be that we crave human interaction, after all? That we want to be, once in a while, cared for by others and are willing — if we can afford it, if we haven’t lost our jobs — to pay for the privilege?)

So far, not every alternative to self-service has vanished. Not only can I visit a retail store, I can even choose a check-out lane employing a real person. I can buy stamps at the post office from a real person behind the counter. And if I go to the right restaurant, I can sit down at my leisure while someone comes to take my order and brings me my salad. But how long will a world with alternatives last? 

An article in the most recent Atlantic magazine gives a chilling account of jobs being lost to robots in coffee shops and fast food restaurants, the very “service industry” where we were assured there would continue to be work for human beings even as manufacturing jobs were lost to robots! 

So consider trying this today, though of course you don’t have to: Wait in the lane for a human being to check your groceries. Buy your books in a bookstore and your stamps at a post office. Patronize the coffee shop or bar where your drinks are made by a human barista or bartender. Because how much longer will this kind of life be possible? You don’t want to do everything yourself, do you? 

Although you’re paying, I contend that it’s more than a commercial transaction when there are real human beings involved. The waitress may not have been waiting for you to come into her life, but she will be happy to bring your salad to the table. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

“No More New Clothes!”

Somewhere recently on Facebook I saw a post urging women to stop buying new clothes. Since I almost never do, having chosen a path in life that does not facilitate that kind of spending, I might have scrolled on by without a second thought. Ah, but the curse of a philosopher is to be never far from second thoughts on any subject whatsoever! And so the idea stuck in my mind. 

I don’t remember now the reasons given for the plea, though it seemed to have something to do with changing the world, rather as Lysistrata urged the women of Athens (it was Athens, wasn’t it?) to refuse sex to their husbands until the men agreed to put an end to war.  Perhaps the idea in buying no more new clothes was for women to show their independence from the fashion industry and to punish clothing designers for the narrow range of acceptable images of women in their advertising.

In the middle of the night, though, wide awake from a dream, I found myself musing on the radically changed world we might expect if, by a snap of her fingers, that one woman on Facebook could enact her scenario. Imagine that all American women (to simplify the story, only American women) were suddenly to stop buying any new clothes at all, either for themselves or for their families. What might we expect to see?

Clothing stores are empty, sales staff laid off, shopping malls dark. All those enticing jobs for teen girls and young women gone! (Your friends' children? Your grandchildren?) Well, those jobs are vanishing, anyway, you might say, with everyone shopping online, but the online businesses would go dark, too, remember, if selling new clothes is what they’re all about. Warehouses, factories, shipping facilities all close, and those jobs too vanish overnight. 

(Who are the people whose jobs have gone up in smoke? Can you see them in your mind’s eye?)

Now picture the scene at thrift shops and consignment businesses across the country. As secondhand shoppers, the wealthy and leisured still have a big advantage, for they don't need to fit shopping around a work schedule, as do the women who have always depended on secondhand clothing to make themselves presentable. So now we have consumers competing against each other for the most desirable used items, and those with the most time and money will come off best. Yet again. No big change there. 

But how about the supply of those desirable secondhand clothing items? Where will they come from? To see the problem, we need to look further down the road. 

When women with comfortable incomes no longer buy new clothes (while competing with women of lower incomes for the “nicer” used items), they won’t have as much used clothing to send out into the world. We can expect donations to thrift shops to decline rapidly in quality. In fact, it’s pretty easy to imagine the wealthy and leisured forming their own little clubs of privilege and circulating the best used clothing items among themselves, circumventing any need to mix with the hoi polloi at all.

A look beyond our own fortunate borders is in order here, too. Jobs for garment workers around the world — largely women at or close to the lower rungs of the economic ladder — disappear in large numbers, as do other jobs depending on the clothing industry. American women are no longer fashion’s slaves, but the real price of their freedom, as usual, is born elsewhere.

Let me step back at this point from my thought experiment to say that I have never been one to urge Americans to “Buy, buy, buy!” (One of my customers told me recently, “You’re a better friend than you are a business person.” I’d really like to be good in both roles, but I certainly don’t want to excel in the latter by sacrificing the former.) In general, Americans buy too much, much more than they need or can reasonably use. Shopping, whether online or in stores, and whether the shopper is buying new or buying used, can be an addiction, a way to self-medicate and avoid dealing with more difficult issues in personal and/or political life. 

I’ll go further and say that I do not regard unlimited economic growth as a cure for the ills of our soul-sick country, let alone the ills of a imperiled world. What’s touted as a solution is, as I see it, really part of the problem. Environmental degradation is a cost not usually figured into “growth,” but how can that make sense, when we live on a finite planet with finite resources?

No, no, I am not arguing for consumer spending as a cure for anything. Are we clear on that?

All I’m saying is that before we call for a movement — nationwide, let alone a worldwide — it’s a good idea to think through the consequences of what we’re asking people to do. Who stands to benefit, and who will be harmed? Are the probable consequences ones we really want?

There’s no shopping necessary to conduct a thought experiment. You’ve already got everything you need.