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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 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.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Trust and Leadership, Horses and Men, Fraternities War, and Community

Hold trust as sacred. A fragile web of trust holds us together. Through intimacy, we are deeply vulnerable, and we rely on each other to keep us safe. Trust can take years to build, and only a single moment to destroy. Keeping confidences, honoring agreements, and cherishing the love and friendship as a precious gift will assure lasting trust. - Louise Desmond, The Peace Book

Have you ever experienced a theme building in your thoughts over a few days’ time, growing and nurtured by a series of coincidences? Tuesday NPR had an evening segment on trust, to which I was listening with half an ear while trying to read at the same time. Listeners to the radio program were asked to call in to tell about times their trust had been betrayed or times when they had managed to rebuild lost trust. I turned the radio off after a while to concentrate on my book, but the only callers I heard before clicking the dial were telling stories of how they had been betrayed. 

I’m sure we all have stories of our trust being abused. I wonder, do we ever tell stories of how we have broken trust with someone else? Do we even know when we’ve done it? And if we ever “betrayed” unknowingly, maybe there have been times when another was unaware of violating our trust, too? How often when trust is broken between two people is the issue discussed openly and attempts made to heal? Marriage counseling tries to do this, but what about inadvertent, unconscious betrayals — this is the question that came into my mind — between those not bound together by vows? Friends? People who work together? Members of a community?

The book I turned off the radio to read was not Louise Desmond’s but Mark Rashid’s, and his was a book not on the large topic of peace but on the practical matter of training a horse as one’s partner. There again, however, the crux of the issue was trust. Basically, if the horse has learned to trust its rider, the rider can trust the horse. It’s a two-way street. Because that’s what partnership is. It is not — cannot be — a struggle for domination but an agreement to honor one another and try to understand the other’s point of view.

In Horses Never Lie: The Heart of Passive Leadership (I discussed this book at length in a post on one of my other blogs; it’s the last book discussed in a lengthy rambling over various unrelated recent readings), Mark Rashid tells how he observed that in herds of horses it is not the dominant alpha that has the herd’s trust. The alpha is seen as a “leader” by human beings because it is, so to speak, at the top of the food chain: the alpha eats first, drinks first, takes its place in desirable shade, and mates when and where it chooses. (I use the impersonal rather than a gendered pronoun because the alpha in a herd may well be a mare.) The alpha holds onto its position with threats, kicks, and bites, intimidating the rest of the horses. The alpha rules by fear. 

By contrast, Mark Rashid observed another kind of herd leader not previously recognized or given a title in equine literature. He calls this other a “passive” leader because it is chosen by the herd without initially seeking a leadership position. The “passive” leader is the one the herd can trust. The rest of the herd will avoid the bullying alpha and follow the dependable “passive” leader. See my other post for more explanation, or, better yet, read Mark Rashid’s book. 

Rashid advocates that human trainers and riders learn to recognize and take advantage of the horse’s need and desire for leadership if they are looking for a partner relationship with their horse.

One story in his book tells of an owner who had been taught by a trainer to “correct” her horse with a heavy hand whenever it was “disrespectful” of her alpha status. The problem is (and this is true between human beings, whether parents and children, employers and workers, or any other human relationship, hierarchical or apparently equal) that the lessons we often think we are giving are not necessarily the lessons being learned. In this case, Rashid notes, the owner and the horse had entirely different perceptions of the situation. The horse was learning not respect but fear and avoidance.

Horses are herd animals. A solitary horse does survive long in the wild, and so horses look for a leader to keep them safe. In a threatening situation, in the absence of a leader, a horse will use the only defenses it has to stay safe. It will seek to avoid the threat (e.g., get away from the bully), but if escape is not an option and the threat escalates, the horse will kick or even bite. Horses seldom turn “killer,” though. First they look for help. 
The key, then, is to find a way to get horses to see you as the individual who can help them when they need it. - Mark Rashid, Horses Never Lie

All this stuff about horses and trust was in my head the next morning as I drove to Northport, and that morning NPR’s 1A program with Joshua Johnson focused on terrible stories of trust betrayed, fraternity brothers brutal “hazing” torture of new pledges, the most horrid resulting in the pledge’s death, all recorded on video surveillance camera in the frat house. I’m not going to go into detail about the specific case, which you can read about by following the link above (and elsewhere), and you probably already know that fraternity hazing in the United States involves periods of sleep deprivation and slavery to the whims of the “brotherhood,” forced consumption of poisonous amounts of alcohol, and various physical tests, some amounting to nearly incredible torture of the kind ten-year-olds (probably boys) might imagine for their enemies, such as eating and drinking barrels of mixed vile concoctions that could include human vomit. The supposed point of all these tests is to prove one’s manhood and worthiness to become a “brother.” 

Again, listeners to the program were asked to call in with their own stories, and more than one man recalled his own hazing experience and its aftermath with deep ambivalence. One admitted it was a wonder he had survived but also said the bonds formed were deep and unbreakable because of the testing. 

I recall getting together a “club” with a friend when we were about ten years old. We were girls, so the tests were mild. One I recall involved standing barefoot in the snow for a certain length of time. Another mandated total secrecy: not even the existence of the club was to be revealed to another living soul! Boys might have come up with more serious risk-taking, perhaps ordering each other to jump off a garage roof. But what makes sense to ten-year-olds is not what we expect of university-sanctioned organizations for students aged eighteen, nineteen, twenty and twenty-one years old. 

Listening to the radio program and the avowals of “brotherhood” gained through the hazing experience, it occurred to me that joining a fraternity, for many young American males, bears the burden of standing in for truer, more realistic experiences of coming into manhood, such as that gained through joining the military and submitting to rigorous physical training. Without the female’s biological ruptures — menarche, tearing of the hymen, and childbirth — human males of all cultures have always sought to create ways to separate the boys from the men. Fraternity hazing, though, I couldn’t help thinking, was a pretty pathetic substitute for a wilderness vision quest, going off to sea, or joining the military.

That very evening we went to Traverse City for another National Writers Series event, this one a conversation with Philip Caputo and Sebastian Junger, led by Jack Segal, and the focus of the evening’s discussion was war. War, combat experience, camaraderie, and returning home from war a different person to a society very different from battlefield life. In a combat platoon, Junger emphasized, every individual is necessary, not for his individuality but for his contribution to the group, because battlefield life is all about collective survival, and survival of the group depends on every individual being willing to give his life for the group’s survival. In this situation, then, very intense, deep, and lasting bonds are formed between soldiers, because they are trusting each other with their lives and willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. 

Because all this was already in my mind, I was forcibly struck by the difference between fraternity life and military life. Think about it. In war, a captured soldier resists giving information under torture as long as possible to protect his fellow soldiers, his platoon brothers. In the frat house, the brothers are the torturers. In a war zone, soldiers risk their lives to recover a missing or injured buddy. In the Penn State case, the dying pledge was left to die alone: after his “brothers” had punched and shaken him and poured water over him, they left him to “sleep off” his fatal injuries. In one situation, trust is essential to survival. In the other, it seems that survival comes down to surviving betrayal. 

(Is that too simple?)

In a combat platoon, you’re never alone, and the return to civilian life is a shock in part because it is a return to emotional isolation, to life in a culture that values individual achievement over group cohesiveness and survival. In fact, the individual often has to "betray" his group in order to succeed, to come out on top. Perhaps, then, fraternity hazing is a preparation for American adulthood? The lesson might be something like “You’re on your own! Sink or swim!” If you sink, of course, “you’re not one of us,” but then, realistically, you’re never securely and permanently “one of us” in a culture of individuality, because you might fail at some future time, and no one wants to be on the same team as a “loser.” 

In the Q&A with audience following the house-lights-off discussion, Caputo and Junger were asked by an audience member what kind of experience might substitute for war in developing community among individuals. (Certainly the corporate world offers no such opportunity. Quite the opposite.) Both writers recommended community involvement, Junger advocating a program of mandatory national service — or even “international,” he added, having previously mentioned returning Peace Corps volunteers having some of the same difficulties as returning military veterans. Sacrifice, he said (and I’m paraphrasing), produces commitment and loyalty. 

Both writers (Caputo a Vietnam veteran, Junger a war journalist "in front of the front lines" in Afghanistan) stressed the importance of finding meaning, not simply adrenaline rushes, in wartime experience. The problem, then, is to find meaning in life before or after or in the absence of war. Both emphasized that the key to meaning lies in belonging to “something bigger than yourself.”

It occurred to me on the way home that for many young people organized sports might provide an early experience of interdependence and group solidarity. My own formative group experience from 4th grade through high school came through orchestra and later, for my senior year, drama. Players in an orchestra, like cast and crew in a play production, have to work together, trust one another, and submerge their ordinary identities in the larger whole focused on performance. There is a lot of discipline involved, too. Orchestra and drama are not just fooling around! With many musical instruments (this is certainly true for violinists), there is also a great degree of physical endurance required. Orchestral membership is a life for some musicians, while the run of a play is more limited, but both offer young people, I believe, a chance to belong to something bigger than themselves. We were not, of course, risking our lives!

But -- Trust the orchestra director and each other. Trust the director and fellow cast and crew members. Trust your coach and your team members. A bad coach or breakaway grandstander betrays the whole.

I’m not sure where I’m left at this point. I’ll be attending a community meeting later this month, the first I’ve gone to in a couple of years. For a long time I went to local meetings all the time — village meetings, township meetings, school board meetings, Chamber of Commerce meetings, planning and visioning meetings. Then I lost heart. I didn’t feel, as Sebastian Junger said, necessary to any local group or larger community. Quite honestly, if my bookstore were to close tomorrow and never re-open, the township library would go on, and people would have no difficulty buying books from online sites. Also — and this is always relevant in a village, sometimes in large, traditional cities, too — even if I live to be 100 in Northport, there’s no way I’ll ever have grandparents buried in the township cemetery, and my family’s stories have no place in local history. 

A very good friend just the other day questioned a certain man’s claim to be “local,” saying, “I wanted to ask him how long he’s been here!” My bookstore will be 25 years old in July of 2018, but I was born in South Dakota, grew up in Illinois, and spent years living downstate before coming to Leelanau County.

What does this have to do with trust? I think when we talk about trust, we’re talking about knowing, deep in our bones, that someone cares about us. Loyalty is part of it but can’t be the whole story. I don’t know. 

And now I’m thinking once again of the question I began with, the ways in which we give others the unintended message that we don’t care about them. I guess, basically, if we want to be trusted, we have to take our place and hold it calmly, like the “passive” leader in the herd of horses, not seeking confrontation or demanding attention and “respect” but going about our business in a quiet, consistent manner, ready to stop and pay attention, to listen, and, as Mark Rashid says, to let the other horses have their say. Everyone wants to be heard.

Is this enough? I’m still mulling it all over, wondering what ideas and insights will come along next to add to what I’ve already got.


Related worthwhile groups to explore in connection with topics discussed above are With Honor, a an organization dedicated to encouraging veterans to run for Congress and serve in a cross-partisan manner, and Reining Liberty Ranch, a Traverse City nonprofit promoting physical, relational, and emotional health, primarily for veterans and their families, through equine therapy.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Enemy of the Good – and of Community

Once again, for the umpteenth time, I’ve been obsessing about the notion of ‘community’ and whether or not community – coming together as one -- ever exists in human societies, except as an ideal. Maybe now and then, briefly, in experiences of celebration or mourning, but day to day? Even in groups of like-minded individuals, it seems, those individuals are constantly testing one another to answer the question, Are you really ‘one of us’?

Once again, I’m feeling there is nowhere I truly belong. This morning, in fact, I woke up with a French song in my head, a song by Alain Souchon expressing modern alienation so beautifully that if you didn’t know French you would never know it for a sad song. And I would keep these negative feelings to myself, except that I’m pretty sure a lot of other people feel the same way.

Where do my feelings come from this time? I can tell you. Lately I’ve been saddened, in exchanges with people I know would be ashamed to exclude or stigmatize others on the basis of skin color or religion or ethnic background, to find that they have no problem excluding or stigmatizing on the basis of gender or association. A liberal mind, whether possessed by man or woman, recoils at male dismissal of “women writers,” and yet a woman writer friend of mine says she has no use whatsoever for anything written by a “dead white male.” Anything? I am stunned and speechless. This friend is willing to read books by living white males, but another rules out all men, white or otherwise.

Then there is Facebook, sometimes fun, sometimes torment. In the past few days, it has been the latter.

Imagine yourself a famous person. Wherever you go, people want pictures of themselves with you. Imagine yourself with friends in Hollywood. You go to parties and have your picture taken with others there. Imagine yourself running for high political office, with supporters contributing to your political campaign. Do you vett each contributor? Refuse contributions unless a contributor’s values, personal and political, align completely with yours? How can you know?

Well, well now! Isn’t this wonderful? We have found a way to discredit individuals we could not sufficiently condemn any other way: guilt by association!

Somehow for most of my life I had missed a saying that has recently grown to have enormous meaning for me: “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” All through last year’s campaign cycle, one dear friend posted one link or comment after another showering Democratic candidates and office-holders with scorn for their failings. I know this person did not support or vote for the current administration in Washington. But wait! Is that correct? I say “did not support,” but he could hardly have worked harder against the Democratic ticket had he been wearing an elephant costume.

I’ve never been a loyalist of any party and would never claim any candidate or office-holder beyond criticism. No human being is perfect, after all -- and that's exactly my point. No politician will say precisely what I would wish or do exactly as I would hope. Sometimes we will disagree on certain ends, other times on means, and often compromise will be necessary to get anything done at all. I did not understand this at age 18, but I understand it now. I don’t expect perfection, either from friends or from politicians.

But that doesn’t mean anything goes or that there are no standards. There are better and worse choices. Bad-mouth the better at every opportunity, and you give ammunition to the much worse. Throw away the better because it isn’t perfect, and you pave the way for enthroning the much worse.

If the views of my friends can be attributed to me by association, then am I too guilty of hating male writers and condemning imperfect liberal politicians? Does that make any sense whatsoever? And where, then, would you find a single not-guilty person in the world?

Is there an alternative? Should I un-friend everyone who disagrees with me on anything important? Cut off dialogue? What a dilemma!

The dilemma is wrenching. On the one hand, liberals are urged, and even urge one another, to listen to those with different views and values, however violently opposed to their own. On the other hand, it seems that the closer those liberal values align to anyone in politics, the more we are urged, by the same people urging listening to the opposition, to condemn any politician who falls short of heroic perfection.

The hell with it! Life is too damn short to spend it wallowing in negativity, and I found a way to cheer myself up today. BeauSoleil, the Cajun band, is coming to the Dennos Museum Center, and I’ll be there in the front row, lettin’ the good times roll!

People come together in music like nowhere else.

P.S. 10/13/2017 - You think I was pissed off and sarcastic? Read what Rebecca Solnit has to say. Man, she is the greatest!

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

What Is Patriotic?

The words on this discarded beer can are familiar. “Land of the Free” is proudly proclaimed, along with “Home of the Brave” and “Indivisible Since 1776.” Indivisible? Well, the attempt to divide was certainly made in a bloody conflict that dragged on for years, but in the end the political entity known as the Union held.

Near the top of this recyclable (but no returnable; was it brought to Michigan from another state?) some of the words of the national anthem appear. Only the first few lines, and even those are incomplete, as the lines were made to arc upwards toward the pull tab, cutting off all but “Oh say can ... proudly”/”we hailed at the ... Whose broad”/with two remaining lines appearing in full, ending with the words “so gallantly streaming?”

Against a red background at the bottom of the can we may read “LIBERTY & JUSTICE FOR ALL.”

I found this beer can at the side of one of my favorite walking roads, presumably thrown from the window of a passing car or truck.

Is littering less objectionable if an empty can is emblazoned with patriotic sentiments? Are customers for this product more patriotic than drinkers of Canadian beer? Is the company more patriotic for using the national anthem to promote and market its product? The Budweiser company calls this beer “America.”

Respect. Disrespect. National symbols. I’m thinking about it all.

Friday, June 9, 2017

What Is the Appropriate Response to Inappropriate Speech or Behavior?

You don’t expect it. That’s the first thing people have to understand. It’s the freak event that arrives without warning in the middle of a clear, blue sky day.

We expect certain behaviors from others. What we expect varies from situation to situation, but at work and in our social worlds, our expectations are largely determined by the recognized roles those others play in our lives and the greater world. What do we expect of a friend? A teacher?A priest? A policeman or a judge? A boss?

Whether the other is someone we consider a friend or is our host in his own home, whether he’s someone we look up to as a mentor, a teacher or a priest, or he’s just “the boss,” we can’t predict every word of the other ahead of time, naturally. But certain utterances, when we hear them, are so freakish, such outrageous departures from any role-appropriate conversation we might have expected, that we can hardly believe our ears.

Stunned. That’s what he said. Former director James Comey says he was stunned, and that’s the word, all right. Think, as we say here Up North, “a deer in the headlights.” Momentarily paralyzed with disbelief. Your mind, supposed to interpret and tell us what to do, can say little beyond “This can’t be happening. This can’t be real. He couldn’t have just said [or done] that.”

You get out of there as fast as you can, saying as little as possible. Your mind whirls. Let’s say this is someone with whom you work—for whom you work. Whether you’re well along in a professional career or just starting out in one or you’re just in some low-level, minimum-wage job you can’t afford to lose, what do you do now?

Some people quit, but most continue to try to do their jobs.

 “Why didn’t you tell him he was being inappropriate?”

“Why didn’t you tell this story sooner?”

Why didn’t you do this or say that? In other words, what’s wrong with you that you did not give the appropriate response to the inappropriate observation or request or touch?

Because you couldn’t believe what was happening.
Because you couldn’t believe what he just said.
Because he made sure there were no witnesses.
Because you just wanted to do was get out of there.
Because you still had a job to do.

So you put it aside and go on, protecting yourself as best you can from any future repetition of the situation.

“Why did you continue to take his calls?” Comey was asked.

He was doing his job.

Abuses of power are not always about sex, and abusers do not target only women, but the basic scenario has the same familiar ring. There are no witnesses. And you just can’t believe it’s happening.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Mom and Pop Dive Into Another Season

Mom: Another season! It’s almost here!

Pop: Does it make you all verklempt? I know how you can get about things like that.

Mom: Things like what?

Pop: Things like everything!

Mom: You mean like life?

[Mom is hosting a world premiere book launch in Northport on May 9, and sometime before the end of June will be the opening of Pop's one-man exhibition at the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City. We are gearing up for a very big season this year! Hint: Join Dennos Museum Center and receive automatic invitation to members opening reception.]

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Two Different Worlds

These thoughts were inspired by reading as much as by memory but are not focused on a book, so I'm putting them here, rather than on my main books blog. Also, they follow, at least partially, in some fashion, the previous post on this blog.

*  *  *

Again and again, reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, I re-experienced scenes from childhood as memories surged forth. When Isenberg noted that gardening as recreation was an acceptable part of postwar middle-class life, but growing food on one’s small plot of land was not -- right there, in a single sentence, I saw again the contrast between my two sets of grandparents—my father’s father and stepmother in Columbus, Ohio, and my mother’s mother and stepfather on the edge of Springfield, Ohio.

Springfield grandparents and baby me

The Columbus grandparents led an urban life, the Springfield people rural. Well, kind of. In truth, both were in-between but in different ways. The Columbus neighborhood had probably been a suburb in the city’s early days, and the Springfield neighborhood was more a hodge-podge of poor folks outside the city limits. Lots in both places may have been forty feet wide, but the Springfield lots stretched back a long way from the road, and livestock and poultry were abundant.

In Springfield, the neighborhood had obviously grown up higgledy-piggledy, and the streets – roads? -- were still unpaved in the 1950s. Clay dust squished like talcum powder, deliciously, between bare toes. All up and down the road, in white families and black, the children went barefoot. Some may not have had shoes. I shed mine eagerly to be like the rest.

My grandparents’ street in Columbus was paved, and there were concrete sidewalks, too. Children did not go barefoot in public.

The house in Columbus was solid and, to my child’s eyes, stately, a two-story brick house with a painted concrete front porch the width of the house. The porch featured a rolled bamboo shade for privacy and was always cool in summer. Elements of the backyard were a luxurious lawn, a swing hung from another large shade tree, a hammock, my grandmother’s riotously colorful flowerbeds, and my grandfather’s prize tomatoes, of which he was inordinately proud. In the bathroom, tile gleamed and sparkled. Bedrooms upstairs on the second floor were filled with massive, dark, polished furniture, the beds so high we children had to mount them with footstools. Everything in the house bespoke solidity and respectability.

The frame house in Springfield was a single story and very plain. Originally only a large kitchen, small parlor, and two bedrooms, it had been expanded with a newer, smaller kitchen built around the water pump (thus bringing water into the house), but there was no bathroom at all. We washed at (or were washed in, when small) the kitchen sink, and an outhouse reached by a brick path, laid herringbone style under a long grape arbor, served other needs. The side yard was given over to chickens, the back to fruit trees, raspberry patch, and Grandpa’s large garden. Once the iceman came with his horse-drawn wagon and stopped in front of the house. Slivers of ice for all the children!

My Columbus grandfather was a high school graduate and a union member, engineer first on a steam train and later driver of a diesel engine. His job paid well. I remember my mother remarking once that my father’s family had had meat for dinner every night through the Depression. My father’s sister never had to go to school dressed in a flour sack. Sometimes cousins visited while we were at the Columbus house, but no one ever dropped in unannounced. Visits were arranged.

 My Springfield grandpa worked in a factory, and Grandma trekked to the farmers’ market in downtown Springfield to sell what food (eggs, fruit, vegetables) the family did not need or put up for winter. Their house had no bedroom doors, only sheets hung in the doorways, but their big dining table always had room to accommodate neighbors who dropped in around dinnertime, and my grandmother always found an extra plate and food to fill it.

I loved all four of my grandparents, blood and “step” relations, and did not, when small, differentiate between them on that basis. The differences in the way they lived, on the other hand, were obvious from the start. Both households had enough to eat and to share with grandchildren. Both grandfathers had jobs, and both grandmothers kept house. Still, even as a child I realized they occupied two very different worlds, and experiencing different ways of life from childhood is something I value in the way I grew up. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Ladies Bountiful and Women in Need

Women's Health Day, up at the old hospital in Northport, started as an ordinary, pleasant, welcome annual event. It filled an important need. On that day uninsured and underinsured women in Leelanau County could receive a free health checkup, including mammogram. Health care was the object, but somehow it was a fun morning! Half the town was there, all ages, and it felt very egalitarian and social. There was nothing embarrassing about it. It was like going to vote, except that people had time to chat in the waiting room.

Then one year it was taken over by a large group of volunteers, women who had no need of the services but a great need to be needed. They put on a big brunch spread and then, having really nothing more to do but not wanting to feel useless, went around the room urging the women who had come for their checkups to avail themselves of the buffet. They themselves were not going to the buffet; nor were they in need of free checkups. Medical attention and food were for the others

For the first time, the event was structured by class: on one hand there was the host of ladies bountiful, on the other a crowd of women in need. Those of us who came for the checkup, the supplicants, were dressed casually, many in blue jeans, while the ladies bountiful were set apart in dresses and heels. The fun was gone! The following year I skipped the whole thing. Now the hospital is gone, and so is the event.

I bring it up because of something that concerns me with many do-good projects. So often, in a way, the volunteers are as needy as the recipients of the bounty to be distributed. The givers need projects and purpose and meaning in their lives. They need to feel needed and need to give and need to be recognized as givers. But they don't usually see themselves as needy. They do see themselves, in a helping context. Do they, I wonder, always see those they are so eager to help? 

I don't mean to ignore or deny the genuine humanitarian impulse. It's good to want to do good in the world, and doing good probably needs to be encouraged and, yes, rewarded, too! I'm also sure it's easiest for all of us to see ourselves in positive roles, wherever we are in life, and hardest to see others differently situated in as positive a guise. I don't mean to point fingers. Really. 

But if you think about it for a minute, you know, whatever your station and condition in life, that it can be a lot harder to receive than to give. And when only one group is acknowledged as givers, the other defined as beneficiaries, a dynamic set up: the first group is one-up, the second one-down. And so, while what's given is helpful in one way, it can be destructive in other ways. 

This is a digression, but one of the most memorable lessons life ever gave me was in the example of a friend who suffered severe physical trauma, losing much of the ordinary health and strength the fortunate among us take for granted every day. After the incident that nearly took her life, and after a long, painful period of recuperation, my friend, unable drive a car and without not stamina to walk to and stand at a bus stop, was dependent on friends to drive her to the grocery store. Once there she needed to tour the store in a motorized chair. She needed someone to carry her groceries out to the car and into her house. She needed a lot of help. And yet – this was the miracle and the lesson – she never expressed pity for herself, never apologized for needing help, and neither did she demand assistance in a resentful or autocratic way. She was natural about it all, graciously graceful. It was just the way things were, and we were friends, and we did things together. That was all. And so the way she received the help she needed was a gift she gave to us, her friends. Not many people could pull that off! I doubt I could ever do it with her grace, but if I am ever in a similar position, I hope I will remember her example and try!

I feel uniquely positioned in Leelanau County, with a foot in each camp, not a full-fledged member of either group. For twenty years, before eligible for Medicare, I went without health insurance (Women's Health Day was a godsend to me!), and I have no retirement pension waiting for me down the road. But by education and as a local business owner for nearly a quarter of a century, I am at least a nominal member of the privileged group. 

I understand the desire to help and to give, as well as the need for recognition. My own charitable giving means a lot to me, I am very careful about causes I choose to support, and I wish I could do more. At the same time, I also know, from not having had health insurance for so long and being still unable to sign blank checks for expensive health care, the sting of being designated as "needy," when I work very hard to be independent and provide for myself!

None of this is meant as criticism of any individuals or groups. I “bring it to the table” because the people around the table are generally in the bountiful givers group, and that's no accident. They are the ones with free time, and they are also the ones who feel comfortable and welcome at the table. They are seen as – and feel themselves as -- belonging there.

But those not at the table are "stake-holders," too. They have a stake in the economic wellbeing of their community, in the education provided for their children, and in being recognized as community members.

I don't see inviting the two groups to the table together, however, as the solution or even the beginning of a solution. 

So what is??? 

I suspect a "solution" to the gap in class and need may be something no group can invent, regardless how many hours are spent brainstorming. Maybe it just takes one-on-one conversations, in casual encounters, with a lot more listening on both sides. It might also take, for every single one of us -- me, included! -- looking into our own hearts and being honest with ourselves about what we see there.

What will we find? Then, what will we do with what we find? I don't know.

Sorry this is inconclusive. I have no recipe to offer, only my perspective from the gap, from the social chasm, between rich and poor.