LIVES DIMINISHED

9
October

Back in 1962, Michael Harrington’s book “The Other America” served to awaken us to the extent and depth of poverty across our society.  Since then it has become commonplace for one advocacy group or another to highlight a particular area of social concern and to circumstances that severely diminish the lives of those affected.  It’s not always easy to gauge the accuracy of statistics produced to underscore the seriousness of the situation, but almost always the figures produce surprise, even shock.  But then, in a nation as populous as ours, unless a problem affects millions it may fail to impress.

Having been subjected to an avalanche of disturbing statistics, one must inevitably conclude that vast numbers of our fellow citizens lead lives of quiet desperation, or worse.  Sure all of us have problems and nearly everyone knows people who are afflicted in one way or another.  These individuals live with abusive spouses, have been sick a good part of their lives, have lost their jobs and been unemployed for lengthy periods, have family members who are alcoholics, children who are substance abusers, parents who suffer long-term dementia.  These individual stories we are told merely illustrate the massive level of social dislocation abroad in the society.

And so you begin to make calculations in order to grasp the magnitude of the situation.  Let us acknowledge overlap, definitional uncertainty and the imperatives of special pleading.  Still, you can’t help but come away from such inquiries without recognizing that all is not well across our society. Continue reading

ENTOURAGE

12
September

If you’re a “somebody” you’d best not move about by yourself.  If you do, you will certainly not get the attention you expect.  Followers of one sort or another are essential to confirm your importance.  Kings and noblemen in their day would certainly never venture forth without their retinue of courtiers., retainers and servants, personal attendants, armed escorts and all manner of hangers-on.  This both reflected their power and influence and served to reinforce their exalted status.

Entourages are definitely in these days.  American presidents, for example, have generally outdone the Kings of yore.  Barack Obama’s overseas travel normally involves hundreds who accompany him, including the press corps, security personnel of all sorts, diplomats, advisers, cooks and medical people.  His recent predecessors have not traveled any lighter.

Being on the road and on the move is always a challenge.  Normal schedules are disrupted, familiar routines and discipline hard to maintain and the unexpected often likely to occur.  Surrounded by an entourage one is protected and at least partially insulated against unwelcome developments.

One notes that while such high profile tennis stars, say, champions like Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadel may be alone out on the court, accompanying them to most major tournaments are clusters of support staff.  Often at their disposal are practice partners, nutritionists, physical and massage therapists, coaches and yes, in some instances, their own racquet stringers.  That is, of course, in addition to friends and family.

Entertainment personalities usually go one better.  Being “stars” they expect special treatment and consideration and typically assemble a cast capable of serving them in any number of ways.  Whether it be the likes of Lady Gaga, Pink, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez or others occupying the entertainment firmament, each counts on being surrounded by swarms of service providers.  Many a hotel insider, for example, reports being asked by them to accommodate personal nutritionists and cooks and grant them access to kitchen facilities.  Others insist that the gym be made available to them and their trainers at all times.  Stylists, make-up artists, dressers, and physical therapists are rarely absent while personal photographer are frequently on hand as well.  Then, of course, there’s always security, always friends, relatives and intimates, gofers, publicists and managers.

If A-list athletes and entertainers pocket handsome sums for their efforts, remember most also serve as generous pay masters to a crowd of personal assistants and support staff.  It takes an entourage to sustain a star.

MANY EXCEPTIONS

27
August

The other day, talking to a hosiery manufacturer, I mentioned reports that suggested the return of production to the United States.  He stopped me cold.  “The Chinese are killing me.  I can’t compete with their prices.  His comment was a reminder that generalizations often don’t apply in specific circumstances.  There are always exceptions, plenty of them, sometimes enough to call a particular generalization into question (or at least to encourage further consideration).  Here are some generalizations currently about that become less persuasive once subjected to closer scrutiny.

  • Police are more educated, better trained and professional.  Then you encounter news stories about police brutality, killings of unarmed suspects, citizens arrested for minor drug offenses and systemic corruption within entire departments.
  • Women are making progress on virtually all fronts.  But then you hear stories from women who’ve been passed over for promotion, excluded from all-male cliques at their workplaces and sexually harassed by their bosses.
  • How often do we hear that the federal government can’t do anything right.  But then we read about dedicated researchers at the FDA, Forest Rangers who enhance the experience at our National Parks, weather forecasters who warn us well in advance of severe weather patterns, and Coast Guard personnel who prevent mayhem among boaters along our coastal waters.
  • We’re told that inflation is tame, under control, no cause for concern.  But then people tell you how upset they are about rising gasoline and heating oil process, the increased cost of meat, fruit and vegetables, as well as their health insurance premiums.
  • Crime is down, so the statistics tell us.  And then you meet a friend whose home was burglarized while they were away on vacation, or a store owner who laments the fact that pilferage keeps increasing and informs you of a night time robbery in which the cash register was looted.
  • Doctors are better educated than ever, have access to an impressive array of designated tools.  A friend then mentions he’s been to doctor after doctor and no one can figure out what ails him.  You hear of other physicians who’ve made the wrong diagnosis or missed symptoms that held the key to the problem.
  • Automobiles are built better than ever.  But someone you know has had repeated problems with his.  And, of course, the millions of recalled cars tell you that all is not well in the industry.
  • The U.S. economy has been generating over 200,00 New jobs for many months now.  But everyone knows people who can’t find work, or are working part time, or, unable to find positions, have become “consultants” or “free lancers.”

So, take a generalizations seriously, but be careful.  It may be revealing but usually is not the whole story.  Check out the headlines, but don’t overlook the rest of the report.

THERE’S ALWAYS SOMETHNG

7
August

The other day I attempted to ring my own doorbell.  It emitted no sound.  What does one do about a malfunctioning doorbell?  It’s not a crisis – people can knock on the door – but still, it leaves the wrong impression; suggests perhaps a more disturbing state of neglect.  I’ll look to fix or replace it, but until I do, hope that few people arrive at my door.  But what about all the other devices that, from time to time, turn quirky or go awry in the condo and my apartment?  You don’t, they say, appreciate how well off you are when everything is operating smoothly until something doesn’t.  Let’s review developments over the last several months or so that reveal the challenges faced and the adjustments required.

Someone cracked into the automatic garage door and sent it off the tracks.  It couldn’t be repaired.  A day or two later a new one was installed.  The building elevator went frighteningly herky-jerky on several occasions, while our compactor periodically gets overwhelmed and refuses to operate.  More distressing was the fact that my neighbor’s alarm, tends to go off for no apparent reason, usually when she’s not at home.  Fortunately, the superintendent has access to the apartment and is able to end the howling.

Within my living quarters, chances are not all is well.  One faucet leaks continuously, but it probably won’t get fixed until I summon a plumber for some more serious situation.  The toilet tank has the same problem. The flap doesn’t quite seal consistently, producing the occasional drip which, by closing the door, I can ignore.  The dryer works, but you’ve got to run the clothes through the machine at least twice before they’re not damp enough to notice.  Why the refrigerator stops making ice cubes every so often remains a mystery, as is the occasional flickering from one of my ceiling hi-hats.  The washing machine doesn’t always get through its complete cycle, while out of the dishwasher come cups and plates that sometimes require additional attention.  The TV runs into problems when my cable operator is experiencing “technical difficulties”, while my computer server will on occasion stop serving.  We live, it’s clear, amidst a remarkable array of gadgets and conveniences which we now view as indispensable.  But we can’t forget that we are at their mercy.

Actually, today was a pretty good day.  The cable company discovered why the wi-fi was screwed up.  I located one of my remote phones which had gone missing for over a day (It was in the laundry pile), and the superintendent was able to remove a recalcitrant ceiling bulb that had frozen in the socket.  All this augurs well for the immediate future – but, of course, you never know.

CLASS CONCERNS

22
July

Social class, we’ve long been advised, is not a subject for public conversation.  Not only is it a divisive topic with inflammatory implications, but it is largely irrelevant to our American experience.  We simply have not witnessed overt, sustained social class alignments in our history.  Accordingly it is a category of thought, an abstraction, unworthy of discussion.Our
“good fortune” relates to the fact that the United States has been and remains a land of opportunity, one where exceptional social mobility prevails as well as a society that confers substantial freedom upon individuals to pursue and achieve their full potential.

This conspiracy of silence has, however, ended.  Recognition of social and economic class division in contemporary America is unavoidable, has become the subject of interest and open discussion.  Suddenly we’ve stripped away the protective shield of presumed classlessness and identified and documented a social layering long ignored.  Contributing to this new reality is the attention currently focused upon the super rich.  Having been designated the upper “1%” they are attracting unprecedented scrutiny, much of it critical.  They are, we’re told, not only earning supersized incomes, but are, at the same time stockpiling immense wealth.  They have, moreover, succeeded in protecting their gains thanks to favorable provisions of our tax code and their ability to fund candidates for public office committed to maintaining their privileged positons and warding off efforts to address existing imbalances.  These elites have in many ways distanced themselves from the rest of us and rigged the system” (e.g., educational opportunities) to ensure that they remain secure and positioned at the top of the heap.  Furthermore, they’ve taken to hurling verbal thunder bolts at those who question existing arrangements, charging them with inciting envy, imparting alien ideologies and threatening an economic system that has, they proclaim, showered benefits on so many for so long. Continue reading

POWER RELATIONSHIPS

3
July

Exploring power relationships in a given society makes for fascinating observations.  Such interactions play out in formal ways, as when bosses issue orders to workers, teachers admonish students, captains, privates, along with other informal scenarios, generally tolerated, though not appreciated.  Power plays may not be intentional, but nevertheless occur because of social imbalances between the parties involved.  Ordinarily” resistance” is not deemed appropriate or fruitful.

Let us focus upon “waiting” as an example of how social authority may be exercised.  I was drawn to this subject when, in a recent conversation, a lawyer friend, commented upon the frequently high-handed behavior of judges.  “A judge will, for example, adjourn for lunch and request that all parties be back in court at 2PM.  And of course we are, but he doesn’t show up until 2:30.  What can you say – he’s the judge, it his court.  So you wait – what choice is there?”

Who hasn’t waited in a doctor’s office?  Sure you have an appointment, still you’re unlikely to be seen at that time.  So you wait and wait, grow impatient and then wait some more.  Being stacked up produces a steady flow into the exam rooms (where people again are kept waiting).  And because patients “depend” on doctors and often accept them as social superiors, they will usually swallow their pride and wait to be called.  It’s not that doctors deliberately make patients wait, it’s that many are not attentive to this issue and rarely are challenged over this demonstration of their authority.

College professors can also be abusers.  Students arranging conferences with their instructors often discover that scheduled times are just as apt to be violated as honored.  Job applicants often find themselves in similar circumstances, obliged to wait to be seen.  Worse still they may, while making their presentation, be interrupted by the interviewer who accepts a phone call and then engages in length conversation.

An odd variant to this exercise of social leverage occurs when relatively high status folk call upon painters, plumbers, electricians, repairmen, etc., working class individuals whose services are required.  Often enough they do not arrive on schedule.  Waiting for them becomes both unsettling, because it means wasted time, and disturbing because it reverses established patterns of social authority.

Not surprisingly the poor wait the most.  Given their lack of social standing, they have little choice.  One cannot overestimate the level of patience poor people display as they wait on bread lines, outside food pantries and shelters, in the halls of social service agencies and government departments, on the benches at emergency rooms or clinics or at polling locations (because fewer voting machines are placed in these districts).

So next time you’re waiting, consider if there are sufficient reasons for it or whether the problem is your insufficient social standing.

GET TOUGH

1
July

For many people, it’s all about being tough as the only means to get results.  Assuming a tough stance is for them the best way to command respect, display decisiveness, and reduce uncertainty.  On the other hand, being “soft”, “fair”, “willing to compromise”, and “understanding” is often to deny reality, demonstrate insecurity and, in the end, accomplish little.  Just “tough it out” and success surely will follow.

The toughness prescription has numerous applications.  Authorities, for example, need to “get tough on crime” and “lock ‘em up”.  Armed civilians, expanded police forces, the death penalty, maximum sentences, limited probations and pardons – that’s how to fight crime.  In prisons it’s solitary confinement for hardened criminals with strict discipline and few privileges for all other inmates.

On the international scene tough words and firm actions work best.  During the Cold War those “soft on Communism” got nowhere while the advocates of strength and toughness brought down the Russian empire.  NATO, the Berlin Airlift, military buildups, nuclear stockpiles, intercontinental missiles, President Kennedy’s strong response to Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis – such toughness won out in the end.  Diplomacy is effective only when accompanied by credible threats whether in the form of strong condemnation, sanctions, embargoes and, along with allies, rapid military mobilization.  In foreign relations, the law of the jungle often prevails with the strongest and toughest getting their way.

Back home “tough” advice has long been associated with child rearing debates.  “Tough love”, we’re assured, is best applied in most situations.  Children ought not to be regarded as equals; their wishes, their objections need not be taken into account.  Strong parental guidance, especially from fathers, is essential, together with a willingness to discipline youngsters who challenge their authority (“Spare the rod and spoil the child”).  When it comes to schooling, tough standards must be prescribed and maintained.  Homework is necessary for scholastic progress.  Social promotion and grade inflation must be eliminated and disruptive students removed from classrooms.  Tests must be frequent and challenging.  Teacher authority cannot be compromised.

Tough policies must prevail in economic matters as well.  Stringent, even painful austerity, measures should be undertaken to reduce the national debt and higher interest rates imposed when inflation threatens.  Wage restraint needs to prevail in order to ensure American competitiveness and corporate profitability.  Restricting, even eliminating, labor unions must be considered because they challenge the authority of management and artificially inflate costs and prices.  Entitlements (including government programs and worker benefits) must be contained because 1. Costs are spiraling out of control, and 2. Recipients lose their incentive to work.

Tough types have always been with us although their numbers are likely rising in these uncertain and threatening times.  With “toughness” they seek to reject and counter the many changes – economic, social and political currently rippling through our society (viz., the rise of women, minorities, gays, drug use, secularism, together with shrinking job opportunities, foreign competition and political polarization).  Talking tough helps you draw the line, simplify complex issues, cling to “common sense” solutions, and oppose rapid and disruptive social transformation.

Acting tough certainly has its appeal and represents a stance long celebrated in America (“When the going gets tough, the tough get going”.)  But does toughness actually resolve differences or merely encourage everyone to “stand their ground?”

CANDLE LIGHTS

26
June

Besides their practical value as a source of illumination, few objects speak to us in so many different ways, elicit so wide a range of emotions as do candles.  For centuries, they’ve been an integral part of religious observances and rituals, reinforcing as they do the moods, messages and imagery of our sacred beliefs and practices.  Candles bring light to the “darkness”, elevate the moment, create an atmosphere in which reality is transformed and transcended.  The flickering light blurs commonplace reality; objects become obscured, surrender their solidity, replaced by shadows and mystery.  The light, though comforting and reassuring, is, as our lives, limited and precarious.  It burns brightly, fades and then is no more.

Candles have long been associated with prayer and mourning, with faith and hope.  Candlelight vigils produce a sense of collective dedication to a cause or public tribute to worthy individuals or groups.  Often they are associated with peaceful and solemn gatherings, demonstrating that there is strength in numbers and power in prayer.  Then, too, memorial candles spark memory, remind us of departed loved ones, connect us to traditions warmly recalled.

But let’s not overlook the bright side.  Candles are a decorative and festive feature that enhance holiday gatherings and other celebrations, are readily associated with warmth and joy (even when not lit).  Who would risk staging a birthday celebration without lighting candles, then triumphantly extinguishing them?

And what would romance be without candles?  Who doesn’t appear more attractive bathed in their glow – facial lines softened, blemishes receded, backgrounds erased, magical moments.  What surer sign that romance is in the air than candlelight dinners?

Thus it is that candles stir the emotions, transform the ordinary, elevate the sacred, highlight both the joys and sorrows of our lives.

THE GREAT DIVIDE

3
June

I am reminded daily of one example of America’s immense social divide as I drive about in suburbia.  Suburbia U.S.A. has flourished largely because of the automobile, which made possible the move from high rise to split level.  Stroll along anywhere and see garages full, driveways packed, and curbsides often thickly populated, one vehicle after another.

So what is it that offends my sense of fairness as I motor along?  Simply seeing groups of people waiting at bus stops.  Yes, public transportation arrived here, but in truth buses remain a relatively rare sight.  Furthermore, routes are few, connections limited, and schedules highly suspect (and fares no bargain either).  And what of those segments of the population who regularly rely on them?  These are overwhelmingly America’s working classes – car wash attendants, home health aides, waitresses, dishwashers, golf caddies, day laborers, agricultural workers, cleaning men and women, lawn and landscape workers.  Living often within the city or along the more remote margins of suburbia, their jobs often require long distance travel.  And, as is often the case, with few cars available to them, they must rely upon buses, sometimes two or three, to complete the trip each way.  Thus every workday begins and ends with a challenge, involving a familiar cycle of waiting, riding, changing, and then waiting again.  And so a lengthy work day becomes considerably longer and more exhausting.

That’s why it saddens me when I see them waiting at the bus stops.  (Most revealing is the fact that despite decades of suburban living, I’ve not once boarded a bus!)  Thus, from a distance I observe separated from them in so many ways.  Here I am seated comfortably in my car, radio on in the background, heading directly and effortlessly to my destination.  If it’s hot outside, I flick the AC switch and cool air immediately flows in.  In frigid, blustery weather a reliable heater provides instant warmth.  A driving rain produces no discomfort, completely sheltered as I am from the deluge.

They of course enjoy no such protection.  On steamy days I watch them waiting and wilting.  (To be poor often means to wait, not only at bus stops, but at Emergency Rooms, food banks, clinics, social service agencies, for subsidized housing, etc.)  In the cold blasts of winter, bent over, they press against a building or take cover in a nearby doorway.  When it rains or snows heavily they’re especially vulnerable and, except for umbrellas, almost completely exposed.  Their facial expressions at times reveal a stoic acceptance, a weary resignation to the realities of the situation.  I watch as one after another of those waiting, as if on cue, steps out into the street and peers down the avenue.  Body language reveals instantly that there is no bus in sight.  And so they head back to the curb where they will continue to watch and wait.

I’ve driven past such scenes countless times, always struck by the contrast between their situation and mine.  With automobiles so common it’s hard to consider them a privileged possession.  You can be sure, however, that’s precisely the view of all those folks out there who each day wait and wait some more at suburban bus stops across our nation.  Still, there is hope; current jobs can lead to better ones.  And to having their own cars from which to watch others board buses they once rode.

ESTABLISHED

25
March

If you want consumers to buy, offer them a line of “brand new” products.  And to attract them to your place of business, make sure it’s chic, up-to-date, considered “hot”.   Then, again the opposite approach may work just as well.

Notice the many commercial establishments, businesses of all sorts, that capitalize on their age.  Here we are, they inform the public, a business that’s been in business a long time (and by implication longer than our competitors).  Wherever the company name appears, alongside you’ll find the year of its founding.  Established 1975.  Founded 1930.  In business since 1985.  (Demonstrating, at least that in the United States, it doesn’t take that many years to claim seniority.)

Why announce one’s age in a society that celebrates youthfulness?  Why  hold a succession of “Anniversary Sales” over the years?  Why not avoid any suggestion that you’re stodgy, old fashioned, out of date?  Because they’re capitalizing upon another popular set of beliefs.  What’s old has been time-tested.  (The words “founded” and “established” suggest durability and trust.)  Experience counts.  They’re reliable, solid, probably family-owned (consider how many names end in “and Sons”).  They are survivors, not “fly-by-night” or “Here today.  Gone tomorrow.”  They will be around when you need them.

So, remember that while we’re drawn to the “latest”, we also value that which has lasted.