Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Earth to NBK, Earth to NBK...

Remember George Orwell's "other" novel, 1984? I remember when folks kidded that the futureworld, Big Brother state the book described was the punchline of a joke about what might happen to the country if we elected John F. Kennedy to the presidency over Richard Nixon in 1960. If the former had his way and Shanghaied the 1964 election as well, he'd serve till 1968. Then his brother Bobby would serve eight years till 1976, then Teddy would inherit the privelege for eight years, and--wait for it --do you know when that would bring the country to? 1984! Har har har.

I bring this up because it suggests something near and dear to my heart: the great ignored adverb among the Who What When and How descriptors is When. Check the news stories. They tell us what happened, usually where, and who was involved, and if space permit, how it happened. Rarely does when it happened get more than a brief mention. We're really not that concerned about time. Events, yes. People, yes. Location, sure. Even the grim details of process. But When is the least of our concern.

George Orwell sealed the irrelevance of his book with his dated title, and in our sophomoric humor of that day that I and my buddies thought was so clever, I couldn't foresee the joke would become so outmoded as the years passed. The year 1984 came and went without any Orwellian events to speak of that I'm aware of, as have most years since.

We set another date for Armageddon, or at least a year of Great Significance, as the new Millenium approached, in the later 1990's. I remember when I married at age 28 in 1968 I had wondered if I and my peers would live to see the year 2000. Lord, I'd be 61! That was nine years ago, and I don't feel any different. I look different, no doubt--more gray hair creeping around to the back that's still black, less thickness to my top combover in the morning mirror--but I feel the same, basically, as I did ten, twenty, or even thirty or forty years ago. Ageing doesn't proceed in a straight, linear fashion for me. It's more like a series of fits and starts, more of a spiral. And sometimes I actually feel I'm getting younger, like what's his name in the movie.

I was 61 in 2001 when the Times Square Ball dropped on New Years' Eve as the true new millenium began, and guess what: nothing changed then either. Not really. Not the things that count. I'm still the same, Barb's still the same beautiful bride I married in 1968, our sons have grown and left the nest, but they're still the same to me they always were.

So what am I trying to say about time? Well, I'm not Henri Bergson who held that time is merely the illusion of a continuum, that it's actually a succession of moments. And I'm not Albert Einstein, who believed time could be slowed or sped up through theoretical physics. But I am convinced that the perception of time, at least, is very changable, seeming to fly by at lightning speed when I'm stuck in a computer problem and seeming to crawl along like a slug when I'm not busy or when I'm waiting on something or someone, or watching a slow download meter creep by.

In my latest fascinations, I'm speculating there may be no real past or future, that all is contained in the present moment, because that's the location for my sense of the past as I remember, or my sense of the future as I imagine. If that were true, it would help me grasp some big concepts like when God began, if he had no beginning in time, and how it could be that some things could always have been and will always remain. Would it be possible to imagine something outside time and space as we know them? I think so. It doesn't strike me as any more farfetched that all time could exist in a moment than that all matter in the universe might have existed in a nano-speck, packed so densely light could not escape it--i.e., a black hole.

In any case, I'm getting hungry now, so that just explodes my universe theories. I have to fire up the grill. We're having pork chops tonight. Let's see now, how long do you cook pork chops?

New Normal Needed?

What can possibly turn around such a world-wide economic crisis as the current one? Everyone is worried now, not just those who have lost their jobs or their homes or both. Everyone is threatened, it seems.

We've moved beyond trying to find out who caused this monstrous mess, because it's getting closer each day to our house. Godzilla has leaped off the B movie screen and is swishing his powerful tail through our neighborhood. And we don't care how the beast got here, just how to stop him!

The federal government is now trying to turn things around with the power of money. And most of us are hoping that will do the trick. But few of us think we're going to regain our prosperity with just the latest trillion or so; it may take several trillion more to restore the American Dream we thought we were living and everyone felt entitled to.

Well, there's nothing wrong with the American Dream. The problem is in not looking at it in total. To many it is synonomous with wealth and property. And it is attainable as soon as the wet foot becomes dry, as soon as we "arrive" on this land, whether as high school or college graduates seeking instant high-paying jobs or homebuyers taking out mortgages they can't afford or immigrants seeking a better life. To too many, The American Dream is instant, material success. Never mind that most have to work for it over a lifetime. Never mind that even then many will never be able to have it as fully and completely as those whose talents, intelligence, labor, skill, ingenuity and drive or even plain luck propelled them to realize the dream and others to fall short despite their best efforts.

As with so many components of human aspiration, the American Dream is an ideal, not a practical guide for living. It is like justice and love, freedom and equality. It is an ideal to be strived for, a beacon. Unfortunately, the government has led the American people to believe it can and should solve all our problems and needs. And now it finds itself in the unfortunate position of not being able to deliver, no matter how many stimulus bailouts it throws at the problems.

We will, I'm afraid, soon learn this the hard way. Many have suffered grievously and many more will suffer before our faltering economy rights itself. But when it does, I suspect it will come from the ground up, not from the top down. It will begin when people realign their ideas about how much they are entitled to for doing so little actual work, when they begin to accept responsibility for their own choices and actions, when they begin to help their neighbors and their communities again and treat each other with fairness and compassion and good will instead of asking for more, more, ever more for themselves and to blazes with everyone else. I think there is a moral flaw in the naive expectations that everyone should deserve to have everything and something is wrong with the American Dream if they don't get it without doing anything to earn it.

It is said that people come together in adversity. We will see in the coming days if that is true. And if it is true, we may emerge a better nation, a better people, than we were when we thought things were "normal," having a better grasp of what the American Dream really is about: it is about freedom and opportunity, not about guarantees and the same level of wealth and material success for everyone.

I think it so ironic that so many people want to "get back to normal," as if that were such a wonderful thing to get back to. We need to temper our economic engines with oversight and accountability no matter what political party is in power in the future. We didn't before, when things were"normal." We need to readjust our expectations to reflect the realistic productivity of our labor, our innovation, and our resources and skills viz-a-viz the rest of the world. We didn't, when things were "normal." And probably we need to regain a respect for learning instead of looking for shortcuts to quick wealth. Again, that kind of respect has not been "normal" in recent times. If we do these things as a result of the current crisis, then perhaps a new "normal" can emerge based on more solid stuff.

Monday, February 09, 2009

"Coffee Breaks" Different Now for Many

I did something this morning I've been thinking of doing for a long while: have a coffee break out. Usually after my early cereal, I take my morning Constitutional then have my second cup of coffee around nine while I catch up on the news. But for many years I went out for coffee with my colleagues and friends. The midmorning pick-me-up was one of the high points of my day, almost sacrosanct over the years. My friends and I called it "observing the amenities."

So today instead of coming back home after I picked up a few items, I stopped in at a McDonald's around ten and splurged on a Big Breakfast. And no coffee break is official for me unless I take along my notebook and jot down whatever's on my mind. So I put a few remarks on a page or so and felt like life was pretty good. As usual, nothing came to mind to pursue into a poem or story, but experience has taught me that I'm not very creative at coffee breaks. After a page or so of mundane journaling I cleared my tray and came home.

It wasn't till I got nearly into my drive that I noted anything remarkable about what I had seen at McDonald's, for it had been nearly empty at midmorning. There were a few individuals in scattered booths and chairs, some reading the complimentary morning newspapers one finds at such places, some just sitting with their thoughts like me. A few teens were chattering, then they left. A mother came in with three small children in tow, went to the counter, then abruptly came back and left. I wondered why. Maybe she changed her mind about ordering or decided they needed to be somewhere else.

Engaged as I was in my journaling, I didn't notice much else. A man finished the paper and left, another returned my glance looking a bit nervous, I thought. But after I came in my own home and put away the groceries, I knew what was possibly remarkable. All the patrons at McDonald's were young adults, mostly male. All were alone like me. But none of them had Big Breakfasts in front of them as I did. Some had a cup of coffee or other small item. And all of them were very possibly recently unemployed. Some were scanning the papers for jobs. Others seemed just trying to gather their wits about them and decide what to do next. Maybe their coffee break wasn't at all borne out of a desire for a break from routine like mine was. May theirs was an attempt to regroup or get ahold of a sense of provision and normalcy in a world that had recently fallen apart for them.

We don't usually notice the recently laid off or fired or foreclosed on or otherwise victimized by the economic crisis we've fallen into. Maybe we think being unemployed means looking like the stereotypical wino or skid row bum, unkempt, unshaven, the "Brother, can you spare a dime" panhandler or homeless refugee we normally only see in the bigger city streets. We don't notice a guy at McDonald's who looks just like us, dresses normally and is cleanshaven, scanning the want ads by himself in the middle of the day.

The recently unemployed still have their pride. They may even be professionals--engineers, software designers, bankers, accountants, writers, retailers, office workers and other white collar types--skilled and highly educated who until one day recently had a good, high-paying, steady job they thought they could count on to pay the mortgages and feed their families. Those who kept their jobs as the hell of layoffs and foreclosures deepened barely noticed as the guy down the street fell into the abyss. And the lady who sold real estate a few doors down moved. Where did she go? I wonder.

Six hundred thousand new unemployment claims filed since the first of January. Three and one half million jobs lost since the crisis hit last fall. Not just the big banks and brokerage houses, not just the bankrupted Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac government-backed giants and big insurance firms like AIG, but every sector of the economy has been hard-hit, and the crisis is worsening worldwide. We read about it, we hear about it on the newscasts, but it's still not obvious in our streets and stores, groceries and offices.

People don't usually look like they're in trouble. They don't look desperate yet in their faces. Maybe they have some reserves or are finding enough alternate work to stay afloat. Maybe they're hoping for a miracle or counting on the government's series of draconian "stimulus plans" to throw enough money hard enough and far enough that the cleverer thieves throughout our commercial fabric can't make off with it before it gets through to the broader masses.

Maybe--probably--I'm reading too much into the furtive looks of those fellow customers up at Mickey D's this morning. I'm prone to do that, suspicious by nature. But I think it's unlikely those younger folks were just there for a coffee break like I was. And I suspect we'll see a lot more like them scrambling for the morning papers in the near future.

Thoreau said that "Most people lead lives of quiet desperation." How true that is today.