Just Right

In astronomy, the circumstellar habitable zone is the range of distances around a star where a planet, not too hot and not too cold, can have liquid water and thus potentially support life. This is also known as the “Goldilocks Zone.” Our one and irreplaceable planet sits squarely in the middle of our own Goldilocks Zone, where conditions are just right for supporting human life.

“As above, so below,” said the ancients who invented a pantheon of gods and goddesses to mirror human behavior and explain the natural processes of the earth. Science tells us that the principles of balance apply, not only to the heavens, but to those of us who are earthbound. Whether we’re balancing an equation or tinkering with a lawnmower carburetor, there is a set of conditions that are just right for the task at hand.

I’ve always liked small towns because, for me, they are just right: Just big enough to provide needed services; just small enough that you know your neighbors. Big enough to give you something to do when you feel like getting out of the house, but small enough that the problems that plague cities, like crime, traffic, pollution and noise, are limited.

Those of us who love our mountain towns and communities tend to consider our area as being in the Goldilocks zone for a happy and peaceful life. But there may be early signs that we are moving, albeit slowly, toward the boundaries of that zone.

I was standing outside the post office talking to an older friend who was born and raised in Hiawassee. I was annoyed. It was the third time the post office had returned one of my packages to the sender because because of an “insufficient address.” I had tracked the package to the post office and, using their online system, requested a hold. The address was sufficient for that, but the package was returned anyway.

The postmaster told me that it was “inconvenient” to have to handle such a package “four or five times” to put a notification slip in my box and stick the package in the corner. Apparently it was less inconvenient to process a return and put the package back on a truck. I had shared my opinion that it was unfortunate that the Hiawassee post office had upgraded to a big city attitude where it was more important to follow alleged rules and regulations than to help out a neighbor.

“I began to worry about how our area was changing about twenty years ago,” said my friend. “When we got that first traffic light, the one between McDonald’s and the Huddle House, the town voted on it. Some said the traffic was bad enough that we needed it, and I guess today they would be right. But I noticed that we didn’t get to vote on any of those other lights.”

“A lot of us thought we were getting too big for our britches when they started scraping off the tops of our mountains to build more houses. Now it’s hard to get from one side of town to the other on a Saturday morning.”

“That always seems to be the way of it when you’ve got something good. There’s always some who worry they can’t squeeze enough money out of it so they try to make it bigger so they can. Then they crow about how much things have grown until somebody gives them a plaque or names a street after them, and then they they put a stop light on that street.”

“You’d think folks would figure out that bigger’s not always better. Nobody ever brags about how much the boil on their backside grew, or how their belly got so fat they had to poke another hole in their belt.”

My friend was on a roll, and she continued:

“People always say they want a smaller government, but when you get more people, you always get more government; more laws, more taxes, more rules and regulations.”

“What about jobs?” I said. “A lot of what’s happened here was intended to create jobs so that our kids wouldn’t have to leave the area to make a living.”

“Well, you show me the jobs,” she said. “All I see is people serving food or selling knick-knacks or driving nails. That’s all good, honest work, but it’s hard, hard to raise a family making ten dollars an hour. ” Seems like we grew in a way that made a lot of money for a few folks, but most of us are still struggling.

“What we need to do,” said my friend, “is to decide who we are. If we’re going to be a tourist town, that’s fine, but we need to act like one, take better care of the mountains and think twice before throwing up another metal building on the side of the road. But I think that ship’s done sailed. Who wants to sit in traffic, or take a picture of a bunch of houses on a mountain or trash on the side of the road? Folks can have all that in the city without having to drive two hours to look at ours. “

“Some say we’re a good place to retire, and that’s how they’re selling it, the ones who want us to keep growing. I agree with some of that. Compared to the city, we’re quiet and peaceful and not so big that you can’t know your neighbors. But I’m 73 and there are times I just dread going to town or to the store. And it wasn’t that long ago I never thought about locking my car or even my front door, but not anymore.”

I began to think that perhaps the postmaster was right. A good bit of the traffic my friend was complaining about goes right through the parking lot of the post office, and it’s rare to stop by there when someone isn’t standing in line.

In a small town, people have more time to be neighborly and people are generally considered to be more important than rules. In big towns, there is less time to share with more people. We create more rules and regulations, laws and codes to protect us from chaos.

On the other hand, Hiawassee has often been compared to Mayberry. But even Mayberry had it’s challenges. In the episode, “High Noon in Mayberry,” Andy is standing outside the courthouse when the postman comes by to deliver the mail. He refuses to give the mail to Andy, insisting on putting each letter through the slot in the door in accordance with post office regulations. No town of any size is entirely free of petty tyrants.

As above, so below, or when we’re dealing with human nature, what’s true at a macroscopic level is often true a the microscopic. Our nation has always had its share of empire builders. Our entire economy is predicated on the notion that growth is good for the sake of growth itself. Our population has almost doubled over the last two generations, and the number of laws, rules and regulations has multiplied many times over.

Back home, we enjoy our small communities, our neighbors and our more relaxed pace. But we also want the conveniences and distractions that are available in bigger places. We have grown, and we will continue to grow, but I question, both for us and for the nation, whether the voices clamoring for growth should always be the dominant ones. On a finite world of 7 1/2 billion people where poverty, starvation and unrest are pushing millions of migrants to find a place where they can survive, perhaps we need to hear more from those voices who promote what is sustainable as well as those who want what is profitable.

For the small town, when we’re too small we dry up and blow away. When we’re too big, we lose the advantages that make us glad to be here. Whenever we have a conversation about planning our future, we should look for that balance, that Goldilocks zone between growth and sustainability that, for us, is just right.

This week we’re continuing our ongoing discussion about how to remain sane in the Age of Information. It’s an evolving strategy. Things change so rapidly now that any plan can become obsolete before it has a chance to be implemented.

The most successful part of the plan has been the reclamation of the time once wasted absorbing the nightly shooting report and the national corporate political spin. For the generations who grew up with the television tuned into to local and national news, this has been a habit hard to break, even as the content of the broadcasts became steadily more toxic. But in this case information technology itself has provided the solution, especially for cord cutters. The news apps on Roku and FireTV allow you to choose the stories you want to watch, or you can go directly to Glenn Burns’ video weather report and avoid corporate news altogether.

Americans now spend more time looking at phones, tablets and laptops than they do watching television, but around the farm it’s not hard to avoid pixels, especially social media pixels, in the spring. Any free time left over after earning a living is usually spent outside. Soil must be turned and tended, and the greenhouse is full of seedlings that need to be set out. It only takes one rain to turn grass into hay, and the blades on the mower need sharpening.

The morning cup of coffee is usually the time when we are most likely to visit pixel land here on the farm. Social media captured and still holds the attention of millions of people. It was something novel when it was new, but it grew stale long ago for many of us. However, it is specifically designed to be addictive, with feedback mechanisms that serve up small doses of serotonin when we are “liked” or “retweeted” or “followed.” Therefore is is a difficult habit for many of us to kick.

Curating the social media experience can help. Avoiding the “look at my wonderful life” posts can add hours to your day. (Hint: Most of these are just “commercials” in search of validation and not a valid basis for comparison with our own mundane lives. Just click “like” and quickly move on.)

We’ve criticized social media often here, but that doesn’t mean that it is devoid of benefit. Again, the key is to curate the experience. It takes some time to setup, and a bit of maintenance, but both Facebook and Twitter allow extensive filtering. After a bit of tweaking, the first things I see are posts from people who have a sense of humor, and it is rare now that I am served an unsolicited political opinion. This cuts the time spent on social media down to about the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee in the morning, and avoids an incalculable amount of unnecessary annoyance.

The ongoing challenge for those of us who wish to extract useful information from corporate media is to do so without wasting time on click bait drama. You can safely skip over any headline that contains certain telltale phrases. Articles under the words “slams,” “outraged,” and “pushes back” usually do not contain any information you can use to improve your life. If the headline sounds like something that could be reported from a professional wrestling match, it probably has little value.

When I’m hiking in the woods or working in the garden, it’s easy to imagine a world without our information matrix. But to continue to be able to afford some time with nature, many of us must continue to interface with the world of pixels. I’ve invested some effort streamlining that interaction, and some of these shortcuts may work for you as well.

Marketwatch is a website that can very quickly provide all the essential financial news without the contamination of politics. ScienceDaily and Physorg provide a wide view of cutting edge science news, with links to in depth articles for the technically minded. Access North Georgia will keep you current on news of interest to north Georgia residents. None of the websites mentioned are behind a pay wall.

There are more sites out there that can provide quality information on current events without politics or drama, but you have to look for them. There are countless sources of scientific, technical and historical information, and many of them are still free. It takes effort to push past the click bait drama that competes for our attention, but it is worth the trouble.

We have an advantage over most of you when it comes to curating our information experience: We have to drive about 5 miles for our cell phones to become useful. This one geographical advantage has allowed us to avoid the Borg-like assimilation that plagues many Americans. When we are away from home, however, we are just as likely to become tethered to the phone as anyone. There is a simple solution for that. Confine the phone to a separate room. Never allow it to enter the bedroom..

In my humble opinion, the best place to keep the cell phone at home is in the bathroom. The amount of time we spend on our phones should not exceed the amount of time we spend there, and the bathroom ambiance somehow seems appropriate for the quality of most of the information a phone can provide. (If you find that you’re spending more time in the bathroom, however, a different strategy may be needed.)

It’s Not A Lie If What You Said Would Be True If The Facts Were Different

I wish I could take credit for the title, but I first heard it spoken by the actor, Bryan Cranston on the “Malcom in the Middle” series. There are some days, some weeks, when the phrase seems to capture the spirit of our age.

Last week was one of those weeks. “I’ll be there by 11,” said the men who wanted to pick up my old refrigerator (at no cost) and restore it. A 1960 Coldspot, still running, had been left over from our estate sale. Quality vintage items are treasures, and I abhor waste, so I didn’t want to see it hauled away to the landfill.

A Sears repair technician, days away from leaving the company to deploy to Afghanistan, told me that appliances today, the “good” ones, are designed to last 8 years. I had heard the same thing from a retiring technician with 30 years experience, so I believe what the young man said is true. The number of appliances that have crossed my own threshold, having lived past their ability to be repaired in a few short years, also gives credence to his words.

The opinion of two “insiders” plus my own experience gives lie to the claim of “quality” that is postured by appliance manufacturers, but in our time we must examine that claim with relativity and corporate cultural context, where “quality” depends on what your definition of the word “is” is, to paraphrase former president Bill Clinton. Indeed, modern refrigerators work so much harder and are so much better at keeping our food cold that they give out in 8 years instead of 58, and it’s not a lie if what you said would be true if the facts were different.

Eleven o’clock came and went and the old refrigerator still sat in the backyard by the basement door looking quite forlorn. I didn’t bother calling the two gentlemen who failed to show up, remembering the distinct odor of poorly metabolized whiskey that surrounded them. Jack Daniels may function at times as a temporary truth serum. It may inspire on occasion the deepest sincerity. But it is not a reliable catalyst for making and keeping commitments.

It was a long trip up the hill on a hand truck for our noble machine, and both the refrigerator and I were relieved when it was finally settled at the top of the driveway. The metal to plastic ratio of a 1960 refrigerator is considerably higher than that of a modern appliance. My wife put a sign on it that said “Free- working 1960 vintage refrigerator,” and we hoped that someone would take advantage of the opportunity.

I thought that moment had arrived when, later that day, the pizza delivery guy mentioned that he had a side business hauling scrap metal, and that he would like to restore the refrigerator himself, as well as pick the scrap metal out of the construction dumpster we were using to empty the house. “I’ll be there at 7:30 sharp tomorrow morning,” he said.

Seven thirty came and went and Scrap Metal Pizza Man did not. I knew that the next day the city would remove the refrigerator from the street and it would end up as scrap metal despite my best efforts, so about 4 PM I called SMPM at work. “Oh, I’m sorry. I had a family emergency this morning and didn’t have any way to contact you” he said. The pizza restaurant is two blocks away from our house, and it’s not a lie if what you said would be true if the facts were different.

Where do we find honesty and integrity these days? I realize that this is just anecdotal evidence, but I’m pretty sure that the first place I would look would not be among the ranks of the whiskey soaked, or 40 year old guys who deliver pizzas and haul scrap metal and have family emergencies.

We all know that repeated applications of alcohol and drugs will etch a person’s honor like acid etches metal. I also believe that hardship and privation, and the ongoing necessity of cutting corners and making ends meet, can in some cases destroy a person’s integrity. Only a psychopath robs a liquor store for the fun of it.

The lack of integrity can cut across all the boundaries of all the myriad identities we have for labels these days. Some of the most humble can be the most honest. Some of the most successful can be the most deceptive. I’m thinking of a former supervisor, young and intelligent, prosperous, church going. He would, as the old expression goes, “lie as quickly as a cat would lick its hind end.” When caught in a lie he would say, “I didn’t say that. I would never say that. You must have misunderstood what I said.”

Of course, dishonesty was not invented in our time. The old expression about the cat was my great grandfather’s, and from the Bible to Shakespeare and in the great literature of the world, the story of lying and its consequences is told and retold.

But lying today is empowered by technology if not actually embraced by elements of our culture. Truth is considered to be relative; good and bad are functions of cultural context, and reality itself is considered to be malleable.

The tale of the noble refrigerator ends well, however. On the morning before the city came to collect our recyclables, I saw a man in a pickup truck carefully, almost reverently, loading up our old friend to haul it away. I don’t know if he was an honest man or not, but I am convinced that he was, at least, able to recognize quality.

Is it True? Is it Kind? Does it Improve the Silence?

There is truth in the title. Those of you of a first class intelligence ( the majority of people who read the TC Herald), will hear the truth and act on it. Some of us hear the truth and need to verify it with our own experience before we will act on it. The rest of us, sadly a rapidly growing group, may hear truth but, failing to act on it, will repeat the experience many times.

Think before you speak. Discretion is the better part of valor. A word to the wise is sufficient. Don’t let your mouth write a check that your buttocks cannot cash.

From the time we first learn to talk, the momentum of civil society itself attempts to imbue us with the simple but essential knowledge necessary to maintain that society.

The human psyche is a complex summation of chemical reactions and electrical currents, tentatively balanced on the boundary between instinct and cognition; prone to impulses that are often chaotic and unreliable.

We don’t act on every impulse. We don’t say everything that pops into our heads.

The above statement delineates half the challenge of raising a child. Put that down. Be nice to your sister. That’s not a toy. Don’t yell. Be still. Learning impulse control is the primary lesson of childhood, and for many, that lesson continues for a lifetime. Prisons, asylums and grave yards are populated by those who did not or could not learn it, or who forgot it at a critical moment.

Somewhere between the temper tantrums of a two year old and a Youtube video of a knock down drag out fight between adults in a fast food restaurant, outraged because somebody’s fries were cold, is a failure of civil society to produce civilized members.

Blame what or who we may, for there is a sufficient quantity for some of it to always find the mark. But we, ourselves, participate every day in a modern ritual of obsession which eats away at civil society like an acid. Technology unguided leverages our lack of impulse control into a divisive and debilitating force. It makes us angry, It makes us anxious and fearful. It makes us sick.

The effect is cumulative. Think of a traffic jam, where the combined impulses of a self absorbed herd can immobilize a highway for miles. Each little selfish act combines with others in a cascading sequence of events. Social media can have a very similar effect on a civil society.

The asphalt highway suggests a relative anonymity which can defer the social consequences of an ill considered action. (A person’s true character is often revealed in the way they drive.) The rude and aggressive driver is, and should be, reluctant to act in person the way she does on the road. On the information highway, the rude and aggressive participant in social media assumes he is immune to any consequences of ill considered or hateful speech.

But there are consequences, and we see them in the divisiveness and ill will which now characterize our political process. We see them in the Balkanization of life in America, less “a people” as time goes by as a collection of identities who believe that an opinion is an entitlement.

It isn’t. We have a right to form an opinion, but it is our due diligence and the work involved in forming an opinion that entitles us to have it. Every day we experience the consequences of opinions formed (and shared) with no diligence or discretion at all.

It isn’t entirely our fault. We are enticed to participate in the drama, rewarded with little injections of serotonin when we are liked or followed, or dosed with adrenaline when we have an angry exchange or reaction. It’s easy, and it’s addictive.

Take a step back and consider the sum total of all that we can see and hear at any hour of the day or night, the continuous noise of opinions and arguments, daily disasters, never ending scandals and controversies and investigations, and it’s all repeated over and over in a never ending showing and sharing of everything that happens and everything that is said, and everything that is said about what happens and everything that is said about what is said.

It’s the ultimate inclusion when we join in the fray with our comments and replies to comments. Forget the thing. The comment is the thing, and the story is the tweet and all the reactions to the tweet are the story. And we’re all included. We’re all entitled and we’re all here together on the information superhighway. So why are we so angry with each other?

Because we have created a big angry traffic jam in our national discourse, and the sound of everyone blowing their horn at once does not improve our attitudes or our impulse control, and yet we are shocked and offended when someone succumbs to road rage.

The solution is ridiculously simple. Just turn it off. Close the laptop. Turn the phone face down. But if the addiction is too strong and we find ourselves back in the fray, all is not lost. Those three simple questions can serve to improve the traffic wherever we are:

Is it true?

Is it kind?

Does it improve the silence?

Pay Attention

To my mother, seasoning a cast iron skillet was an art. She took special care with her cast iron, and she wouldn’t let anyone else clean it. Her pans were almost as “non stick” as Teflon (and they were a lot healthier).

I can almost see a few heads nodding in recognition, and if one of those heads is yours, you might appreciate the image of an obsidian black pan, smooth as glass, bright beads of water dancing on its surface to let you know it’s time to cook.

The art of pan seasoning is not often included in a list of the manly arts unless you’re a celebrity chef, or were fortunate enough to have listened to your mama when you were growing up. You may believe that such things are more properly the domain of a mama’s boy. If so, I think you are mistaken in a sad and impoverishing way.

I learned something about mama’s boys on Parris Island. One evening our platoon was sitting on foot lockers polishing brass when we were instructed to put the brass away and get out our writing gear. We were informed that our next task was to write a letter home to our mamas.

One particularly unwise recruit piped up and said, “I ain’t no mama’s boy.” In the blink of an eye, said recruit was vigorously encouraged to do push ups without delay. The push ups as well as the encouragement continued unceasingly for the next hour while we all wrote our letters home. Then, without a moment’s rest, our weary but wiser recruit got to write his own letter after all. In the opinion of Senior Drill Instructor, Staff Sergeant Frasier, the recruit, the sergeant himself and every other male who ever had a mama, was and will always be a mama’s boy.

The world would be a wiser place if we paid better attention to our elders in general and our mamas in particular. I’ve always liked the expression, “pay attention.” The word “pay” implies that there is a debt owed, and that debt is the price we pay for gaining knowledge. Paying attention is the bill due in gratitude and respect for our elders. Knowledge and wisdom are not free. They must be purchased with our own experience or, if we’re lucky, with attention paid to buy the experience of someone else.

There are two cast iron pans seasoning in the oven as I write this. I found them just recently while cleaning out the old family home. Their seasoning had been almost ruined by an over zealous cook who worked for my dad after mom passed away. Fortunately I paid attention when Mama was teaching me how to care for my own cast iron.

Pay attention to your mama while you can. One day you won’t be able to. I wish I had paid better attention to my own mother’s knowledge and wisdom. Not only would I have had an easier life, but I would have eaten better. For years we have tried to recreate some of her recipes. She gave me her old cook book about two years before she died. On several occasions we talked about her recipes and I took some notes. She even typed up some of the favorites. But my efforts have just not been up to par.

Last week on the last minute of the last day before turning over the old house to the estate sale company, I found an overlooked drawer in a little used corner. It was packed with Mama’s recipes, clippings, hand written recipe cards, and a couple of those remarkably good church cook books filled with the personal recipes of the membership. Everything was organized, packaged up, labeled and waiting. I have no idea when she did all that. Her collection had been hidden away in that drawer for 10 years, waiting for someone to pay attention.

While we’re still talking about skillets, picture the one Granny Clampett used to whack Jethro with to encourage him to pay better attention. Life is just like Granny. Think of the accidents alone that we could have avoided simply by paying attention. However, cuts and bruises and even broken bones can heal, but what we missed with those whom we loved and lost, because we were too busy or too distracted to pay attention, well, that hurts forever.

One more thing about skillets before we go. If you have a vintage cast iron pan, hang on to it. Modern pans, in the modern tradition of cutting corners, are manufactured without the final polishing process. That new pan will never be as smooth as your mama’s old one.

I Knew You’d Be Surprised

Ask a happy person to tell you about the place where they live and chances are you’ll hear good things about that area. The way we feel directly affects, and for some people determines, how we perceive reality.

Most of us who live in our neck of the woods, even on our bad days, know that we are fortunate to be here, and that knowledge increases in direct proportion to how many other places we have lived or visited.

Nevertheless, we do live in interesting times, in a strange age of confusion in which the way many people perceive reality is affected as much or more by the virtual world as it is by direct experience.

It’s human nature to be vulnerable to stereotypes and prejudice of all kinds. Our brains are differencing engines with a limited capacity for compiling data on more than just a handful of individuals, and anyone outside that small group, or anyone we perceive as different than our group, is considered “the other.”

Our fears and prejudices were bad enough long before the age of information came along to leverage those shortcomings and facilitate even further divisions. For its effect on our national identity and civil society, “anti-social” media is perhaps a more accurate description for what we commonly refer to as “social.”

Long before “social” media and the ascendancy of virtual reality, our part of the world often got a bad rap. Even today, southern states are assumed to be homologous organs of a monolithic south, and now stereotypes about southerners, hillbillies and rednecks, encouraged by mainstream media, have merged with stereotypes about “red states” versus “blue states.”

Here at home, we always knew differently. Now we have the data to back us up.

The Atlantic magazine recently sponsored a study on partisan prejudice. The analytics firm, PredictWise conducted the study. Towns County, Georgia, ranks in the 13th percentile, which means that 87% of all US counties are more politically intolerant than we are.

In fact, all of North Georgia and most of the Southern Appalachians rank as being significantly more tolerant than the rest of the country. Fannin County is in the 9th percentile, Union County is in the 20th; Clay and Cherokee counties in North Carolina are in the 2nd percentile.

The most intolerant county in the nation? Suffolk County, Massachusetts, in the heart of the most “liberal” part of New England. No county in the state of Massachusetts ranked below the 85th percentile. None of Georgia’s hillbilly counties ranked higher than the 20th. The most politically tolerant city in America, according to the study, is Watertown, New York, which is in a county that voted for Donald Trump by a 20 point margin. I knew you’d be surprised.

The most intolerant demographic group? Older white educated urban dwellers who tend to associate much more with “their own kind.” Ironic, isn’t it? That some of the loudest voices calling for it have the least experience of diversity.

One thing is clear. Prejudice knows no geographical boundaries, and the same is true for tolerance. We are fortunate that tolerance has taken root in the place we call home. .

(To read more about the study, go to the Atlantic article here.)