Messenger (Bag) of War

If you let them, some of the good habits you pick up in the military will stay with you for a lifetime. You may also gain perspectives that can function as a workable template for many situations. Not every situation, but many. Viewing every situation in terms of conflict is unwise, but conflict is all around us, and if we want to avoid it, it’s best that we try to understand it.

As we travel the pixel universe, we get the impression that there are many “wars” being fought in virtual reality. The war on drugs continues, and we have the war on terror, the war on poverty, the war on oppression, the war on the virus, the war on “anything we don’t like.” Every challenge must be overcome with a “fight.” We bypass dialogue, understanding and compromise and default to “war.” Even things that must be changed are fought before they are studied. People who spend their careers talking are now considered “warriors.” It soon becomes clear that most people who wield the language of war, do not understand war at all.

Let’s not jump directly into the fight. We’ll do some reconnaissance first.

My dad was a navy man, and he always had an away kit packed and ready with an assortment of items, including tightly rolled skivvies like you would find in a sea bag.  I still roll my t-shirts the same way. (If you roll them exactly right it will eliminate most of the wrinkles.)

As a former Marine, my bugout bag contains more metal and polymer-based items than textiles, including items that will guarantee a permanent social distance if necessary. There are also seasonal items that change with the weather, as you never know how long you might have to sit in your car on the side of an icy road, or how far you might have to walk.

As we entered the undiscovered territory of the plague years, my bugout bag spawned a more portable version for the inevitable trips for business or groceries, which, we must admit, are a bit more serious than they once were. Defensive perimeter enabler? Check. Steel bottle of cool spring water? Check. Leatherman, lighter, flashlight? Check.

Recently the kit has included a spray bottle of alcohol, spare masks, a zip lock with latex gloves, and a pair of mechanic’s gloves. There is a small spray bottle of colloidal silver we use to spray eyes and masks.

I digress. After growing weary of the plastic shopping bag overburdened with my road kit, my wife purchased for me a vintage military messenger bag. Heavy canvas, brass fittings…OK it’s a purse. A man bag, if you will. But if I slapped you with even the empty bag, you probably would not get up for a while.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a man who wants to carry a purse, a man-bag or a paper sack, but I still prefer to call my container “The Arsenal of Freedom.” Like it? Doesn’t that take you back? Sounds like “Patriot Act” or George W. Bush’s “Clear Skies Initiative.”

“I’m ready to go when you are. Do you have your sunglasses?” “Got them. Do you have ‘The Arsenal of Freedom?’” That’s inspiring conversation to hear around the house when you’re getting ready to drive to the dump! Even Alexa would be impressed, if her 8 microphones were plugged in. (They are not.)

A bugout bag, an away kit, a man-bag, a purse:  These are all just words to describe similar things, but things that might be motivated by different intentions or burdened by different baggage. I’m not going to slap you with my messenger bag, but isn’t that just the kind of fantasy video game thinking that permeates the national discourse and inspires an underemployed and over caffeinated coffeehouse client to throw a rock at a police car?

I might call such a rock thrower a “man bag,” or worse. Some would call him a “social justice warrior.” We’re talking about the same guy, but my intention is to describe a rudderless movement doomed to collapse under its own weight with a lot of collateral damage, and someone else has the intention of describing a bright shining ideal (surrounded by a lot of clouds and haze).

You see it, don’ you. I know you do. Words begin to lose their meaning when they are wielded as weapons, and the pixel universe has become a battleground of words and the intentions behind them. That battlefield has been mined with political correctness mines, and in the fog of war there have been casualties caused by “friendly fire” when some of the combatants stepped on their own mines or their weapons blew up in their faces.

For example, a particularly destructive but extremely popular weapon is the word,“racist.” Racist is a useful work when it is used as a surgical laser for cutting out diseased tissue, but too often it’s used as a grenade. As a grenade, it never wins battles, but when it is lobbed into a conversation and blows up, it harms indiscriminately. The intended target will probably not be fooled into engaging in dialogue again. Thus the battle is never won, but the conflict continues.

As you can see, a template of military perspective can bring some understanding to the word wars. Words can and do harm, and they have helped to start real wars ever since humans developed language. But allowing that template to become part of a dominant paradigm creates a lot of unnecessary unhappiness while making people vulnerable to the most contemptible manipulations.

Look what happens when you remove the template of the language of war from your view of this-moment-right-now.  Wow, more foolish arguments on the television. Let’s just turn it off. I’m sure glad I don’t live where those videos were taken…didn’t they show the same ones yesterday? It surely is a beautiful day outside.

Eventually, we can learn to recognize straight away those headlines and conversations that promote a skewed version of reality. Any headline or conversation that makes use of the language of war, unless it’s about a real war, is probably not unbiased – or completely factual. We can safely skip over those offerings that add toxins to our precious time.

Then, if there aren’t any protesters coming up the driveway and no actual battles being fought in our front yard (which includes the vast majority of Americans), we can concentrate instead on what our family, our neighborhood and our community needs right now. We can filter words for their functionality, and where meaning is needed, we get to assign that ourselves. And you know what? This canvas bag thing holds a lot more stuff than a grocery sack.

An Appeal

New recommendations for world health authorities signed by 239 scientists will soon be published in the journal, Clinical Infectious Diseases. The guidance is based on overwhelming evidence that a person infected by COVID-19 can spread the virus from 30 feet away, not the 6 feet that currently informs social distancing guidelines.

Today I’m writing to appeal to a specific person, who may be turning the page at this very moment. Please keep reading.

You have decided that it’s OK for you not to wear a mask in public places. You think that it’s not as bad as they say, and besides, masks aren’t that effective. You read something on the internet that suggests this is all a conspiracy to further enslave people. Nobody is going to make you wear a mask. You know your rights.

I have a question for you. If you were caught in a rainstorm and you had an umbrella that blocked 95% of the rain, would you use it?

If you had a teenage son whom you knew was going to do what teenagers are prone to do, would tell him to use protection? Would you smoke a cigarette in an elevator full of people? Do you wear a seatbelt when you’re driving?

The world has forgotten, but there were many people who balked at seatbelt laws when they were new. The laws were considered by some to be just another coercive measure by government to control people’s lives, but wiser heads prevailed and a civil society decided that while you had a right to kill yourself with your automobile, you did not have the right to drive up hospital and insurance costs for everyone else in the process.

So you’ve read a lot of opinions to the contrary. Yes, we’re all Google scholars today. Why don’t you ask your doctor what she thinks, or do you have better information than your doctor? The difference between a scientist and a Google scholar is that scientists try to keep their own cognitive bias in check while they search for the facts. Most of us search for evidence that what we want to believe is true, and the internet makes that almost effortless.

The appeal soon to be published is from a group of scientists that cover a wide range of disciplines, including epidemiology, virology, medicine, aerosol physics, flow dynamics and building engineering. It’s part of an effort to provide workable solutions to this ongoing crisis and to answer the question, “How do we keep the economy going while keeping everyone as safe as possible?”

I think we’re all in agreement that a crashing economy can potentially hurt us as much or more than a virus, but some of you have rationalized your refusal to wear a mask or take other precautions as some kind of brave stand for normal life and individual rights. How much have you helped the economy if you get sick, or infect someone else?

Maybe you’ve missed some of the information about how this virus kills and maims, how unpredictable it is, given our current knowledge, how it sickens some people, but others show no symptoms at all. It’s almost like Russian Roulette. Are you willing to play Russian Roulette with your grandmother’s life, or your granddaughter’s?

I’m not asking you to believe me, but if you are still in doubt, I am asking you to ask your doctor.

In case you haven’t noticed, our relatively remote mountain communities are no longer a protection against the spread of the virus. For most of this year, Towns County had registered about 24 cases. Recently over a period of about 2 weeks that doubled to around 50. It was in the 50’s when I looked at the Georgia Department of Health’s website last week. This morning it stands at 70.

Sure, the numbers are “small” because we’re a small community, but you don’t have to be a math major to see the disturbing trend, and you would have to stick your head deeply into the sand to miss the trend nationwide as we continue to set new records for daily infections.

As far as our local communities go, look around next time you’re in town. Notice the high number of license plates from other counties or out of state. It’s the middle of summer and the vacationers are here, but the virus has inspired a lot more people to seek out places they think are “safe” and out of the way.

That’s fine for our local economy as far as it goes, but apparently people on vacation believe they are immune from any harm, because the majority of people I see are not taking any precautions.

So if you’re a long time resident or a visitor, please, take precautions. Use a mask. I know it galls us to be confined, to be told what to do, but what are you really losing? How much have you really suffered, confined to your air conditioned living room with Netflix and Google? That extra 5 lbs. of fat on your belly tells me you didn’t suffer too much.

Your nurse wears a mask for 10 hours a day and then goes home to make dinner for her kids.  Can we not endure a small amount of inconvenience if it helps save people’s lives and keeps the economy running, or are we softer than our ancestors, who survived world wars and pandemics and rationing? Are you too soft to bear wearing a small piece of fabric?

Professor Karen’s New Rules for Age Old Problems

Over the weekend we disconnected from the infomatrix. It was nice to relax and spend time with family, but we started the week without being properly conditioned and now we’re not sure what we’re supposed to worry about. When I have a chance, I’ll login to Facebook and I’m sure someone will let me know.  

 Someone told us last week that we didn’t have to worry about the virus anymore, that we should worry about the lives of African Americans instead.  That’s fine with me. I already do, as this directly affects the lives of several people I care deeply about. There is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to healing the age old problem of racism that still exists in this country.  

What I have difficulty understanding is all the complicated new rules about privilege and microaggressions and such. I’m not sure who wrote them. I think an associate professor at a junior college somewhere wrote a paper and tweeted some tweets and our information commissars decided it was important enough to spread around.  

These new rules are going to take some getting used to. For most of my life I’ve had much simpler guides for dealing with folks. The Golden Rule works very well when it’s actually used, and the Bible even states that it sums up the whole law of the prophets. That’s a pretty heavy recommendation, and it really clarifies things.  

But Americans like complexity, and we like to hear ourselves talk, and some of us, not naming any names, enjoy language so much that we get a little wordy. So, whenever I needed something more than “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” I had some fine material to draw on, like this great quotation which encapsulates the most central of American values. Some of you have heard it before:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

There is no mention of race in that statement, and right there at the founding of the American state it begins the long and painful process of abolishing slavery in the United States, though for some it required a series of uncomfortable rationalizations to justify that horrendous institution.  

Those of us who have spent much of our lives dealing with people based on the quality of their characters will find it difficult to have to modify our interactions to accommodate a person’s pigmentation, but we’re told that to fail to do so now is a “microaggression.” I’m not sure what a microaggression is, but I know it’s bad. It can get people called on the carpet at work or even fired, or worse – it can attract a whole flock of angry tweets.  

There’s already too much anger being passed around. I think some of it is frustration from being cooped up and told what to do…and then told something completely different to do by the people who are supposed to be in charge. Talk about confusion!  

But it takes more than frustration to send people into the streets to protest. Not that we should worry about the protests. Our country was founded on protest. Go back and read the Declaration of Independence again and note the long list of grievances. No, people should be able to peacefully protest anything they wish at any time and in any way that does not impinge on the rights of others. 

Many of the protesters have a valid point. There’s little doubt that black people are more likely to be arrested and more likely to suffer at the hands of a very small percentage of police officers who should not be allowed to wear a badge. And if you dig into those fractions, you’ll also find that economic status is an even better predicter of arrest and mistreatment by the criminal justice system, which leads to another discussion as to why the majority of young black men are stuck in the lowest economic class year after year. 

That would be a great starting point for a legitimate discussion about race, but it’s not all about race. Race might have been the spark that ignited the current unrest, but the fuel for that fire has been collecting for decades, and it is decidedly economic in nature. 

When you think about it, “fire” is a good metaphor for what’s going on now, and we should all be aware of who, or what, is fanning the flames. Look no further than the screens that dominate our waking hours and awareness. No one fanned the flames two weeks ago when over 100 black folks were killed in Chicago by other black folks. Every single one of those deaths was a tragedy. Every one of those lives mattered. But corporate media and social media had very little to say about it.  

Sometimes it helps me to remember that the Supreme Court some years ago decided that corporations are people. Some people can’t be trusted. That’s why I was suspicious when I first learned about the corporate person of Black Lives Matter. Have you read their mission statement? It’s on their website, and though some of it sounds pretty good, some of it sounds more like Karl Marx than Martin Luther King.  

Then I noticed that several companies have donated over $100 million to another corporation called The Movement for Black Lives, which is affiliated with BLM. Now, corporations give a lot of money to a lot of causes, and lot of charities and a lot of politicians. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I thought it was curious that corporate America had suddenly discovered black folks. Then I remembered that this is an election year. 

Of course, some corporations already knew quite a lot about black folks, like the entertainment companies that exploited performers and mass produced, marketed and sold a violent, misogynistic gangster culture made popular and profitable through hip hop music. Corporations know how to put their most polluting industries and toxic waste in the poorest neighborhoods with the least ability to resist.  

They don’t seem to know a lot about providing jobs for the folks they now say they support. After seeing “BLM” every time I logged into Amazon or turned on my Fire TV, I found myself wishing I could inject it with truth serum so I could hear it say, “Hi, I’m Alexa and I’d like to thank all the people who destroyed neighborhood businesses and helped give Amazon one of the most profitable quarters in our history!”  

Come to think of it, I believe the best thing for me to do personally is to, with all due respect, disregard “Professor Karen’s Rules for White Folks about Black Folks.” If I meet a guy named “Steve” tomorrow and he’s black, all I need to know is his name and all I need to observe is the choices he makes. If Steve wants me to acknowledge his skin color or tell me about his history, he’ll let me know. His choice. Not mine.  

And I’m sorry, Professor Karen, but not too long ago, to make assumptions about someone based on race, creed, color or ethnicity was the definition of prejudice. It seems to me that if I immediately assume a history of victimization and a set list of opinions and needs based on skin pigment, that is prejudice also. I think Martin Luther King had it exactly right when he said, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” 


Build to Last

Some years ago, I took down an old barn to salvage the wood. The wood was a treasure, hand hewn oak and heart pine that grew as saplings at least a century before.  

I thought so much of the wood that I stored it under a shed which had been built to keep my tractor out of the weather.  It was carefully dry stacked to preserve it, and as an added precaution I covered the stack with a tarp. The tractor? Well, it had to sleep outside. 

Time passed and the wood remained under the shed. When I looked at it or thought of it, I imagined ambitious projects like paneling for the den and framing for doors and windows. The ground under the shed remained bone dry, so over time, temporary storage in the tractor shed became semi-permanent storage for a variety of things. The old tractor didn’t seem to mind the weather with some regular attention and a bit of paint now and then.  

Several years passed and other ambitious projects superseded my visions of antique wood carpentry. Family members got old and needed help, got older and passed away. Jobs changed. Sickness visited the family and was overcome. Life happened. If I thought of the valuable wood at all it was akin to how you might think of some old coins in a safe deposit box, something taken for granted.  

They say that time heals all wounds but given enough time, it wounds all heals as well. Somewhere on the tin roof of the shed, successive seasons of heat and cold, expansion and contraction, lifted a nail just enough that a bit of rainwater was able to seep under it. Water dripped down onto my stack of wood, not much, never enough to catch my eye, but it was deflected by the tarp, where it flowed to a tiny invisible hole and then onto my treasure of wood, out of sight and out of mind.   

It wasn’t a big leak. The ground never showed any sign of wetness. But water has a talent for seeking out any weakness in our defensive plans, and that tiny trickle over the course of several years had a cumulative effect. 

The day came when I wanted to get at that stack of lumber, and what I found there would break the heart of anyone who loves old and irreplaceable wood. The ends of the stack were still sound, but the middle was more compost than lumber. I was able to salvage maybe a third of the original pile.  

It took me about two days to sort and shovel the remains of my wood stack, and during that time I thought often of the friends who had helped me take down the old barn years ago. I thought also of the irony, for that friendship had gone pretty much the way of the wood. It was left unattended for too long, taken for granted, perhaps, or set aside while life was happening elsewhere. Then one day when I wanted or needed it, though it looked the same on the surface, beneath the covering there was very little left.   

We’ve all had fair weather friends, and some of us have probably been that on occasion too. There are some people who just can’t seem to stand any kind of inclement weather, and others who have been so long in their own poor climate that they can’t tolerate anything more. Sadly, sickness is a great revealer of fair-weather friends, and what makes it even more difficult to accept is that they disappear when you might need them the most.  

Unlike my rotted wood, sometimes a fair-weather friend will reappear when the storm has passed, but we are not likely to count on them ever again. But there was something else I found at the bottom of my unfortunate pile of wet sawdust. There were several lengths of pressure treated pine which were as sound as the day they had been cut. While everything else rotted around them, they maintained their integrity.  

We have friends like that too. True friends. Both kinds have their purpose, I suppose, as we build our lives. If we are wise, and lucky, we will frame our relationships with pressure treated friends for structural support. The rest are there for siding, paneling or veneer, and we will learn to accept their loss when it happens, because life often requires remodeling or redecorating whether we have planned for it or not. 

Ultimately, anything we value that we do not attend, anything that we fail to put energy into, will not last. Not my unfortunate old lumber, not even my mighty old tractor, which weathers the storms only because I care for it. Even a pressure treated post will fail if it’s left alone long enough. So, it behooves us to decide what we value, and never take it for granted.  

The Five, or Six, or Seven Stages of Grief

In the old days, time healed all wounds. They say life is more complicated today, though I suspect life is the same and it is the living that has become more involved.

With Elizabeth Kubler Ross came a five-step pathway through grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. In recent years, shock was added as the first stage of grief, which makes six, and in some lexicons, guilt is inserted somewhere between denial and anger, bringing the total to seven.  

Apparently, psychology does not escape the Second Law of Thermodynamics either, but we’re not here to talk about grief, though it does grieve me to say that when it comes to the demise of quality in goods and services, I’m stuck somewhere between shock and denial.

Our story begins with the arrival of a new Craftsman air compressor. I had been looking for something that wouldn’t make my ears bleed but didn’t need to cycle after two or three finishing nails. The ad looked great, as ads often do, but like most of us, I viewed it with suspicion. The reviews were great, and there were many. Reviews are also suspect, as some are written by company employees. In the end it was the price, the reviews and the word, “Craftsman” that sealed the deal.

In retrospect, I should have known better than to give too much credence to the name. Sears sold Craftsman to Stanley Black and Decker in 2017. Do you ever wonder if, when one company buys another company that the former retains any of the memories and characteristics of the latter? Is it like the Borg on Star Trek? Does Craftsman remember its glory days and wish it made quality tools, but is powerless under the influence of the collective? Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.

My dad’s 1970’s Craftsman tools hang proudly in my shop, a reminder of the American quality and ingenuity that was, but the “Craftsman” that arrived on my front porch was made in China for Stanley Black and Decker Acme Coyote.

The first clue that something was amiss was a strange and unpleasant odor that filled the shop as soon as the box was opened, and the compressor removed. “Did Bonnie get hold of a skunk?” My wife asked me. “No, I think it’s the air hose that came with this compressor.” I replied. “You have to take that outside. I can smell it all the way into the den.”

The nasty skunk smell was probably dibutylphthalate, a plastic stabilizer commonly used in plastics from The People’s Republic. Do they use that in everything or does the Chinese government decree that it must be used in all plastics shipped to the US? Enquiring minds want to know. What I do know is that the chemical is a hormone disruptor and potentially very unhealthy for susceptible people. I also know that the plastic skunk smell is not an early indicator of quality in a manufactured product.

I put on a pair of gloves and took the little hose out to the truck and threw it in the back, briefly wondering how something so thin could ever expect to survive the 150-psi advertised for the compressor. After two days in the bright sun, you can still smell it when you walk by the truck.

Back in the shop, I noticed a little bag of trinkets which had fallen onto the floor. This turned out to be the “accessories” which were included as a bonus. I marveled for a moment at the photographic and pixel prowess required to make the trinkets look like the serious tools shown in the ad. They did not stink, so I tossed them into the garbage bin in the shop.

The compressor worked fine, right out of the box. It seemed loud to me, but perhaps Craftsman Stanley Black and Decker Acme Coyote measures “decibels” on a different scale. On the plus side,  I’m predicting the unit will be tough enough, judging from the fact that it arrived undamaged in the beat up box so often produced by the Amazon warehouse/UPS gauntlet between the last click online and our rural location. For the price and the apparent quality, I’ll feel comfortable tossing this unit on the back of the truck without the TLC I would reserve for a finer tool like an Ingersoll Rand. Sometimes it’s an advantage to have a semi-disposable “beater” tool.

Which brings us back, briefly, to the five, or six, or seven stages of grief that some of us feel over the demise of quality in the world. I’m shocked that a hundred-dollar bill has so little value, and no, I’m not giving any away. I’m in denial that our currency has lost so much of its purchasing power. I’m angry that we all watched it happening right under our noses and were unconcerned. I’m bargaining in my head that this piece of junk is a “good” thing for banging around in the back of my truck. The whole affair could be quite depressing.

To achieve acceptance, I had to do a bit of math. Thank God for math, and logic, and reason, more valuable in their current scarcity. Here are the numbers that led me to understanding.

If price is still a relative guide to quality, to get the quality of a $129 Craftsman tool made in 1978, I would need to pay $507.28 in today’s currency. The $129 I paid for this compressor gets me $32.80 of 1978 quality. To all my dad’s tools hanging in the shop, this is a thirty-dollar compressor just made for banging around in the back of the truck.

Finally, if I don’t bang it around too much, this compressor might last a year or two. In six years, I might buy three and still come out cheaper than an Ingersoll Rand that would easily last that long. Now that IS a bargain! Isn’t it?

Crabs in a Pot

We won’t take up too much of your time this week. We have work to do, a garden to tend and some lumber to saw, and you have already spent enough time worrying about the condition of the world. We’ll venture a guess that just outside your door, the world is doing just fine, and that’s the place where we need to focus our attention right now.

There’s an old fable about crabs which seems fitting in dark of today’s headlines. It goes something like this:  A bucket of crabs does not need a lid because any crab trying to escape will be pulled down by other crabs also trying to exit the bucket.

For the purposes of our discussion, the “bucket” is the ongoing drama crowding the streets of some of our cities and dominating the pixel narrative. Here is a short list of some of the crabs. First there are the election year crabs which have repeatedly shown that they will use any tragedy to further their goals, no matter the collateral damage. There are media crabs that make their paychecks and maintain their stock prices by feeding us broken news 24/7, and thanks for the hours of “live” video loops of that street corner where someone threw something at a police officer, or might.

There are the drama crabs, addicted to the rush of brain chemicals that accompanies fear and anger and shocking images. Like a drug addict, it feels awful, but at least it feels. Enter the virtue crabs eager to demonstrate their superior morality and lecture you, because if you’re not as outraged as they are, you’re part of the problem.

Finally we have the crabs overwhelmed by anger and desperation from being crushed at the bottom of the pot for so long and who have given in to the baser animal instincts on the ragged edge of what remains of their humanity. They are a small minority of the crowd, but they are the easiest to manipulate.

Yes, manipulate. There are signs of a chef or two somewhere in this hell’s kitchen, turning up the heat, flooding social media with inflammatory posts, organizing the transport of “protesters” hundreds of miles to cause trouble in someone else’s city.

Sadly, if we could crawl out of the pot we might be able to see and address the real problems now obscured by violence and stupidity:  The persistence of racism, the increasing coercion of the oligarchy, and the long suffering debilitation at the roots of our economy by parasites.

Make no mistake – what forms the “pot” and turns up the heat is economic. The real tragedy is that we will soon be offered the same old false dilemma in an election between more government in support of crony capitalism or more government to coerce a more egalitarian society and redistribute wealth.

Most of us long for a more egalitarian society. That ideal is one of the things that defines our way of life. But neither side of the left/right divide seems to get it. The left thinks the ideal can be coerced by government and having achieved that, a healthy economy will follow. The right correctly believes that a rising tide of economic health will lift all boats, but they deny the existence of oligarchy busy drilling holes in all the smaller boats.

Perhaps saddest of all, despite the parasites and the drillers of holes and the crab mentalities, across the board, most of the things being protested were improving. The numbers are clear on that, but truth takes a back seat to narrative in this world.

If you’re reading this, chances are that you enjoy the luxury of being able to choose not to be pulled into the crab pot. Spend time in gratitude every day for that blessing. Focus on what is real and right in front of you, your family, your friends, your community. Nurture these, strengthen these and do what you can to insulate them from the heat of the crab boil.  

Back to the Garden

Welcome to all of you who took a step back from the virtual world and bought seeds, plants, fertilizer, garden tools, even baby chicks during our recent cultural and economic shift.  

It doesn’t matter why you did it, fear of food shortages, frustration with high prices or just an abundance of time to spend at home. It was a healthy choice for sunshine, fresh air and mobility versus more hours spent sitting, pointing and clicking. 

Apparently, we are a nation of gardeners and small holders again, or closer to it than we have been in decades. Garden seed, fertilizer, potting soil, even baby chickens and chicken feed have been as scarce in some parts of the country as meat was in Hiawassee a few weeks ago.  

Many of us are gardening for the first time, and many are returning to it after a long absence. Now that we’ve made that all important first move, it’s important to be patient and persistent and to hold fast to the intentions behind our choice.  

We have long been conditioned to seek immediate gratification, and the garden doesn’t grow that. From the first spade breaking the sod to the last tomato we pick in October, a garden is an exercise in faith and endurance. It requires setting aside short-term desires to achieve long term goals, and many of us are no longer accustomed to investing our time (or our money) in this manner.  

All too soon the old economy, fractured but still functioning, will seek to draw us back in, and that is to be expected. Every business wants to survive, even the diseased ones. Those (gassed green and tasteless) tomatoes are cheaper at the grocery now. Hollywood is making movies again. There is breaking news happening, and I haven’t posted anything on Facebook in days. I’ll spray those beans tomorrow… 

To me it’s a clear choice. A few more tiny doses of serotonin when someone “likes” my post on Facebook, a minute by minute awareness of News Talker One’s opinion of how today’s broken news will play out, another BOGO gizmo for the kitchen or dustable for the shelf – or, the perfect tomato, picked at the peak of ripeness from my own vine, thickly sliced between two pieces of sourdough bread and a generous layer of Duke’s mayonnaise.  

Go, water those cucumber seedlings right now…Was that my phone? I can’t believe she posted that…. 

Just stop for a minute. Let’s be honest. We’ve got 6 more months of politics to endure. That’s enough time to grow a prize winning pumpkin or add another roll of belly fat. Nobody cares about your political opinion anyway. The only people who agree with you, who provide your micro doses of brain candy for the mean-spirited memes you share, are people who already think and vote like you do. When is the last time you were so insulted that you changed your opinion about something? 

“But it’s important to stay informed.” Agreed. Now tell us the last time corporate news provided you information that made you either richer or happier? We’ll wait…. 

How useful is it to know who got shot in another town or another state, or the opinion of a talk show comedian on a question of medical science, or what the polls say today that they didn’t say yesterday, now that Politician Pepsi was “slammed” by Politician Coke? If you curate your information intake, everything you need to know for the day, from financial news to the weather, can be absorbed over a single cup of coffee in the morning. 

That leaves plenty of time to check those potatoes for flea beetles. I like neem oil sprayed with enough Dr. Bronner’s peppermint for a good emulsion to solve that problem. Just keep after it, and don’t get discouraged when you start to feel withdrawal symptoms away from the pixel pushers. We have been conditioned for a long time now. Marketing, propaganda, social engineering and manipulation are intensely studied and heavily invested to keep us consuming goods, services and information as much and as often as possible.  

In your garden there is no one to convince you to be so outraged or afraid that you need to keep checking back to see if you should be less outraged or afraid, or more so. If you like drama, the garden is full of it, with its life and death struggles and physical challenges and heartaches and triumphs. If you’re patient and enduring, you can even post pictures of your prize tomatoes on Facebook. They will get more “likes” than your political opinions. I guarantee it, or your money back.   

Collateral Damage

When I was in school, Georgia recognized three geographic regions: the mountains, piedmont and coastal plain. We have five now, since the north has been divided into Blue Ridge, Valley and Ridge District and Appalachian Plateau. I’m not sure when the official labels changed, but aside from hosting a lot more asphalt and concrete, the land looks much like it always did.  

Such it is with all our labels and the lines on our maps, even our languages and the narratives we create. We humans tend to believe that the way we describe a thing, is the thing. This has always been true of language, and in a world awash with pixels and politics, it is particularly true of narrative.  

I have lived and worked in all of Georgia’s regions, and every one of them was home to good people and bad. I’m convinced that the more you travel, the more you discover that no city, state or region, and no country on earth, has a monopoly on the good or the bad, the ignorant or the sophisticated. 

Some of my best Georgia memories were formed in the coastal plain, and some of the best people I’ve ever known lived there. As director of operations of an outdoor experiential education program, I was sent to South Georgia to setup a base for mounting out river trips for adjudicated youth.  

For several years we were guests of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources at their facility on the Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area, which sits on 8000 acres along the Ocmulgee River between Lumber City and Jacksonville, Georgia. From that location we supported canoe trips of over 300 miles down the winding brackish waters of the Ocmulgee and Altamaha Rivers to the coastal town of Darien, Georgia, not far from Brunswick.  

We carried motley crews of teenage boys, black, white and brown and all with criminal records, down that river corridor. No one was more motley than the staff who worked with us, young men and women from all over the country, of every color, race, creed and religion.  

No matter how presentable you are at the beginning of a month-long river expedition, in an amazingly short period of time you look and smell like someone who lives in an alley in a cardboard box. I’m telling you this to make a point.  We had many adventures, hardships and triumphs, and all along the way we were dependent on the good will and support of little towns like Hawkinsville, Abbeville, Jacksonville, Lumber City, Hazlehurst, Baxley, Jesup and Darien.  

We worked closely with the police and sheriff’s departments in the areas where we traveled, and some of those departments volunteered time to spend with the boys, and they always had our backs in an emergency. We were often overwhelmed by the generosity of local citizens and businesses and churches that donated food and supplies.  

There were simply too many examples of generosity, support and compassion from the little Georgia towns of our travels to be listed here, but one good example of the kind of support we received happened when the river flooded and a canoe capsized near Hawkinsville, Georgia one February. After rescuing the two boys and mitigating against hypothermia, we had to make an emergency landing at the first campsite we could find that wasn’t underwater. 

The next day volunteers from Hawkinsville risked their own safety to come upriver in their personal boats to escort our group down a rising river that had escaped its banks. It’s not pertinent to the story of generosity and compassion, but for the purposes of this discussion, I want you to picture the scene when a group of “bubbas,” the iconic white southerners that the media is so fond of portraying, went out of their way to rescue a bunch of black teenagers and a group of river rats.  

We talked a lot about race in our programs. Racism was something that most of the kids had either experienced or practiced at one time or another, and we knew that for many of our graduates it would be an issue when they returned home to start a new life. If it did happen again, we hoped there would be a difference, and that difference would be in the awareness that things like racism and prejudice are exceptions and not rules.  

Most of our adjudicated kids had learned to see themselves as victims, victims of our culture, of the system, of their family life or lack of it. Victims don’t need to bother making better decisions because the deck is always stacked against them. We tried to teach them to begin rebuilding their lives with the knowledge that every choice has a consequence, and if you want a better life, you must make better choices.  

Politics has always depended heavily on victims. If you can convince any group of people, black, white or brown, that the deck is stacked against them, they are easier to manipulate. Outrage gets votes, and tragedy is an opportunity to groom outrage. The theme has been repeated throughout history ad nauseum.  

We grieve for the family of the young man slain recently in Brunswick, Georgia. It was a tragic and senseless killing and from what we’ve seen so far, it looks like justice was reluctant to appear. We have no intention of detracting from the import of this tragedy, however, when we acknowledge all the other tragic, senseless and hateful killings that did not make the national news.  

In the month of April, there were 52 murders in Chicago. The political narrative did not choose to remind us again and again of that tragedy. No one commented on the race of any of the victims or the racial motivations of the perpetrators.  No headlines shouted, “Hunted and Killed in Illinois.”  

A purely factual headline might have reported a man shot in Brunswick, Georgia. A tragedy used to groom outrage for profit or political gain, however, reports that a black man was hunted and lynched in “Georgia.”  

There is no denying that racism still exists in this country and, in fact, all over the world. If every human on earth was the same race and identical shade of blue, we would still invent ways to divide ourselves, though this does not excuse the practice.

When injustice occurs, we should speak out without hesitation. Too often, however, our pixelated “outrage” is a signal of both our own virtue and our capitulation to the political narrative that has been created. Nevertheless, to capitalize on a tragedy in order to groom outrage is unconscionable. To promote the continued fracturing of the public into red versus blue and to attempt to paint a political party, a region or a state with the broad brush of “racist” for political gain is unconscionable. This time it’s the left, but the right has done the same many times as well, and the pendulum swings.  

I wanted to share this story from the Georgia I know to stand as a counterpoint to the narrative that has been created out of a tragedy for political gain. Many of you know that same Georgia and prefer that the reputation of our state not suffer any more collateral damage in another endless election cycle.  

Creative Destruction

A frequently parroted headline in recent weeks has been, “The Food Chain is Breaking.” If you’ve been in one of our local grocery stores when the meat counter was empty, you might be inclined to agree.

Another school of thought has considered the food chain broken for some time now. More accurately, over the last couple of generations we have transitioned from a food “web,” multiple networks of small, local and regional producers and processors, to a food “chain” of monolithic international corporations with centralized processing and distribution. It is much easier to break a chain than a web.

Much of the shift is due to the ascendency of predatory crony capitalism as ever-growing multinationals destroyed or digested smaller companies. There are fewer banks, fewer news outlets, and fewer locally owned businesses for the same or similar reasons.  

Part of the shift is a natural consequence of cities that grew while rural areas were depopulated. Family farms became suburban developments and factory farms replaced small holdings.

The pandemic is exposing the weakness inherent in monolithic systems, but it is also revealing the sickened state of factory farming. There is no shortage of food, but as processing plants shut down, cows, pigs, chickens and produce are being destroyed because hobbled processing plants and backed up transportation cannot move it fast enough.

Let’s look at that phrase, “fast enough” a little closer. Produce is perishable and freezer space is already near capacity, but what about livestock? Why can’t cows graze and chickens peck until they can be processed? The answer is in the Frankenstein nature of factory farming. Cows and chickens bred and hormone treated for rapid growth quickly become so obese if they live past a certain date, that the meat becomes much less valuable. Between the cost of feed and the loss of value, it’s cheaper for the factory farm to destroy the animals than to preserve them.

While the monoliths struggle to keep supermarkets supplied, the remaining smaller, local and regional producers are more flexible. They can and are adapting. This is great if you happen to live near one or have been able to find one online to replace what the grocer can’t currently supply – and you can afford to do that. There just aren’t enough smaller producers to go around.

The vulnerabilities of monolithic food production are not the only weaknesses that have been exposed. The monolithic modern diet has also been called out. There has never been a day since the pandemic officially began that there was not food in the stores. Fresh and canned vegetables and beans and rice have been abundant, but we have been led by media dramatists to the verge of panic because we might be denied our daily hamburger or dose of bacon and eggs.

Never mind that the volumes of beef, chicken and pork, pork, chicken and beef that we consume are a historical anomaly, or that there are millions living among us who can’t afford ribeye steak, but somehow manage to feed themselves. I don’t know of a single vegetarian who is frantic because the meat counter might be empty tomorrow.

But rather than inconvenience the insatiable appetite for meat that Americans have, the President felt it necessary to use the Defense Production Act to attempt to force meat packing plants, where many of the poorest and least educated among us work, to stay open.

So many things are changing right now that it’s hard to keep up.  The economist, Joseph Schumpeter, might have described this volatile time as the process of “Creative Destruction,” which is the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

Socialists, particularly Marxists, ran with the idea of creative destruction to predict that capitalism would inevitably destroy itself from within. We disagree. Creative destruction simply mirrors processes as old as time. Devolution precedes evolution. The old breaks down to make room for the new. The sturdiest tree in the forest becomes a home for woodpeckers, a slowly rotting log, and food for a new generation of trees.

Trouble always seems to occur when we attempt to artificially preserve anything past its season. Thus, we’re many trillions of dollars in debt. Our tolerance for change and uncertainty is so low that we can’t allow the economy to follow it’s natural cycles. We have banks too big to fail and airlines that need government bailouts, and a stock market that can’t be allowed to crash.

At some point in the future, and I think it will be sooner rather than later, we may find ourselves standing at a kind of crossroads. The destination will be the same, whichever route we take, but I think the journey will be much more pleasant in one direction than the other. I think that our two largest generations, who rarely see eye to eye, will unwittingly conspire to take a hard turn toward socialism and an even more totalitarian state – or we will allow creative destruction to proceed and embrace the changes that a new generation of entrepreneurs will bring us.

The elder generation desires to finish its run without losing affluence or a sense of social security. This generation is the natural ally of corporate America and the financial elite who have warped space-time itself and deformed the monetary system beyond recognition to keep the stock market from crashing.

The rapidly growing ranks of unemployed and underemployed younger Americans will look to government to either guarantee their livelihood (Did you cash your $1200 government check yet?) Or take a bigger role in directing our lives for the greater good.

And there you have it, a plausible explanation for government growing larger and more coercive under both democrat and republican leadership.

There was a time in this nation when there was a bridge spanning generations and demographic groups and diverse opinions. That bridge was faith in the future, and, particularly, faith in who holds the future. (Hint: It wasn’t government.)  We were more than capable of embracing change and tolerating uncertainty. Now we cower from it. Perhaps it’s time we re-examine that faith.  

Embracing the “New Normal”

We weren’t sick very often in my family when I was growing up. Long before it became television lifestyle expert truth, my parents believed that a reasonable exposure to the residents of the microscopic world via puppies, toad frogs and good honest dirt, would lead to a robust immune system. 

More importantly, they stressed hygiene where it mattered, especially when it came to the microscopic passengers carried and distributed by humans. I rarely saw either of my parents touch their faces when we were in public or traveling. They washed their hands frequently and required us to do the same, and if anything above the neck needed maintenance, there was always a tissue at hand. To this day (especially this day) I still use a bandana or, in a pinch, the inside of my shirtsleeve to wipe the corners of my eyes.  

The hygienic discipline of my parents was purchased at some cost. Both worked at Battey State Hospital in the 1950’s. Battey was a tuberculosis sanatorium, and hygiene was paramount. Discipline was draconian. All employees were tested regularly for exposure and infection.  

Battey was almost a city unto itself, and for the residents of nearby Rome, Georgia, it might as well have been on another planet. Employees of Battey were feared by local residents, and ostracized, so most of the people who worked there only socialized with other employees.  

There was good reason for fear, especially in the living memory at that time of the early 1900’s when tuberculosis killed one out of seven people living in the United States and Europe.  

TB has been contained, though not eliminated in the United States, but it remains the number one cause of death by infectious disease worldwide.  In 2018, 10 million people contracted tuberculosis and 1.5 million died from it. New strains of drug resistant TB have briefly made the headlines before being overwhelmed in the collective consciousness by other matters.  

Lately I’ve thought often about what my folks experienced and how the forgotten echoes of the recent past could better inform our attitudes today. We have never been too far away from epidemic or pandemic, either in distance or time span, and a fifth-grade knowledge of history reveals a long, unbroken planetary experience of adversity. HIV is a quite recent pandemic that is still with us. The Spanish Flu, Cholera, Yellow Fever, Malaria and Polio are all within living memory. Our parents and grandparents experienced them all with a depression and two world wars to boot.  

In a remarkably short time span when measured against the backdrop of history, it seems we have developed a habit of feeling put upon, singled out, victimized when adversity enters our lives, and as a nation, we have zero tolerance for uncertainty. I’m reminded of the words of an early mentor who walked across Holland alone when he was 14 to escape the Nazi occupation and find safety behind American lines. After living in this country for 40 years he observed, “Americans are living in the eye of the storm and they don’t know it. One day they will.” 

We breached the eye wall in September of 2001, and we may be approaching it again as the pandemic shows no clear sign of subsiding. South Korea contained the virus in 20 days, but here, the death toll continues to grow. We are divided once again along the same old fault lines as to how best to cope with the problem. Which will do the most harm, a paralyzed economy or a resurgence of the virus? Our “experts” don’t agree. Our leadership is divided against itself and celebrity politicians try to grab the spotlight as they call each other out.  

Our celebrity-media and Madison Avenue television commercials tell us, “We’re all in this together.” No. We’re not. None of the famous faces attempting to remain relevant are waiting for a $1200 government check and worrying about how they’re going to pay the mortgage in 90 days.  

All too soon, our attention will be forcibly diverted to politics again and we’ll be told that by voting right, or left, we can fix the problems we face and, by the way, we could have avoided them altogether if we had voted correctly the first time. The fate of the world will once again hang in the balance, and there is no one more gullible or easily manipulated than someone who is afraid or convinced they have been treated unfairly. 

I can’t tell you how not to be afraid if your Faith is not already sufficient to that end. I can’t tell you how not to be angry with or suspicious of leadership that seems to be perpetually untrustworthy and unreliable. I can tell you that our parents and grandparents survived much worse, and they did it without losing hope or their sense of humor or their enjoyment of life.  

In fact, there is a phrase that comes to mind that I think might be useful for anyone who is feeling like the universe has singled them out for special inconvenience, and it applies mainly to people with a lot of extra time on their hands because they haven’t figured out how to put their shoulders to the wheel and be of some service during these times. The phrase was born somewhere in Iraq among soldiers and marines carrying 40 lb packs in 130-degree heat. They would encourage each other with the phrase, “Embrace the suck.” Now it’s our turn.