Commitment

The making and keeping of commitments is a basic requirement for a civil society. Civilization falls apart when people stop keeping promises.

On a personal level, keeping commitments is necessary for self-esteem. In addition to keeping the promises we make to others, we need to keep the promises we make to ourselves, like sticking to that diet, or getting up an hour earlier to work out.

We’re not suggesting that commitment has completely disappeared. Every day of the week millions of people show up for work on time. But in a nation led by a proprietary investiture of celebrity and corporatism with the power to choose our future, the making and keeping of commitments does not seem as important, or stylish as it once was.

Greed, and the monetization of human life might offer a partial explanation. The prevalence of inferior products sold to consumers, from pharmaceutical drugs to cheap appliances, speaks volumes on the ascendancy of profit over integrity.

The replacement of religion and spirituality by secular relativism also contributes to an “anything goes” attitude. What is a commitment when there is no right or wrong? When truth is dependent on context? “I never promised that! You must have misunderstood me!”

Let’s bring the issue home with a story to which I understand many of you can relate.

Recently we began searching for a contractor to help us with a home improvement project after we reached the limits of our amateur ability.

We have some of the best artisans you could hope to find in our area – and some that are not the best. The building economy here has improved somewhat in the last couple of years. It’s nothing like the glory days before the crash in ’08, but it’s better than it was.

Therefore we were hopeful we could find someone to help us out, and prepared to wait until our job could be scheduled. We began by calling potential contractors with numbers collected from bulletin boards, internet ads and personal referrals. We had a long list of numbers in the beginning, about twenty five all together.

Of the twenty five contacts we started with, about five did not answer their phones (and a business that will not answer the phone will not be a business for long). We eventually spoke with about twenty different people over a period of four weeks.

Of that twenty,  four told us up front that they were currently too busy, but they would like to be considered for future projects. Three said that they didn’t do the kind of work we needed. Fair enough.

Of the remaining thirteen, seven did not call back after our initial conversation. That left six contractors who actually followed up. Two of those “went dark” and stopped returning calls or emails.

Of the original twenty five contacts, we were left with only four who agreed to submit a bid for our job. Two of those failed to show up for an appointment, and they both “went dark” as well. The remaining two actually came out to do an estimate. One of those missed his deadline for turning in a bid, asked for a few more days, and then missed that deadline too.

The last man standing answered every call, replied to every email, showed up on time and turned in his bid on time.  He kept every commitment he made. Guess who got the job.

The contractor we hired told us “You would be surprised at the number of jobs we get simply because a lot of contractors won’t return phone calls. I mean, how long does it take to pick up the phone and say ‘yes or no’ or ‘not now but I can do it later?'”

Speaking now as a former contractor, a word to the wise for the next generation of artisans, and to a few veterans who seem to have forgotten the basics. When you are self employed, working in our area can be feast or famine. It’s frustrating when you have committed to a small job and a bigger opportunity comes along, but the bills need to be paid, so you do what you have to do and you take the second job. It’s easy to become over-committed trying to juggle all your obligations, and if you spread yourself too thin, the quality of your work suffers. At some point, you have more commitments than you have time.

This is the point where accountability comes into play. You need to let your customers know what’s going on, and somebody is going to be disappointed. Unfortunately, it seems that some of you believe that it’s better to say nothing to a customer than to say “no,” as if by ignoring that customer the opportunity to do the job will somehow be preserved for the future.

This is magical thinking. The worst thing you can do in customer relations is to ignore the customer. The second worst thing you can do is to make a commitment and then fail to keep it. Communication, however, will often bring forgiveness. Most people are reasonable when you explain why you’re not available or why the job is taking longer than anticipated. But if you ignore your customers or leave them hanging, they will not forget it, because they all know that in the age of information there is no excuse for failing to communicate.

When you have all the work you want, it’s easy to assume that you will always be busy, or that you can afford to disregard your customers from time to time because you can always get more work. This is a fantasy. Reputation and trust is vital to building a successful business, and our area is small enough that everything you do that affects your reputation will be magnified.

In a perfect world, you would keep your commitments because it’s the right thing to do, but if you have rationalized your way around that, nothing we can say will change your mind. Consider this, however:  People will always reason that the inability to keep the small commitments, like returning phone calls and emails and getting bids in on time, is a sign that you will be unable to keep the big ones. If you won’t keep your commitments for the sake of honor, consider keeping them for the sake of your own self-interest.

 

 

 

A Moment of Clarity

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day can be the most enjoyable time of the year. The kids and the grand kids are still home from school and busy making the holiday memories they will cherish the rest of their lives. The decorations are still up and the gifts are still new, but the panic is gone, and mom and dad can relax and enjoy a bit of what they worked so hard to put together.

With the new year fast approaching we become reflective, or some semblance of that in our culture which moves so rapidly, skimming over the surface of the events of our time. We made a lot of history this year, but it’s hard to see clearly when it’s still so close at hand.

All too soon the hyper-connected routines of modern life will return and we will be fully engaged by latest sensations that distract us from the struggle of rolling our stones. Perhaps now, while our engines idle and our transmission is in park, we can think about what we learned this year. We’re going to need those lessons.

Partisanship divided the nation again in 2017, driven by the same old desires for power and the greed which has plagued humanity since the beginning of time. The lesson we can carry forward is this: Politics is a defective tool for informing our worldview.

We were so angry and positional this year that our moments of clarity were few, but some of us were able to see that belief can function in the brain like an addictive drug, and anything which threatens to deny us our fix can cause turmoil. Those who know this can manipulate; those who do not are vulnerable.  The struggle attempts to resolve itself as a pendulum which swings between social and political extremes, and we rarely pause to consider who keeps winding that clock. We had a rare glimpse of the clock-winders in 2017, and we need to remember that going forward.

We had an opportunity this year to mature as a culture. Many who have been victimized by the powerful were themselves empowered to speak up and to speak truth to that power. The lesson we were given was that the constant parade of celebrity, pounding out the drum beat that urges us to follow, is a parade of flawed humans with clay feet. We do not have to allow these poor players who strut and fret among the pixels that rule our days and nights to lead us anywhere. They do not represent us. They do not decide our values. They are not the face of our nation, merely a poor reflection.

We would be well advised to enter the new year with this lesson: that the dramas of virtual reality and our unexamined beliefs do not always, or often, represent what is real and true in this world.

Going forward, it would behoove us to remember this also: When anyone, no matter how “trusted” the source may be, begins a conversation with “The liberals” or “the conservatives,” are this or that, the quality of the thought which produces that statement is as flawed as the thinking which produces generalizations that begin with “the blacks,” or “the Jews” or “the Auburn fans.” Despite our scientific achievements and technological savvy, we have allowed the polluted river of prejudice to escape its traditional boundaries of race and class and national origin and flood the political landscape as well, demonstrating  a level of cultural maturity equal to the days when left handed people were accused of witchcraft.

If we are to move forward, we must take these lessons to heart. The author, Jonathan Rauch, provides us a useful guide for the dramas that will be presented in the upcoming year:  “A liberal society stands on the proposition that we should all take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. This means we must place no one, including ourselves, beyond the reach of criticism; it means that we must allow people to err, even where the error offends and upsets, as it often will.”

 

A Time of Celebration

We love this time of year, and the commingling of memories both personal and ancestral. No one knows how many centuries humans waited anxiously during the darkening days until the sun reversed its course on the Winter Solstice. The spirit of western civilization  huddles by the fire in the long dark nights of countless northern winters long ago, but our soul looks south and east. So it is that about this time every December,  we join snowflakes and Christmas trees to a manger at the edge of a desert in a land holy to three great Faiths.

Some would pick apart our celebrations, our devotions and our decorations, our shopping sprees, office parties and school vacations and say “too commercial.” Others might debate the merits of “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas.” There’s a war on, we hear.

But there have been no casualties in this family. The Yule log warms our feet as we remember the birth of Christ. We welcome Chanukah, and the festival of lights commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after the epic defeat of the Seleucids.

Bring on Kwanzaa, a newcomer to our holiday season,  created in 1966 in response to the commercialization of Christmas. Kwanzaa is not an “African” holiday, as many believe; it is purely American, and it honors the cultures of the African diaspora in America and other lands. Kwanzaa celebrates unity, self-determination, community, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

We will even tip our hat to those who observe “Festivus,” a farcical celebration lampooning all of our holidays, with fictional feats of strength and the airing of grievances (a year round observance for some). Festivus was created entirely by humor for humor’s sake, and there is always room for that. Is it any less arbitrary than starting the new year on January 1st in the dead of winter?

In truth, the holiday season for many of us begins with Thanksgiving and extends all the way through the 12th day of Christmas, for it is during Thanksgiving that we are reminded of an essential element to carry with us through the holidays and into the new year:  gratitude.

We are grateful for all our reasons to celebrate, and for the ability to do so. We are grateful for family and friends, the ones who are with us still, and the ones who have gone on ahead. We’re grateful for our long suffering readers in a beautiful and special place where some of the best people we have ever known make their homes.

A Word of Thanks

It’s Sunday morning and the power just came back on. It was out for most of the last two days and nights, and while I’m grateful for its return, I’m also somewhat pensive.

We slept well last night. The phone was out and the Internet was down. We spent the evening around the fire talking, reading,  and playing dominoes. There was no need to reach for the smartphone. There was nothing to post on facebook.

Did you notice how much quieter the house gets when the power is out? There is nothing to buzz or whir or ping, like the constant sound of the refrigerator running or the heat pump moaning or all those background noises that we don’t notice until they’re gone.

Did you notice how bright the stars were last night? The ubiquitous flood lights, security lights, street lights and signs were all dark, and the full glory of the skies, absent the pollution of modern distractions, was revealed.

Did you enjoy the brief vacation from hyper-connectivity, or were you too busy calling the power company to complain and fretting about the battery level of your smart phone?

The vast majority of those of us who live in these mountains admire the men and women who keep our lights on and who put themselves into harm’s way when the weather darkens our doors. We are concerned for their safety. We know that they work as hard as is humanly possible to restore power during an outage, and they don’t just work for us – they are us. Each and every one with family and friends just as inconvenienced as the next person.

Yet every time we have a widespread outage it seems that there is a vocal minority in need of an attitude adjustment, a few self absorbed individuals who would benefit greatly from a widening of their perspectives.

I have several suggestions for this minority, although the newspaper will only print a few of them.

So, if you were one of the folks yelling at the young people on the phone who spent the night at the power company to take your calls, or if you forgot about the linemen who didn’t see their families for two or three days, who went out in the snow and sawed limbs, climbed poles or pulled wire 100 feet off the ground in the middle of the night, here is what I suggest:

First of all, I want you to wait until it’s about 20 degrees outside. Pull on some heavy boots and put on your overcoat. Now I want you to go outside and stand. We won’t even require that you do any work – no sawing, no loading and unloading trucks, no climbing. Just stand there. Ideally there will be some form of frozen precipitation falling, but any frigid night will do.

Stand there for at least four hours. Are you getting hungry yet? Are your feet aching? Don’t go back inside. We’ll have a cold biscuit for you that you can eat while sitting in your vehicle. Eat every crumb, because you’ll need to go right back out into the cold for another six hours or so.

Are you beginning to get a feel for the experience of a lineman? Good, but you’re not done yet. You need to spend the night on a cot or a bunk bed, then get up the next morning about 5 AM and repeat what you just did.

“But I pay a lot of money for my power bill, so I have a right to complain.” Right. You pay for the electricity you use at the same rate as everyone else. If you have lived here for 20-30 years, it’s just possible that you may have finally paid for your part of the infrastructure, the lines, poles and transformers necessary to bring power to your home. So if the right to complain is based on some kind of dollar parity, and if you have only lived here for a short time, then you need to shut up.

For those of you new to these mountains, and for some longtime residents who may have forgotten, storms and outages like the one we just experienced can happen at any time from now through March. It might be a good idea to get a little extra firewood. You might want to fill up a few water jugs and buy some fresh batteries. Have you checked your generator lately? Can you close your eyes and lay your hands on a flashlight?

As for the rest of us, the ones who were born here, the ones who sacrificed to be here, or who came from far away be part of this mountain life, we’ll be shaking the hand of the next person we see wearing that green ball, and thanking them (and the folks in law enforcement, fire and rescue who work the same hours) and wishing them well. It’s not even winter yet, and we may need their help again.

Gentlemen

We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.  C.S. Lewis

 

With the waning of interest in professional football it has been suggested that the oddsmakers could recoup their losses by taking bets on who the next celebrity will be to stand accused of sexual misconduct.

For two or three generations the word, “celebrity” brought to mind an actor or filmmaker, but we use it today to include the continuous parade of politicians and pundits and the entire menagerie of personalities and stars to which we have ceded the national will and consciousness.

Wave after wave of  headlines shout out new accusations, revelations or condemnations, as more and more women, and men, are emboldened, might we say, empowered, to speak up.

Unfortunately, our attention span has become such an ephemeral thing. When we are flooded with information, as we are now, with one scandal stacked on top of another, we quickly lose track of fact and interpretation. We lose interest, and we seek distraction. At this time in our history we run the risk of losing the narrative entirely, and it is a vitally important narrative.

It’s as if two alternative timelines for the future of our culture are forming. On the path that we hope we’ll take, we will have evolved to the point where people are less afraid to speak truth to power, where truth and reason and the rule of law prevail over brute force, not just in the courtroom, but in our homes and businesses as well.

And brute force is exactly what we are talking about. All along the continuum between the brutal insensitivity of rape and the hypersensitivity of micro-aggression lies the intention to exercise power over another human being. A civil society keeps that intention in check.

If we are lucky, the ongoing revelations represent a leveling up of our collective consciousness and our  rejection of  brutality. The effect will be systemic and far reaching, and our grandchildren will live in a better world because of it.

If we are not so lucky, the pendulum of public anger and opinion will swing so widely that it damages the clockworks. It’s happened many times before. We are quite capable of going from the roaring 20’s to prohibition in less than one generation.

Without a thoughtful read of history, it’s easy to forget how that clock does actually work. The reason which designed the elaborate gear mechanism and the laws that define the escapement of the complicated clockworks of our society are useless without the pull of a weight or the tension of a spring, or one might also say, the brute force, which makes the clock run.

In other words, in our zeal to signal our collective virtue, let’s stop well short of an outright neutering of what is masculine in our culture.  We may think that we’ve outgrown the alpha male, but without him our species would have died out long ago in the days of the megafauna. Without him we would soon discover that all of the noblest ideals of our better natures would be little defense against a planet which has demonstrated over and over again the power of brute force.

Once again we strive for a middle path where strength and compassion are not mutually exclusive. Men used to have an unofficial code for navigating that path. We once referred to  those who followed such a code as “gentlemen,” and we need them now more than ever.

The concept of the gentleman will be foreign to some, and others may confuse the term with one of the caricatures offered by the theater, but should you find it necessary to explain the word to someone, a gentleman gives all women equally the same respect that he would ideally give to his mother, sister or daughter. It really is that simple.

 

 

 

 

Like Thanksgiving

The weather finally feels right for the time of year, but it’s a little confusing. August felt like September, and then in October we had more of the June weather that should have come in July. It’s November now, but just a few days ago the frogs were croaking in our frog pond and the grass is as green as it was in May.

I saw the first Halloween decorations in the stores in August, and Christmas decorations showed up two weeks before Halloween. The calendar says Thanksgiving is this week, but the year cannot possibly be this old. Was it really over a year ago that we were recovering from historic wildfires in the mountains?

That feeling of time slipping by unnoticed is becoming more common. It’s a side effect of our hyper-connected culture and technology which affects our brains like drugs and alcohol, though the “blackout” is not as intense or debilitating.

Let’s take Facebook, for example. For all its positive benefits in enabling people to stay in touch, a significant amount of study has gone into getting us to spend as much time as possible using the platform and contributing content.

Here’s how that works: We post a picture or a comment and we look to see how many comments and “likes” we get. For every little red number we see, we get a small hit of dopamine. In the brain, exactly the same reward pathway is stimulated when we eat chocolate or use cocaine, and it’s also addictive.

A case can be made that any activity can be addictive. We release neuropeptides and create new neural pathways when we take drugs, but we also do that every time we learn something, or experience an emotion.  Addiction happens when we create neural pathways which cause us pain when they are not regularly maintained.

How many people can go to sleep now without checking that smart phone one more time? I dare you. See if you can do it without feeling at least a little bit unsettled, or making an excuse to look for that important message – at 11 o’clock at night.

The vast majority of human history was spent in close contact with the natural world and its rhythms. Time moved more slowly. Its passage was measured by the movement of celestial bodies, the sun , the moon and the stars.

We lived our lives in sync with those natural rhythms. They told us when to plant and when to harvest. Holidays were so much more than ritualized shopping extravaganzas. The Winter Solstice was vitally important because it marked the return of the sun after its long retreat, and the other major observances of the year, the Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice and Autumnal Equinox, reflected the movement of the earth itself on its long journey around the Sun.

As science and technology replaced myth and magic, we became detached from the origins of our natural observances. We invented new holidays to mark the year. They were just as important to us, for they reflected our values, our beliefs and our history.

The holidays no longer circumscribe the year. Now the passage of time is measured by the next opportunity to binge-watch our favorite television series. One holiday runs into the next. Every day is Black Friday, but there is no darkness at night, no rest, and no escape from the hive mind. We’re afraid of the dark, and we can’t see the stars anymore.

The large part of humanity which is technologically savvy today is entering the undiscovered country. We have disconnected, some of us permanently, from the natural rhythms of the earth. We have been drawn into an addictive, hyper-connected union which provides continuous stimulation and distraction, and it happened so quickly that we have no idea of the long term implications for our species. We are losing our sense of the passage of time, of historical context, of our national identity and even our sense of self.

We have a wonderful opportunity to reverse that trend every Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is about gratitude, and nothing is more effective than gratitude for centering us in the here-and-now. This holiday celebrates and renews the bonds of family and friendship. It is a quintessentially American holiday, and it comes without the religious and political baggage which has graffitied some of our other, more commercialized observances.

We invite you to disconnect from the Matrix this Thanksgiving. Savor every moment, every bite of stuffing, every conversation, and every nap. Look around the table and cherish the faces you see there. Remember the empty chairs, and speak the names of the departed to keep their memories alive. Know that there will be more empty chairs as the years go by, and no amount of “likes” will ever fill them.

 

 

Curators

The amount of information available today can be confusing. It is intimidating to some, and overwhelming to others. The newspaper we hold in our hands is almost archaic in a world that clicks, pokes and swipes, heads down, shoulders slumped, eyes glazed – constantly connected in an endless search for stimulation and distraction.

Everything that we are inclined to believe is supported somewhere on the Internet. Every fear, every fallacy, every prejudice is presented somewhere as fact, and we are losing the tools of discernment necessary to discover the truth. Many colleges no longer offer classes in logic, and in the rarefied air of some “academic” circles,  even mathematics, the purest of the sciences, is considered “racist.”

History does not move in straight lines. The only thing new in the paragraphs above is the technology which ushered in this age of information. Past generations also struggled to discover the truth, because propaganda and institutionalized deception have always been with us.

Past generations read newspapers, books and magazines. They listened to the radio. They watched the nightly news on one of the three major networks. They relied on classical education, which emphasized grammar, logic and rhetoric, and the common sense available to an untroubled mind, to discern the truth of what they saw and heard.

Were they any closer to the truth back then, before the Internet, before we all became part of the “Matrix?” Perhaps not. Governments and corporations lied then as they do now. Woodrow Wilson sanctioned propaganda depicting Germans as bestial savages to manipulate U.S. citizens into supporting war against Germany in WWI. Prior to our entry into WWII, Roosevelt goaded the Japanese to war while preaching peace at home. We allowed empire builders to lead us into war with North Korea and North Vietnam. More doctors smoked Camels than any other cigarette. We were encouraged to embrace “better living through chemistry.”

Much was hidden from us in the days before the Internet. The mainstream media looked the other way on many of the indiscretions and peccadillos of past presidents, politicians and celebrities. Every aspect of every life was not surveilled and recorded. Though we had better personal tools for discovering truth, we had much less information with which to work.

Technology has revealed much about the past that was overlooked or intentionally obscured. Thanks, in part, to technology, there is no place to hide today in Hollywood – or anywhere else.  Everyone who carries a smart phone, and that includes the majority of U.S. citizens now, is a reporter, with a hand-held microphone and film crew and an instant connection to the world wide web. Every bit of information that is stored digitally is vulnerable to discovery, as hackers have easily kept pace with new forms of encryption.

So how does one endeavor to  deceive when it is impossible to hide information for very long? Truth is sometimes hidden in plain sight. Often it is obscured by the noise, as it is hard to discern a single note in a cacophony.  Politicians obscure truth by manipulating the cognitive bias of their supporters, who sometimes find it just as hard to change their minds as it would be to fight an addiction.

There is a simple but profound reason for that:  Belief can function in the brain in much the same way as addiction. Challenge a person’s beliefs, threaten their world view, and it causes them pain. They often react with anger or desperation, like a junkie denied a fix.

Where does that leave us, dear readers? Ignorance, they say, is bliss, but ignorance can be dangerous. By the same token, seeking too hard after truth can threaten our peace of mind and ultimately our good health. How can we be well informed without getting lost in the electronic Babel, without sacrificing peace of mind to the constant emergency of broken news?

The “ancients,” (our parents and grandparents) had part of the answer: Grammar. Logic. Rhetoric. The ability to understand, reason and communicate. It is never too late to learn, or to refresh these tools, and though modern education emphasizes short term memory with the goal of passing tests, nothing prevents us from teaching our children and grandchildren about these essentials.

Beyond these basic tools for continuing education, we must become curators of our own minds and our own experiences. We must decide for ourselves what is true and what is not, what has value and what does not. We must remain forever skeptical of any person or institution which purports to tell us that the world is this way or that way.

It is certainly easier to be entertained. But if we become so easily and habitually entertained, then we will also be easily frightened, easily angered and easily manipulated.