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.  

The Price We Pay

Last week some of you thought that the observations about select members of my own generation were a bit harsh, and some thought they weren’t harsh enough. I think we can agree that poor judgment and selfish behavior are not confined to any one generation, and neither are sacrifice and good citizenship.

We’re another week further into the pandemic, and we’re seeing the range of behaviors we would expect. Sacrifices continue to be made for the public good, from the hazardous jobs on the front lines to the private citizens staying at home and exercising caution. At the other end of the spectrum we still have the selfish, mindless and even defiant behavior which is the all too human response to fear and hardship.

It can be argued that the latter behaviors are due, in part, to the weakness and indecisiveness in leadership which we’ve seen from the national to the local level across the country. A few weeks ago, for example, we were told there was no need for healthy people to wear a mask. Now we’re told that everyone who has to leave the home should wear a mask in public.

Some states immediately began imposing restrictions designed to limit the spread of the virus. Individual cities and counties followed suit, or acted on their own in the absence of state leadership. Others waited for the infection rate and death toll to climb before acting. (In the state of Georgia the governor says we have to stay home, but we can go to the beach.)

Many of us are frustrated with the fragmented, sometimes contradictory and often uncoordinated response of our leadership to the crisis. That (and this should never be forgotten by the remnant of Americans who look to individual liberty and not bigger government as the best long term solution to our problems), is unfortunately included in the price we pay for the freedoms remaining to us of our republic.

It takes a while for a democracy, or a democratic republic, to muster a coordinated response to any crisis. Authority is more evenly distributed downward, though we forget that sometimes in the shadow of the enormous bloat of our federal government. It’s easier for autocracies like China to act decisively, though few of us want to pay the price their citizens pay for the ability to make decisions quickly, especially when top down decisions are so often wrong. And unlike China, we will be given repeated opportunities to purge those leaders who failed us in this crisis, and I think we’ll be seeing a lot of incumbents losing their next election. In my opinion, many of them should be tossed out.

Here in the United States we’re also handicapped by the crisis of trust that we’ve discussed here before. We’ve lost our faith in “science”, not because we don’t believe in scientific fact, but because we don’t trust the people telling us what the facts are. We have decades of misinformation, marketing, spin and pure propaganda brought to us by our “wolf” crying celebrity talkers.

So lacking the best information available we make do with what we can gather, and we sort it with the inferior tools handed us by an educational system designed, not to produce thinkers and learners armed with logic and reasoning, but consumers and producers of goods and services for a society based on consumption.

One of the results of this mistrust is a growing number of resentful and suspicious people, chaffing under confinement and the sudden withdrawal of the drug of instant gratification, who have gone down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory to conclude that this is all some kind of hoax or manufactured crisis.

Granted, people in power never let a good crisis go to waste, which is an unforgettable lesson for anyone who remembers the world before 911. But this does not change the growing death toll from a dangerous and all too real threat. Ignore for the moment what the politicians and the talking heads are saying. Ask the nurse you know or the doctor you trust, and take note of the exhaustion and the deep, soul crushing concern that is beginning to take its toll on the best of us.

Mettle

The word “mettle” has fallen out of favor in many circles. A good working definition of the word is: “A person’s ability to cope well with difficulties or to face a demanding situation in a spirited and resilient way.” Courage, spirit, resolution and tenacity are excellent synonyms for “mettle.”

You won’t have to look far to find examples of people proving their mettle. If you’ve had an appointment with your doctor or been to a hospital recently, it was because someone proved their mettle. If you’ve had a delivery from your Fedex driver who’s been working 7 days a week, if you’ve picked up a dozen eggs delivered to the grocery store by an exhausted truck driver, or if you’ve been served by a police officer, an EMT or a firefighter who was trying to continue serving the public while protecting their health and the health of their families, you’ve seen people proving their mettle.

If you haven’t seen it, or acknowledged it, you have benefited from it nonetheless. It’s every place where people have squared their shoulders and stepped forward to fill the breach. All across the nation people are sacrificing, working longer hours and confronting dangerous situations to keep life as we know it as close to normal as possible. People are worried. They’re scared. They’re emotionally distraught. (After being confined at home with your kids what criticisms do you have for their teachers now?)

It is not given for everyone to be able to demonstrate mettle in as visible or as public a way as our medical professionals, civil servants and tradesmen who keep things running. Society is held together by countless beneficial individual choices that will never see the light of day. It may be that your opportunity to show your mettle is in your choice to shelter in place, to comply with the considered recommendations of the medical community through various levels of government, and to use common sense in public.

Many of us are doing that, and we will be the deciding factor between hardship and disaster.

Too many of us are not doing that. We are failing the mettle test, and if enough of us continue to fail, then disaster is inevitable.

Of course we are human and fallible, and history has demonstrated that when it comes to mettle, not everyone makes the cut, but the outcome of difficult times always depends on how many do. Humans, even at their best, are subject to rationalizing their fears and choosing accordingly. We’ve already seen the hoarding and the outbreaks of violence in those areas hardest hit by the pandemic. We’re also seeing another fear based behavior that threatens the vitality and the civility of small towns and rural areas like ours.

You see, small mountain towns like ours are at the end of the supply lines. That’s why our grocery prices are higher than larger towns that are better supplied. We are also last in line when it comes to getting resupplied. That’s why the meat section in our local grocery stores has been empty so often lately.

But that’s not the only reason. Small towns in out of the way places, with abundant hotel rooms, cabins and campgrounds, have seen an influx of “virus refugees” who have left the city thinking to somehow escape the pandemic. In some cases they have brought it with them. In many cases they have helped strip the shelves of needed food and supplies. In many cases they have abandoned a place with hospital beds and ventilators for a place with few or none, and they are a life flight away from the nearest facility that might help them.

Let’s digress for a moment so we can bring this problem into better focus. From where I stand, the problem is to a certain degree a generational problem, at least in our area, and my own generation bears a large part of the responsibility. I’m between what is commonly known as Gen X and Boomer, and my comments now are directed to the people who are also in that age range. If that makes you mad, take a moment and allow some blood to circulate to your brain.

I’m speaking now to people who are a bit older, perhaps more affluent, retired or financially able to pack up and relocate to another town for an extended stay. I’m sure there are plenty of 60 year old truck drivers, doctors, and civil servants who still have their shoulders to the wheel, but by and large the ongoing burden of this crisis is being borne by younger generations.

Disregard the popular videos of kids partying on Spring Break in defiance of caution and common sense. They are children, and doing stupid things is what children do. Children are not hoarding toilet paper. Millennials are still at work, doing double shifts at the hospital, driving delivery trucks, walking a beat. The elderly are sheltering in place or trapped in a nursing home and isolated from the love and support they need the most. It is the “mature” generations who are refusing to stay at home, who are taking virus vacations to small towns and buying up the groceries.

I’m sorry Gen Xers and Boomers, and I’m ashamed. I know this doesn’t apply to all of us, but it does apply to many. Art is long and time is fleeting…and this was probably our last chance as a generation to prove our mettle. It’s not too late…

Here We Are

“Today the flu season is an inconvenience for most of us. It will be a death sentence for some. Some day the stakes may be higher when a pandemic stalks the public spaces.”

We wrote that in December of last year, and we’ve had similar discussions here several times over the years. It was an easy prediction, like saying the stock market will crash. Eventually you’re going to be right. But here we are, not only stalked by a virus we don’t fully understand, but by fear and human nature that we understand all too well.

This isn’t the first pandemic we’ve faced. HIV is an ongoing problem. The Hong Kong Flu killed one million people in 1968. The Asian Flu killed 2 million in 1956 through 1958. The Spanish Flu killed between 20 and 50 million in 1918. History offers us a perspective that can have a sobering influence.

However, we are breaking new ground with Covid 19. It isn’t flu. It’s a brand new bug and we don’t have centuries of herd immunity built into our immune systems to help us fight it. We don’t fully understand how the virus spreads. We know it can stay airborne for up to 3 hours, like the flu. We know it can survive on stainless steel and plastic for days. There is no vaccine or cure, and we can only guess how this situation will unfold.

We’re not here to go over the same ground that has been well traveled over the last few weeks. There has been little else in the news or on social media. What we’re here to talk about is the lessons we can take away from all this, and if the crisis ended tomorrow, there would already be important ones.

We’ll start with the crisis of trust that has been so evident during the last several weeks. While schools, nursing homes and public venues close all around us, as people are infected and quarantined and the death toll mounts, there are still those who scoff and say that this is some kind of hoax or conspiracy.

One can almost…almost understand the mistrust. It’s the boy who cried wolf. It’s a government, a cadre of corporate media, a capital full of corrupt and immature politicians who have lied so often and for so long that when they do tell us the truth, we still doubt it.

Worse still, we’re losing the ability to discern truth, to sift the facts and weigh differing opinions and with logic and reasoning, discover the truth for ourselves.

I don’t know the solution, but education must be part of it, and I don’t mean education in terms of testing or grades, but a philosophy of education that teaches reasoning and discernment and imparts tools for a lifetime of continued learning.

The problem is that education is paralyzed by politics. Science is paralyzed by politics. Everything from climate to health is measured, not by facts, but by political affiliation. Politics has infected everything it touches, and the disease vectors are corporate and social media.

The second takeaway in this crisis so far is the crisis in citizenship. Have you tried to buy toilet paper lately? Bottled water? Canned tomatoes? These and other items have disappeared from shelves across the country. “I got mine,” and the next person is on their own. Unfortunately the next person can’t afford to hoard. The next person is on a fixed income or lives paycheck to paycheck, and when that check comes in on Friday, there’s no bread on the shelves because you and your neighbor bought a dozen loaves “just in case.”

The next few weeks are going to be difficult for some of us. Not for everyone. Some of us have been “social distancing” for a long time. We prefer small groups of family and friends and long walks outdoors, on the mountain or by the lake. We enjoy the stillness of the morning and the last song of the birds as the sun goes behind the mountain. That’s why we moved here in the first place.

But we have become the exceptions. Americans are not programmed to be comfortable in their own head space. We are conditioned for perpetual stimulus and distraction and consumption. We have to keep moving. We have to be entertained. We have to shop. With the stunning natural beauty of this land all around us, how many will make an unneeded trip to the grocery store and have a meal out because “there’s nothing else to do?” This is the person who goes to the movies when they’re sneezing with a cold because being home is “driving me crazy.”

The next few weeks holds an opportunity for that person, because selfish behavior now can risk someone’s life like few times in our history. This is an opportunity to quiet that incessantly programmed internal dialogue, the hallmark of our addiction to distraction and consumption. This is an opportunity to develop some spiritual muscle. We are well trained in how to do, but we have forgotten how to be.

Is it not telling of our current state that when faced with a crisis, instead of turning to our faith, to God, to our neighbors and our community, we put our faith in toilet paper and bottled water?

This crisis will pass. There is already evidence that hot weather and humidity can slow or halt the spread of the virus. If that’s true, we here in the South have got it licked. But in the meantime, let’s take advantage of this opportunity to disconnect from the normal distractions, to spend some quality time with our families, and though we can’t visit them right now, don’t forget to call that family member confined to the nursing home. Social distancing is hardest on them.

There is a pathway through this time of trouble. To scoff and to panic are both equally wrong. The way through is to exercise due caution and to stay informed without becoming infected by the marketing of panic that always accompanies breaking news. Stay safe out there, and take advantage of this opportunity for self reflection.

What Have We Lost?

This week we’re fortunate to hear from our friend, Marty Levine, a native of Gainesville, GA who lives in Texas and enjoys writing about the issues of the day. Marty brings a wide variety of experience to the table as a world traveler in the corporate world and a loving husband and father who enjoys spending time at home with his diverse hobbies.

What Have We Lost ?

In going through some of my Father’s belongings I ran across a little book in which his mother, my Grandmother, Ethel Levine wrote a brief autobiography of her life. My grandparents were born of first-generation Swedish immigrants with my grandfather Irving from Minnesota and my grandmother Ethel from Chicago. Their parents came to America with nothing but what they were wearing in the late 1800’s, and through hard work on farms and in trades such as bricklaying were able to provide for their large families. My grandparents met in Chicago in the early 1920’s and married in 1925. My father Erland was born in 1926 in Chicago where my grandfather worked in cabinetry.

The three paragraphs below are direct excerpts from my grandmother’s little autobiography. I have added a few parenthetical points for clarity. The scene starts in 1933 Chicago, in the depths of the Great Depression when my grandparents where 30 and my father a boy of 7.

“Irving was out of work for a year or more and did odd jobs for Pete Jacobson from Reliance Company. Pete’s sister was our neighbor. Pete and some friends decided to perfect a process to that would take the fine gold out of the hills of Auraria, Georgia (near Dahlonega) and they needed someone to build pump houses, a home and a machine shop and hired Irving and sent him to Georgia in February 1933.

“Erland and I stayed with Pete’s sister Louise Reinhoffer and I helped her with housework. I also had a job at a factory making penlights. I gave her some of my money to help pay for Erland and my board. Irving was supposed to get room and board and seven weeks spending money for us when he went to Georgia. In August 1933 Pete Jacobson gave Erland and I fare to get to Georgia. We stayed at the camp until 1936. The last year or so we were alone. Groceries were paid for by Reliance – a small check once in a while. We were supposed to get $20 per month for looking after the place.

“A tornado hit Gainesville (Georgia) on April 6, 1936 and Irving went to Gainesville and asked for work at Chambers Lumber Company. He drove there every day (over an hour drive) until June or July when we found an apartment at 736 West Washington. Then Irving wrote to Jacobson and asked them to get someone else in his place (at the mine). They sent us a check for $100 after months of no money. We saved the $100 to pay down a little on some furniture.”

As I read through this account it occurred to me how much we have lost as Americans in the last 80 years. We have piled on wealth, and unfortunately debt as well. We labor hard to obtain little luxuries and then lose ourselves in distraction with media, sports and the like. Would any of us have the pluck to do what may Grandfather did in 1933 ? At a young age he had developed – with only an 8th grade education – the skills to build a gold mining operation in the middle-of -nowhere Georgia. He left the comfort of the Scandinavian neighborhood of Chicago to live and work amongst the mountain folk of North Georgia. He left his young family for a time and then when he had shelter in place, moved them down to join him. His good character and skills encouraged those of more means to provide him – albeit often meager – support. He relied upon no government support, no unearned handouts. There were no concerns about more than basic health care, college tuition and the like – these were not only in short supply, they were simply out of reach. And yet, my grandparents and then my parents prospered by applying the abilities God gave them to build a life their ancestors could only dream of.

Yet as I read today’s headlines I am jarred out of nostalgia by the realization that millions of Americans are keen to give socialism a chance. I am hopeful that those so inclined are simply ignorant of history and economics and will in time come to their senses. Sure, our nation has unequal distributions of wealth – this condition has existed through all history and will continue. History has also proven to us that socialism does not solve this at all. The pie gets smaller for everyone, except for the elite few who run the show. Using socialism to solve societal ills is a bit like shooting yourself in the head to cure a headache. It is an economic system that so goes against our basic drive for individual prosperity and thus when perfected, creates a state of collective ennui.

What has happened that so many of us have become so weak, so hopeless, so helpless, so incapable of caring for ourselves and those in their care ? For me, at least, supporting such schemes goes against every life lesson instilled by my ancestors. I will resist to my dying breath those who demand I cash in my freedom to fund schemes to build a better society for others, many of whom are just looking for free stuff. Our American society was built by people like my grandparents, who did not set out to build a better society at all – yet they did. They only sought to responsibly build a better life for those in their care. Thus, their contribution to creating a better society was not having need of a society to contribute to their betterment. The greatest societies, as it turns out, are built upon the character of those who simply take care of their little corner of the world. They know the cost and can revel in any success they have authored.

A final irony is that a key premise of socialism is that Darwinian evolution must be true, and with this survival of the fittest, a rather capitalist sounding notion. An assent to socialism thus requires one to admit they would be extinct without the support of a colony. This model being best displayed in social creatures like ants and termites, who spend their meager lives piling on largess for a few elite drones and a queen, which is, of course, the very picture of socialism. And for humans, endowed with free will, that is never the recipe for a great society.

Stories That Grow Faith

There are ancient stories which are as pertinent today as they were when they were first spoken; stories that inspire, stories that grow faith, that inform us, caution and amuse us. These stories survive the passage of time because they speak truth about human nature, and that nature doesn’t change, no matter how society or technology does.

Other stories are just as relevant but better understood within the context of their times. In my family we have several stories like that. A lifelong resident of our area or anyone who grew up in a rural community would need no further explanation, but for our younger friends and our friends from the city, let me take you back in time.

If you moved here from the urban cliff dwellings or from any place where traffic and congestion are commonplace, you might, even today, feel isolated and far from the beaten path when you look at the mountains around us. You might find it hard to understand when those of us with a living memory of unbroken ridgelines and clear running steams look at the same mountains with more than a little sadness.

There are some few still among us, however, with a living memory that stretches even further, back to a time before electricity came to this area, a time when there were more dirt roads than paved ones. Among that precious few are people who had a parent or a grandparent with a living memory of a time when some of our mountain valleys were little changed from the days of the first non- native settlers to our area. This is a story from that time.

It’s hard for us to conceive of the hardships that were commonplace to the early residents of the Southern Appalachians. Entire communities lived days away from hospitals or medical help, even if they could have afforded such. Many farms were almost entirely self reliant for food, clothing and shelter. Cash was always in short supply, and carefully reserved for things that could not be produced at home, like nails, salt, sugar and the occasional visit from the itinerant doctor. The biggest need for cash every year was likely to be for taxes. Indeed, some things never change.

I think my grandfather had something in common with Daniel Boone, who once said that when he could see the smoke from his neighbor’s chimney, it was time to move. When my grandparents were newlyweds, he chose a beautiful and isolated cove to build their first home. The cove was at the end of a box canyon, protected from the wind on all sides by ridge-lines, but with a southern exposure for maximum sunlight. The house was built on a small knoll with a gentle slope. The knoll was bordered on three sides by creeks and a bold spring where he built a springhouse for water and natural refrigeration.

There was not a neighbor within sight or sound, and a single lane tunneling through a quarter mile of mountain laurel led to a one lane dirt road and then about 12 more miles of dirt road into Hiawassee. To this day, that cove is still hidden by mountain laurel and as quiet as a whisper of wind.

Being isolated didn’t mean that our ancestors were not social. They depended on their neighbors and friends and their community churches and they achieved a level of interdependence and trust rarely seen in our society today.

Being isolated also did not spare them from the ravages of poorly understood diseases which occasionally plagued our mountain communities. My grandmother in her 96 years had seen influenza or “the grip,” as they called it, typhoid, cholera, scarlet fever, diphtheria and dysentery. The graveyards of our older mountain cemeteries are dotted with the infant graves of many who succumbed to those diseases.

Soon after my grandparents had settled into their new cabin, and before they had their first child, typhoid fever came to Upper Hightower. This would have been about 1914/1915. Several of the neighbors came down with the fever, and even the doctor was sick.

My grandparents got the fever in the fall, and over time they became progressively weaker. With sick neighbors and the doctor out of commission, the system of interdependence the community depended on was severely threatened.

Normally at that time of year my grandparents would have been busy putting away stores for the winter, cutting firewood, butchering a hog and hunting game. They would have had some canned goods they could have eaten while they were sick and too weak to do anything else, but as my grandfather told the story, after several days growing weaker without any protein, he was beginning to wonder whether they would survive.

Typhoid fever puts you flat on your back with migraine-level headaches and severe cramps. Grandpa said they slept as much as they could, and as they grew progressively weaker, they would pass out in bed until they woke up again and tried to get a little water to drink. After sleeping for most of one day, he said he woke up and prayed that if the Good Lord willed it, he was ready to go home, but if not, they sure could use a little help.

Just then he said he heard the sound of squirrels barking in a big black walnut tree across the clearing from the cabin. He forced himself up out of bed and staggered over to get his shotgun down off the rack. His head swam with the effort and he fell down, but when he came to, he could still hear those squirrels barking.

Grandpa said it felt like it took an hour to stagger across that clearing, using his shotgun as a support. When he got to the base of the walnut tree, he collapsed with his back against the tree and passed out again. The sun was starting to go down behind the mountain, and with his head swimming he was having a hard time seeing the squirrels in the tree.

When he realized that he had with him only the two shells in chamber of the double barreled shotgun, Grandpa said he prayed again and said, “Lord, I can’t do this by myself.” He raised the gun, his head swam and he closed his eyes and pulled both triggers.

Two squirrels fell dead out of the tree.

Hope is a tonic, and Grandpa said the trip back to the cabin was a lot shorter. He was able to skin the squirrels and help Grandma cook them up, and he said it was the best meal they ever ate. It gave them the needed strength to keep going, and helped grow the faith that sustained both of them into their late nineties.