Letting Go

We hear a lot about the wisdom of letting go. Letting go is often recommended by daytime television hosts and their guests. It’s almost a panacea for all the ailments of modern life.

There are, of course, many things that should be let go, and some of them the quicker, the better. There is nothing to be gained from holding on to a grudge, a bad relationship or an angry cat.  We appreciate the old adage about how holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal and expecting it to burn someone else.

We do hold on to our memories, at least the ones that help us. If we are lucky enough to survive into old age with our memories intact, or if we live so long that we have more memories than we have family or friends, we don’t just hold those memories, we cling to them like the life preserver they have become.

As is the case with so many of the choices that make up our lives, we seek a middle path, and we don’t worry too much about popular opinions and catch phrases. We hang on to the memories that help us. We let go of the ones that don’t, or that no longer have anything to teach us.

These are the things we think of as we’re sorting through the contents of the old family home and preparing for an estate sale. The old house holds many memories, and we’re beginning to understand how people can become pack rats when they get a little older. “Things” are just things, granted,  but some things preserve memories and focus them. Our parents saved things from their own childhood as well as ours. Old toys, children’s books, tools and trinkets, all carefully wrapped and labeled and packed away in the hope, perhaps, that someone some day would unwrap them and remember.

The pocket knife your dad always carried, the one he peeled apples with, and cut walking sticks when he hiked with you in the woods, that knife is more than just a thing.  Your mom’s sewing kit that she always brought out when she mended your jeans or added a new decoration to your Christmas stocking, is more than just a thing. Even a weathered but sturdy old screen door is more than just a thing when it slams with exactly the same sound as it did when you were in the second grade. It is a time travel device.

The perfectly seasoned cast iron skillet your mother never allowed anyone else to clean is more than just a thing. Every time you use it to make cornbread, she’s right there with you. (And it’s still perfectly seasoned.) Your dad’s jacket and hat that have been hanging on the same peg in the basement for decades are more than just things. Every time you go down the stairs and see them out of the corner of your eye, even though he’s been gone for many years, it’s just like he never left. It’s hard to take these things down, to remove them from their accustomed places.

But we do take them down, eventually. We let go of the old to make room for the new. This is a fundamental, and inescapable,  feature of this physical reality. But sometimes it seems as if American popular culture encourages us to let go too quickly. We don’t remember what happened last year, last week, or even what happened in the last paragraph if it’s longer than a text. We tear down our old buildings and cut down our century-old trees. This may prove to be a disadvantage when we have rivals on this small planet who honor their ancestors who lived a thousand years ago and make plans for 200 years into the future.

Today, as we visit with the past, we are not overly concerned with what happens 200 years from now, but there is some consolation in knowing that a new family will move into our old house and someone else will hang their hat and jacket on the peg.  Someone else will grow up slamming the screen door and filling the house with memories they will come to cherish one day. Nothing can stop the turning of the circle of life. We hold on as long as we can, until it is time to let go.

 

In Their Own Words

We watched the State of the Union address last night.  We watch those speeches no matter who occupies the White House, and though the words rarely move the needle for change, there is still a sense of watching history unfold.

Whether we’re standing in ovation or scowling in our seats (like some of our celebrated representatives in Congress), we never expect to hear a speech that will make us richer or  wiser. Politicians  are not in the business of giving information we can use. They know we don’t like to be bothered with details. We just want them to make us feel good.

But feeling good has become a zero sum equation in America. If one group of partisans feels good, it’s necessary for their opposite to feel bad. As the republicans applauded President Trump’s statement about unemployment among African Americans being at an historic low, the cameras panned to a group of black representatives and democrats sitting in stony silence.

Like many of you reading this today, they probably knew that official unemployment numbers are meaningless when calculated independently of  labor force participation, which is also near historic lows. Democrats only recognize that fact when republicans are in power, and vice versa.

Some of us want to believe that words are important, but in modern times the economy of words suffers inflation like the economy of money.  Words and dollars are both cheaper by the dozen, and the vastly inflated money supply is matched by the volume of words circling the globe.

In recent years the weeping angels of western civilization have attempted to revalue certain words with bigger denominations. We have “trigger” words now, and we have to be careful that our inclusive and gender neutral words are understood within the proper context of identity and privilege. And culture. And religion. And political affiliation.

It’s confusing. We don’t like being offended, but we spend an inordinate amount of time taking offense from words, and trying to ferret out any hidden meaning or subtle offense hidden between the lines.  We draw word boundaries  around ourselves and dare people to offend us.

It is unfortunate for our feelings as well as our bank accounts that we have become so hypersensitive, almost allergic, to words. Some of us are so busy being “triggered” that we have trouble understanding what people say, and we are oblivious to what they actually do. Mr. Trump, for example, has kept the echo chamber so occupied with being outraged and signalling virtue that few are noticing the long lasting changes, for good or for ill, that he is bringing to the judicial landscape and the administrative state.

Many of us have become poorer during all these years of wordy distraction. If our goal is to be offended (and poor) we don’t need to do anything differently, but if we want to be better informed, we need to learn to assign proper value to words, especially where our great leaders are concerned. We need to pay much less attention to what they say, and much more to what they do.

How can we learn the true value of words when so much of the business of politics and broadcasting is dependent on keeping us offended? Perhaps a small shock to the system will broaden our perspective. The following are quotes from people honored by history and popular culture. All have been praised for what they did, and some for what they said. Try to guess who made the statement before we tell you at the end of the quote, and remember, no one can offend you without your permission. In their own words:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Abraham Lincoln.

“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” Theodore Roosevelt said that.

“Some method must be devised to eliminate the degenerate and the defective; for these act constantly to impede progress and ever increasingly drag down the human race.” This quote is from birth control activist, Margaret Sanger.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best….They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Candidate Donald Trump

“…we have to send a clear message, just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay.” Hillary Clinton speaking about her book, “Hard Choices.”

Finally, to quote someone who appears in pixel land as another political savior on the horizon, “I said this for apartheid South Africa, I said this for my own community in the South — there are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism, and they just have to die.”  Oprah Winfrey said that.

Should we judge these people by what they said, or by what they accomplished? Do we understand the context of their statements? In considering their careers and the body of work they produced, do we accept into evidence only those words that are misguided and impolitic, or do we give equal value to what is uplifting and constructive?

Did any of these random quotes reveal a flaw in someone we once venerated? Do we now see evil intent behind everything they said and did, or do we try to rationalize their mistakes? Do we rationalize only for the people we like? Going forward, if someone we don’t like does something good, can we recognize it? Or will we fail to recognize bad actions camouflaged by words that make us feel good?

Yes, words are important, but like our fiat currency they only have the value we give them.  In politics, and especially in the nation’s capital, words are almost meaningless. The only thing that counts there is action, and distracted by words, we are increasingly blind to it.

Get Over It – There’s Work to Do

Join us this week in sending up a chorus of “get over yourself” to our pixel nation of the habitually outraged.

Granted, it is embarrassing to hear reports of a president openly insulting millions of people by referring to their homelands as…”outhouse?” countries. (You know what they said he said. Such language may be acceptable in Washington, but we won’t be using it here in our hometown newspaper.)

Whether these reports are accurate or not, we told you what to expect if we elected the republican or the democrat in 2016. We thought it unlikely anyone could go from shaving heads at a WWE match to diplomacy on the world stage without a few upsets. But this verbal cage match we find ourselves in is not going to accomplish anything, and it’s interfering with the work that needs doing.

Politically, Trump seems to have stepped right into an open privy. The talking heads of the pixel nation collapsed on their fainting couches or ascended to the holier-than-thou heights of indignation and judgment and virtue signalling.  Criticism is certainly warranted, but to anyone with a memory for history  or a sober outlook for our economic future, the current frenzy is tainted by a measure of cultural illiteracy and hypocrisy.

There is a long list of foul mouthed presidents, and presidents who held private opinions that we would consider reprehensible. Most had enough discretion to keep those private views private. The stable genius currently occupying the White House does not bother with discretion. What you see is what you get, on any given day. Still, to telegraph such contempt on the verge of what promised to be a bipartisan agreement on immigration invites questions. Was it a blunder, or a crass manipulation to further another agenda?

Our broken and outdated immigration policies are in dire need of update and repair. We are confident that those who agree do not share the kind of prejudice to which the president is accused of giving voice. We are glad that prejudice is being called out, but we are troubled that this mission to seek and destroy every hint of bias or racism sometimes resembles the hunt for communism during the McCarthy years.

A sober look at the numbers reveals the simple fact that our country needs immigrants -tens of millions of immigrants to burden with the taxes that will be needed to pay the bills already owed. Every single day about 10,000 Baby Boomers retire, and this will continue unabated for the next twenty years. By 2030 there will be over 100 million living here who are 65 and older.

Some prefer immigrants with a demonstrated ability to contribute to our economy and our culture. Others believe they hold a higher ground where humanity trumps nationality, (and perhaps math as well), and they would prefer to invite the huddled masses with fewer restrictions,  in the hope that our superior society would create from them the productive citizens we need.  Any hope of compromise, however,  lies in the shared belief at the very core of our national identity, that the best people we could hope might join us can be found in every nation.

We hope that the President’s indiscretion and potty mouth does not fatally wound our chances of fixing immigration through bipartisan cooperation, but in all likelihood now we will have a democrat majority in the House after the midterm elections. An unpopular president and a divided Congress does not bode well for compromise, and if this government continues to behave like so many governments have, the chance to legislate for the good of the country will again take a back seat to the scramble for political advantage.

If we don’t get our act together, and soon, many will suffer that need not suffer, and many will fear, both inside and outside our borders, that need not fear. It’s anyone’s guess how much longer the can will continue to be kicked down the road until it runs into a fiscal wall that will do more to limit immigration than any physical structure ever could, at which time we, ourselves, will begin to transform into an “outhouse” country.

Since politicians watch polls like geologists watch seismographs, maybe we can help improve this outcome by adopting a more pragmatic position ourselves. This is a challenge in an environment where we see a bat or a butterfly depending on whether we are a democrat or a republican. We need to see truly, but we lack the necessary perspective.

To gain that perspective, let’s tighten our emotional belts and lace up our boots. Our country has never been led by saints. In every step forward we have taken as a nation, we have been accompanied, if not led,  by “rogues and thieves,” and supported by those who did the dirty jobs that we prefer not to know about.  Our past leaders were essentially identical to the ones under which we now suffer, with the same character flaws and the same massive egos.

Politics is like sausage –  it’s a lot more appetizing when we don’t see how the sausage is made. What is different today is that we have a front row seat at the slaughterhouse where we can see every pixel of the worst parts of the process, and where we can be easily manipulated by our shock and our indignation. It’s time to get up from the fainting couch and step down from the lofty perch and roll up our sleeves, and that applies equally to liberals and conservatives. At stake is whether our nation’s ship of state will move forward, or continue in circles with two sides paddling in opposite directions.

 

 

 

 

 

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.