November 30, 2013

Black Friday

Another Black Friday has come and gone ... the great American potlatch where throngs of shoppers for one day find common cause in buying for others what they wouldn't want for themselves if you paid them. Millions of visitors from Planet Me, tight-faced in their grim pursuit of the Christmas spirit, will once again be sucked into the black hole of consumerism, most to emerge stripped of their money and their holiday cheer.

The term derives from the belief that Black Friday is the day that retailers go from being in the red to being in the black. The irony is that even Black Friday is being debased by greed. It used to be that Black Friday was the weekend to save big bucks, but store chains desperate to show improving bottom lines have expanded it beyond the original concept.

Walmart offered Black Friday savings a full week early on some items in an attempt to avoid the riots that have marred previous Black Fridays. Gray Thursday notes the emerging practice of opening stores on Thanksgiving Day, a sort of negative Miracle on 34th Street effect where if one store opens then all the stores feel they must open to avoid losing sales. Cyber Monday has been added to the list to entice those who prefer not to have to mingle with the hoi polloi.

Folks react differently when I tell them I work in retail. For some, there is a whiff of social stigma attached to it ... definitely a bit déclassé, don't you know. They won't say it, but you can tell they consider retail work to be something one does in high school, perhaps, but not the sort of thing a successful adult would be doing.

Then there are those who have worked retail. The word alone is enough to evoke an immediate connection ... a meeting of the eyes, a knowing nod, an unspoken band-of-brothers moment that is felt in few other occupations. I'm sure cops and ER workers experience the same feeling, the instant understanding that only shared tribulation brings.

The common denominator is working with the public. People can be wonderful or they can be a mess. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get. The only sure thing is that in the few minutes it takes to buy those shirts or shoes, a person's character will be revealed as fully as it is after weeks of therapy. I am continually astonished at the intimate details that people share about their lives. Some of it is heartbreaking to hear. At other times, you can't help but share a laugh. Either way, you are as affected by the transaction as is the customer.

I think every young person should do two things before they settle down: live alone in a big city and work retail. Life in the big city teaches you self-reliance. Working retail teaches you how to read people and control situations. Both experiences breed a self-confidence that will help them throughout their lives. If you can handle the invaders from Planet Me when they are having a bad day, well, you can pretty much handle most anything.

November 18, 2013

November 22, 1963

"Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?" How many of us have asked and answered that question over the years? I know I still remember. I was walking across the Main Campus at Georgetown University, where I was a freshman at the School of Foreign Service, part of a new generation inspired by the New Frontier. We were going to change the world. Instead, the world changed us.

History had been made just a few months before I arrived in D.C., when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The deliberate but implacable cadence of Dr. King's speech matched the slow but steady progress towards racial equality that would be made over the next decade.

In contrast, the assassination of President Kennedy jolted history with an immediacy we all felt and understood. The black and white images of the funeral procession marked the beginning of the fade to black of the American Century. The bizarre shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald in a Texas jail -- I heard it over a transistor radio while I was standing in a crowd watching the arrival of Kennedy's coffin at the Capitol, Jackie and the two kids tiny figures on the Capitol steps -- left us wondering what could possibly happen next.

It got worse. Five years later, Dr King was killed in Memphis, the victim of one last attempt to stop the civil rights movement, and Robert F. Kennedy lay dying in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the first American casualty of the Arab-Israeli conflict that would ultimately lead to 9/11.

Our generation is sometimes seen as soft and self-indulgent, but we must have been tougher than we looked. Few decades in American history have been as tumultuous as the one after Kennedy was assassinated. Three assassinations in five years. A war that divided a nation along lines as bitter as those of the Civil War. The resignation of a president. We lived through all that, and we did it without losing faith in ourselves or in our country. We went to work every day, raised our families, and, despite the occasional youthful indiscretion, we mostly ended up living pretty normal lives.

Today, the fashion in political dissent is largely negative: delay, deny, and denigrate. That wasn't our style. We wanted to take the world we inherited and make it a better place for everyone, not tear it down. We children of the 60s were portrayed as radicals, but we got things done the old-fashioned way. We pushed conservation, clean air, and equal rights to the top of the political agenda, turning slogans into the law of the land, all by working inside the system. How old-fashioned is that?

I look at what today's eighteen-year-old kids are seeing as their example to follow: a dysfunctional political system unable to deal with any issues in an honest or effective manner. Makes you wonder what they will carry forward to the next generation. We at least had Kennedy as a model of what was possible.

We will never know what a second term would have felt like under Kennedy. Most likely, he would have found his reputation slowly tarnished and dinged from the wear and tear of mistakes and personal failings. An untimely death has spared his legacy, although there is no denying that Camelot wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Still, the myth of Camelot has lasted longer than most, perhaps because nothing better has come along to replace it. What worse, no one is even trying.

November 13, 2013

Global Warming Is Not The Problem

Global warming is not the problem, at least not for Mother Earth. The planet will do just fine for the next billion and a half years or so, until the sun begins to nova. Then we got a global warming problem. No, global warming is more a symptom of a much more immediate problem, the rapid combustion within a couple of centuries of millions of years worth of stored carbon.

This quote from Fifty Years of Global Warming puts things in perspective: "In 1829, British coal production was 15 million tons. In 2006, world coal production was 6.2 billion tons. At the turn of the 20th century there were about 8,000 cars in use in the United States. At the turn of the 21st Century there were about 200 million cars in use in the United States, 450 million or so world-wide."

Global warming is the inevitable result of this intense burst of fossil fuel combustion. As such, it is a symptom of a larger problem. We are going through the readily available supply of fossil fuels at an alarming rate. The global economy runs on cheap energy from burning fossil fuels. Long before they run out, the high price we will have to pay for petroleum products will begin to put real pressure on how we live.

That being the case, what would be the appropriate response: (a) reduce the rate of consumption to stretch out supplies; or (b) accelerate the depletion of fossil fuel stocks? The answer the world has chosen is: (b) accelerate the depletion of fossil fuel stocks. As Plan B's go, it's not much.

In short, we are addicted to fossil fuels and, like any addict, we are powerless to control our desire for more, even when we know it is harming us. Going cold turkey is out of the question. But we could take the methadone approach, substituting a harmful substance with something less harmful. In the energy world, this would be alternative fuels such as solar or wind power.

This hasn't happened because the market does not price fossil fuels to include the damage they do or, more precisely, the cost of limiting or undoing that damage. We are just starting to do that with coal, accompanied by howls of despair from the coal mine owners. Meanwhile we have an addiction to feed, so we are jonesing on fracking, the crack cocaine of fossil fuels.

Let's review. We clearly have given the planet a fever. This is affecting the atmosphere and the biosphere, from sea to shining sea. The source of the fever is our addiction to fossil fuels. The cure is obvious: cut back on our intake of fossil fuels. This would be a twofer in that we would not only slow down the rate of global warming, but we would stretch out the supplies of fossil fuels, buying time to retool our societies to other forms of energy less damaging to the environment.

So far, the voices of denial and greed have enabled our addiction to fossil fuels. Don't worry. Global warming isn't real. You're not hurting anybody. Have another snort. It's okay. The task of weaning us off of fossil fuels is complicated by the undeniably high cost of change coupled with the still somewhat remote worst consequences of our current behavior. It is hard to get a politician to think much past the next election, never mind the next generation.

As the song says, "we never failed to fail, it was the easiest thing to do." That could be our anthem as we head into a future that should have been far brighter than it will likely be.

Below is a YouTube video that helps put the problem of carbon dioxide emissions into an alarming perspective.

November 10, 2013

What Did It All Mean?

In Vietnam, we reacted to the random weirdness of war by invoking the following call and response: "What does it all mean? It don't mean nothing." But, of course, it did mean something. For a time, it meant everything. The war shaped our hearts and minds in ways seen and unseen. Sometimes I wonder who or what I might have become if I had never been drafted, never gone to Vietnam. I wonder if the "me" who went through the war is just a distorted image of the "me" I might have been had I not been in a war.

Certainly, the two years I spent in the Army cost me in terms of promotions and who-knows-what opportunities that might have come my way. On the other hand, the career I resumed after the war led me into writing on a regular basis.  Is that something I would be prepared to give up in exchange for some other hypothetical life? I think not.

There are other things I have come to appreciate as I look backwards in the rearview mirror. Among these is a higher tolerance for the Class Insecta. We lived in primitive conditions, with nothing to buffer us from the rain and the mud or the heat and the dust, not to mention the abundance of creepy-crawlies both large and small, venomous and non-venomous who thrived in the tropics. J.B.S. Haldane remarked that "God has an inordinate fondness for beetles," and nowhere is that more evident than in the jungle. Compared to that lot, what are a few stink bugs or earwigs.

Generally speaking, my year in Vietnam left me indifferent to most forms of physical discomfort. After enduring months of rain, the odd shower or two doesn't make much of a dent. As for hot weather, well, let's just say I am ideally suited to a warming climate. The irony is that the coping mechanisms that work for hot weather also work for cold weather. It's a bit of a Zen kind of thing, finding the coolness on a hot day and the warmth on a cold day. Mostly it is just knowing I've been through worse. Cold comfort, indeed.

That's not to say I am a tough guy. Far from it. One of the hardest lessons I had to accept was that I would not be John Wayne.  I would never be that guy who dominated through sheer physical presence. I would not be the hero. A survivor ... yes, that I could do ... mostly by relying on my wits. It wasn't always pretty or noble. I did what it took to get by. Like the poet  Robert Graves, I developed “a brutal persistence in seeing things through, somehow, anyhow, without finesse, satisfied with the main points of any situation.” Call it the "whatever" factor. That, coupled with a lot of luck, got me through the war.

After I came home, I did find I had a much deeper respect for life in all its forms. Yes, I am that guy who picks up the stink bug and carries it outside to set it free. I never had to kill anyone while I served, but I was part of the machine that killed thousands of soldiers and civilians. So much death for ... what? To this day, no one can really say. What does it all mean?

Taking life is easy; bringing it back, impossible. We shouldn't take any life, no matter how seemingly insignificant it might be in the scheme of things, except in extreme necessity, and when we do -- as the ancients did -- we should offer a prayer for the dead as well as for the living. It ought to mean something.

I don't say any of this to make myself look good or to portray war as some kind of an ennobling experience. It isn't. The wounds are not always easy to see, and they take a long time to heal. For many years, I tended to operate along the shadow line between virtue and vice. You can get too used to that. Maybe that's the worst thing a war does, that blurring of the lines. Over the years, I have tried to pull back from the front lines of my inner struggle. Maybe that's the best thing the war does, that acceptance of self as an imperfect work in progress, along with a brutal persistence to see things through.

November 5, 2013

Autumn Leaves

Ever wonder why autumn leaves have so many colors? We are taught that things evolve the way they do for a reason.That being the case, what is the reason for the colors of the fall leaves? What purpose do they serve?

A quick Google search reveals many theories. One is that the bright colors deter pests, signalling a healthy tree that will withstand attacks. Another theory suggests that the colors shield the leaves from damage from ultraviolet rays during a delicate time when nutrients are being shuttled from the leaves to the branches as part of getting ready for winter. Or perhaps the chemicals that make up the colors inhibit the destruction of chlorophyll, or maybe  they help prevent frost injury to leaf tissues or limit water loss during dry spells in autumn.

In the end, no scientific theory offers a single, compelling explanation for the purpose behind leaves having bright colors in the fall. I have my own theory. Maybe there is no purpose. Maybe whoever or whatever did the basic design work of the universe just likes bright colors and ornate patterns.

It reminds me of the master craftsmen who would etch intricate swirls on the inside plates of pocket watches where no one could see them. In similar fashion, 17th Century scientists using newly invented microscopes discovered a hitherto unseen world of intricately wrought designs in full technicolor, a world created millions of years before the advent of humans.

The watchmakers added their hidden flourishes partly to show off their skills but also because they had a desire to go beyond utility to art. The skills are the result of practice, but the eye for beauty came bundled with their DNA. In the same way, could beauty be in the DNA of the universe? If so, from who or what was it inherited?

My theory applies equally to the purposeless ugliness that afflicts all of us from time to time as well as to purposeless beauty. The bad things that happen for no apparent reason clearly signal a high tolerance for misfortune without regard to the individual virtues of the victims. Fate doesn't play favorites. If this is not outright indifference -- which even an old agnostic like myself would be reluctant to accept -- than these terrible events are, for whatever reason, just as much a part of the DNA of the universe as is the inclination towards beauty.

The possibility of purposelessness -- be it beauty or beast -- does not exclude meaning. Each in it own way gets us thinking about the creative processes that underpin the universe. Like it or not, randomness -- another word for changes that happen for no particular purpose or reason -- is built in to every facet of existence. Randomness will sometimes produce beauty, be it galaxies swirling in space or autumn leaves swirling in the wind. Sometimes, that randomness has an uglier outcome ... a tornado wipes out the house across the street and leaves yours alone ... or maybe it goes the other way and you are wiped out .. the tornado doesn't know or care.

Either way, randomness is an essential part of the destructive creation that drives life forward in a natural world that often seems indifferent to our survival. It's been said that we live in a purpose-driven world, but perhaps the purposeless moments might offer a clearer look at the processes embedded within the worlds we inhabit.

In the end, I choose to focus on the beauty of the universe. I like to think that no matter what happens, beauty will outlast ugliness. It is in the nature of things.

Anyway, it's a theory.