The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘attitude’ Category

THE MEDIA AND THE MOB

Virtually everyone who has attempted creative writing has probably experienced the phenomenon known as writer’s block.  I don’t know if its antithesis has ever been diagnosed or documented, but in mid-January I experienced what I refer to as writer’s overload.

As I sat down to write my next post I heard a story on the news that grabbed my attention.  Dutifully, I saved the half-completed piece and focused on the breaking story which I found more interesting than the post on which I had been working.  As I began developing that post I took a break for lunch.  Returning to my desk, I turned on the news and returned to working on the second piece.  Yet another story broke that day which I felt had even more interest than either the one on which I was working or its predecessor.  Needless to say I began to tackle that subject.  Then, halfway written, I put down that piece and sat back to reflect on what was happening.

I was feeling so overwhelmed by information that I was having difficulty focusing on any of it sufficiently to write something that was either worth writing or worth reading.  The same thing happened the next day and the next.  I was beginning to feel like a teenager who was experiencing an explosion of acne but who only had enough medication to treat one lone blotch.

I remembered an experience when I was in my late teens and went on a two week religious retreat at a monastic community slightly outside New York City on the banks of the Hudson River.  I was going to begin my freshman year in college in the fall and felt that I needed some time to focus and identify my goals and develop a plan of attack.  Part of the discipline of the retreat was living in a small cell with only the bare necessities of a bed a desk and a prie dieu – and total silence other than at religious services.  I left and felt refreshed after fourteen days and boarded the Greyhound bus to return to the city.

As the bus drove to New York I felt very peaceful yet energized.  I read as we sped along and almost before I knew it we were pulling into the terminal.  The time had literally flown by.  Then the bus driver announced our arrival and opened the door to allow the half full bus of passengers to exit.  As I gathered up the small grip which contained my belongings I was suddenly amazed at all the noise inside the terminal.  It was overwhelming – almost deafening.  And I realized that I heard that noise every one of the days I had spent in NYC in my short seventeen years – but that I was so used to it I had never noticed it.  For me and my fellow New Yorkers, noise was normal.

That was in the mid-60’’s.  Television consisted of the the three major networks; news was delivered via the morning and evening newspapers; the latest innovation in telecommunications was the introduction off the “Princess phone.”  Yet even with those limitations in our ability to send or receive information there was so much noise   By today’s norms we were forced to function at a near-primitive information level.  Yet, knowing nothing else, we seemed to get along just fine.

The jury may be out on global warming, climate change or climate instability or whatever current incarnation is in vogue.  But it is clear that our access to information has exploded in the past half century.  I doubt that our ability to process all that information has kept pace.  Perhaps that is one contributing reason that one in ten Americans is purported to have some form of mental issue and the reason that the prescriptions for psychiatric medications are being dispensed at record rates.

The posts which I began during the past month had a common theme.  Whether it was the abuse of power in New Jersey in closing down the George Washington Bridge; the scandal in New York City of firefighters and police falsely claiming disability and collecting monthly payments; our Secretary of State Kerry proclaiming to the world that environmental change is as urgent a concern as jihadists with shoe bombs and bad intentions; the Syrian government’s failure to comply with their “agreement” to turn over their chemical weapons and our government’s inept policy not only in the middle east but globally as the fires burn in Kiev and the people mob the streets in Venezuela.

President Obama alone provided the substance for several posts in his most current revisions of Obamacare through executive fiat which seem to be occurring weekly.  And what is that common theme?  It is not in the substance of the event but in the fact that it will soon be replaced and forgotten as some even newer story emerges and captures our attention  for the next nano-second.  It is in precisely this environment that politicians and poltroons can either get away with bad behavior or just plain ineptitude, knowing that the public’s attention will soon be distracted by someone else’s bad behavior before they are called to account.

Let’s be honest.  The mindless mob would much rather hear or see a story about Miley Cyrus than have a conversation about the Madison papers.  The vast majority of our public would rather talk about the Super Bowl, well perhaps not the last one, than the implications of a Supreme Court ruling.  It’s difficult to be informed unless you perceive a reason to be informed.  And most people would rather be entertained by “Jersey Shore” than be concerned with “justice for all” – unless they are themselves the victim of injustice.

No matter where we turn the airwaves are filled with stories of greed, self-absorption, victims and victimizers, heroes found out to have attained their achievements in violation of the rules of fair play and countless stories of those who feel that the laws made for all were beneath them.  “What’s in it for me” rules the culture and the country.

There is no doubt that this can continue as long as there is left some marrow to be picked from the bones of the doers, the makers and the taxpayers.  The truth of that statement is that it has gone on – perhaps for half a century.  But there is always an accounting – no matter how hard those in the media and those in the seats of power try to postpone it.  Eventually we will kill the last fatted calf and there will be no offspring to replace it.

Whether that day is tomorrow or decades from now is uncertain.  Whether we come to the realization that we have been wanton in our values and our priorities because of an apocalyptic moment or through mass self-examination is also unsure.  It is unlikely that the aegis of this enlightenment will be the thousand channels of cable jabberwocky that are beamed at us each moment and without which far too many of us would see no point in living.

But if  the media suddenly had a cathartic moment and focused on things of importance rather than fluff and sensationalism, the question remains.  How many of the mob would listen – and how many would understand and work for change both personally and in those whom we elect to serve in political office?

THE POWER OF ONE

Recently an ad aired on television which asked the question:

“If every American household replaced one incandescent light bulb with one Compact Florescent Light bulb, how many homes could be powered by the electricity that was saved?”

The answer was 3 Million.

As there are about 100 Million households in America that would represent a three percent reduction in the amount of energy we use to light our homes.  I did a quick audit of my house and discovered that I have in excess of sixty old-fashioned bulbs sitting in various fixtures.  So, in theory, if everyone had as many bulbs in their homes and replaced all of them with CFL’s we would be able to make all American homes energy independent – in fact we should produce a surplus of electricity.  As I looked at my conclusion I realized that there was a flaw in this logic.

Long before we became concerned about conservation on a national level, my parents taught me that it was important.  Perhaps they didn’t think of their admonition to “Turn the lights out when you leave the room,” as something of global importance.  But they knew and taught me that using less electricity reduced the bill which dutifully arrived monthly from Con Ed.  And it was obvious to me that if we sent less to the electric company, that meant there was more to spend on something that was even better than lighting the apartment – like food on the table or putting one extra dime in the Poor Box at church.

Returning to the ad which I at first thought was sponsored by some governmental agency such as the EPA, I was surprised to learn that it was presented by Exxon Mobil Oil.  It is one of the more successful ads that I have seen as it got me thinking.  If we could save a lot of energy by switching out one of our lamps to a CFL, what else could we accomplish by making other small changes?

What could we do to conserve energy if we walked to the store once a week instead of driving our cars?

What could we do for our health if we substituted one glass of water for one of the sodas we consume?

What could we do for the environment if we didn’t charge our phones and tablets as often because we used them to play games one hour a week less?

What could we do for our minds if we watched one less hour of television a day and read a worthwhile book?

What could we do for those we meet if we withheld one criticism and instead found one thing about that person to compliment?

This list is far from complete so feel free to add your own thoughts to it.  But in a world consumed with a craving for energy, perhaps we are looking in the wrong place.  The real power to transform the world is in the power of one.  And each of us is that one – or at least we may be if we so choose.

 

 

 

 

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POWER TO THE PEOPLE

The title of this post is pure plagiarism – coming as it did from one of the catch phrases of the ‘60’s.  At that time it was one of the rallying cries of the ultra far Left.  But how things have changed.  Now the power resides in the ultra far Left and their phrase calling for empowerment lies on a forgotten dusty shelf in a government warehouse.  It’s time to dust it off and have it become the mantra for those who believe in limited, effective, Constitutional government.

Last week’s recall election of two anti-gun Colorado State Senators, Senate President John Morse and Senator Angela Giron may be a small first step in the right direction.  In media underplayed (this should come as no surprise to any thinking person) reporting, both senators lost their bid to keep their seats.  The media coverage that was reported emphasized the “vast amounts of money” that the NRA spent to achieve the successful recall effort.  Notably absent was that those who supported the senators spent three times as much as the NRA – including a $250,000 contribution from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

For years the left has descried the absurdity of “trickle down economics”.  Of course, in a different format, that is precisely the economic and cultural policy that they themselves employ.  The only difference is that rather than allowing the private citizen to do the “trickling” they have substituted Big Brother government.

Well, there is one other difference.  Instead of allowing the individual to arrive at moral, rational decisions on how to govern his or her life, the government “for our own good and based on its incredible storehouse of wisdom” will tell us how to think and how to behave, how to speak to each other and, most importantly, how to redress our grievances should someone have the audacity not to follow the government’s rules.  In another time we would have called this tyranny – and it’s time to dust that phrase off as well.

If those who have a belief in the value of the individual are ever to hope to re-establish that way of life in these United States, we need to set aside our prim and proper ways and get down in the trenches.  Change for the better will never come to this country based on rulings and new laws promulgated in Washington – at least not as it is presently constituted.  The reason is that those in power have the significant advantage of incumbency which is almost impossible to overcome – unless they receive real challenges in primary elections.  The only way to get the SOB’s out is to replace their names on the ballots in the first place.  Colorado has shown us that can be done.

Some of the pundits in commenting on the recall election (including Senator Giron) cited the low voter turnout as the reason for their defeat.  Well, the nature of elections is that the side getting the most votes is the winner – irrespective of the size of the turnout.  That is something that conservatives need to keep in mind.  We may be smaller or larger in number than our political opponents – but they are by far more catalyzed to do something that is fundamental to politics – getting out the vote.

Perhaps it is ironic that we conservatives frequently point correctly to one of the failings of government – lack of accountability.  I thoroughly endorse the idea that it’s easy to spend money when it isn’t yours.  Of course, the government considers all of our wealth and assets as really being theirs.  They simply allow us the privilege of holding on to some of what we have earned for a period of time before they impound it.

Consider how they tax every American’s wealth.  First we earn it and they tax it – Income Tax; Second we spend it – Sales Tax; Third we save it – more Income Tax or AMT; Fourth we die – they tax it again through Estate and Inheritance Taxes.  My father when he was audited for the third year in a row by the IRS – all of which resulted in no changes being made to his returns – made the comment to the auditor, “Perhaps we could simplify the process.  Why don’t I just turn over all my income to you and you can give me back what you think I’m entitled to live on for myself and my family.”  That was in the 1950’s – and we’ve pretty much devolved to that condition.

But returning to accountability, it’s interesting that once ensconced in power the government, since it has no personal skin in the game – other than yours or mine – is so wasteful.  Yet they only are able to be in that position because they have well orchestrated the effort to get them elected.  Having lived most of my adult life in Chicago I have seen that first hand.

If you are a Democrat precinct captain you no doubt hold a city job.  Although not written into that job description is one that is tacit to your maintaining your livelihood – getting out the vote on Election Day.  It’s a little like having your four year college career determined by one test given on one day.  And if you don’t think that motivates the Democrat precinct captains you are sadly mistaken.

Of course, this does lead to vote fraud and abuse.  That is almost inevitable when one party holds nearly absolute power and control.  I am sure there are examples of the same which could be found in Republican strongholds as well.  But it points to the underlying premise of this post.  People, at a grassroots level who are highly motivated can make a difference and can make history.

It’s time that conservatives grasped that concept and worked to return the power to the people.

THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE

There is nothing more annoying to me than when a woman uses the phrase, “It’s my body and my right to choose.”  It’s as though dragging out that old bromide is the absolute, indisputable debate clincher and there is no response possible once it has been uttered.

If you don’t think about it very deeply, that phrase could be something that is part of the mantra and foundation of libertarianism.  It would appear to be something that we should endorse, living in a country which was founded with the proclamation that we have the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In entering into one of these conversations, I always ask the individual whether this is a right that inures only to women or do men get to play on that same level playing field?  Since it would be very un-PC and sexist to restrict that right to only one gender, naturally the response that I get (after some hemming and hawing) is that it applies to everyone.

My follow up to that answer normally runs along the lines of, “So, you’re saying that the man who is a rapist and acts to fulfill the commands his mind is issuing and his body is able to accomplish is justified in doing what he does?  Or it’s okay for the mayor of San Diego  to grab women’s butts or breasts because he finds that satisfying?”

Since they haven’t really thought about the logical conclusion to their statement, I always receive a horrified look and a gushy, “You’d have to be nuts to believe that,” kind of response.  Implicit in their answer is the key to this entire issue.  That is, there are certain things which society deems “proper behavior” and others which it does not condone.

With all the headlines that are coming out of the Obamacare debacle, I find myself having more or these conversations than formerly.  Many of the women I know who voted for his second term did so because of “women’s issues”.  And I find that, if you’ll pardon the pun, to be very fertile ground for debate.

When someone identifies herself as “pro choice” I normally offer the following scenario.

A woman goes to a restaurant which has an extensive menu.  She might select the Lobster Newburg or order a garden salad for dinner.  She has freely  made a choice.  No one has looked over her shoulder or coerced her into selecting one entrée over another.  But if she chose the Newburg her bill is going to be higher than what she would have spent on the salad and she should be prepared to pay the price for it.

The one word that I find most lacking in the vocabulary of those who are “pro choice” is the word “wisely”.  Yes, we all have the power to choose and we all exercise that every day.  But to choose wisely, well that takes some thought and an admission that our decisions have consequences not only for us but for our society as well.

There is a reason that the word wisely is not a part of the “pro choice” lexicon.  This is not meant as a condemnation of anyone who holds that view who has arrived at her position on the subject in a thoughtful way.  Although I disagree with their position, I can respect the fact that they made it in an informed manner.

My statement is based on my observation of people who have gravitated to that position without thinking about all of its implications or who have merely adopted their view because all of their friends think the same way.  It is predicated on my observation of how they deal with their acquaintance and friendships.  These are merely my empirical observations – and I would be the first to admit that those are limited in number.

But, based on what I’ve seen, looking at the anecdotal evidence of how almost all  of them conduct their lives, I cannot escape the conclusion that most of those who are “pro choice” have adopted their outlook for one simple reason.

They simply do not believe they should be held accountable for their actions.

Fortunately for them, the United States currently has a government that shares that viewpoint as it demonstrates the exact same behavior on a daily basis.  But when people and their governments lose sight of their moral perspective, history teaches, in countless examples, that the end is very near at hand.

Like the house built over a sink hole, the abyss that will swallow us all may arrive at any moment.  Then there will be no more choices to make as the sands of time sweep us under the roiling earth – perhaps to be replaced with something wiser and better.

ROSIE THE RIVETER, GLOBAL WARMING AND SACRIFICE

Before my time there were a lot of wars.  A couple were pretty big – so we called them World Wars.  The name of what was originally called, “The War To End All Wars” didn’t live up to its billing.  So we had another World War and rather than using the titles Sr. and Jr. we chose to use the Roman numerals I and II.  I guess that was just so that if any more wars arose later of the same scale it would make it easier to name them.

During the Second World War, Americans were called on to make sacrifices.  We shipped our young men overseas, many of whom never came home to their moms or their wives.  And in their absence, we asked the women of America not only to sacrifice their husbands and sons and brothers but to contribute to the war effort by accepting food rationing and gas rationing and by helping out in our plants and factories.  And so, the iconic American woman was born.  She was called Rosie the Riveter.

rosie

This was an America where the people were unified in a “Can Do Spirit” rather than a “Make Excuse Mind Set.”  It was an America of seven decades ago.

Now although, as I said, this time preceded my somewhat unheralded arrival on Earth, this was the spirit in which my parents spent most of their young adult lives.  And naturally, this shaped their behavior and it molded the way in which they raised me.  So by a form of osmosis, I came to believe that any individual, if she or he applied himself, could do great and wondrous things.  And if all of us did those wondrous things as individuals, we as a country could become great and wondrous.  And we did and we were.

We created new and exciting inventions.  We flew to the moon.  We built highways and fast cars to travel on them.  We replaced failing human hearts with artificial ones.  We did truly amazing things.  We looked on ourselves as masters of the universe.  But along the way we lost sight of something – and it was an important something, indeed.

Whether we believed in the story of God and His creating the world or whether we accepted a more humanistic view that Mother Nature was a powerful mistress, we forgot to honor our obligation to be good guests in our own home.  Our lust for bigger and faster and better allowed us to set aside our concern for our environment in our need for immediate gratification – irrespective of the consequences.  After all, those were going to happen “down the road” and, no doubt, we would, trusting in our genius, think up a way to fix those problems when it was necessary to do so.

And so that brings us to the question of Global Warming.

As you probably know, there are just as many people on the one side of the argument as on the other.  Lay people and scientists; politicians and professionals – all with differing opinions which, naturally result in differing solutions in addressing what might or might not actually be a problem.

That this is a hotly debated topic is clear.  In fact, it is of such import that last week at Knox College, President Obama identified it as the central challenge facing us as Americans and the people of the world in general.  Several of my friends and readers might have a slightly different take on the real problems which America is facing, but that’s a matter for another post – or, more likely, quite a few more.

Whether global warming is a man made phenomenon or whether it even exists is at this point moot.  The honest person would have to say that there is a lot of purported evidence brought forth on both sides of the argument.  But we do know, for a fact that air and water pollution are, in and of themselves, problems.  Therefore, we should certainly be looking at ways to rein those in if at all possible.

Part of our problem in dealing with these sorts of topics is that we have solely focused on what we perceive to be the initial and systemic reason for spewing pollutants into our environment.  In other words, burning coal releases more toxins into our atmosphere than, for example, natural gas.

But what is always omitted in these analyses is the fact that we don’t burn coal simply because it’s there and we can.  We burn it because it provides something that we perceive we need – namely energy.  Clearly, if our climate were such that we didn’t need to cool our houses in summer or heat them in winter, our demand for burning coal or any other fuel would decrease significantly.  But we have no control over our weather and so we continue to air condition and heat our homes.

But there are other aspects of our lifestyles over which we do have control.  For example, we can choose to purchase our beverages of choice at the supermarket that come packaged in aluminum or plastic – or we can insist that all of these containers be replaced with glass – which is fully reusable and ultimately fully recyclable.

Of course, paying a deposit on a glass container as we did in the old days and returning it to get our refund is less convenient than taking an empty aluminum can and tossing it in the recycle bin (or more likely the garbage).  It does require some effort and just the most minor amount of sacrifice on our parts.  But my folks would have had no problem making that sacrifice for the good of the environment – and just because creating trash was something on which they frowned.

In the absence of that old American spirit of “Doing” and “Co-operation”, a simple solution to address part of the problem to which the president referred in his speech would simply be to impose a tax on each aluminum or plastic beverage container that is sold.  It seems to me that the fastest way to educate a person is by first getting her attention.  And nothing gets my attention faster than when somebody tells me that doing something is going to cost me out of pocket.

I suspect if this suggestion were implemented it would enjoy about the same amount of popularity as scheduling an appointment to go the the dentist to have your teeth cleaned.  But despite the fact that we don’t like the procedure (and have to pay for it – adding further insult to injury) we do it anyway because it is a necessary part of maintaining a healthy regimen.

Will reducing the number of aluminum and glass containers eliminate our pollution problems?  Of course not.  No one thing that we can do will accomplish that.  So let’s move forward to another way in which we might positively impact our environment.

Styrofoam is another petroleum based product which takes an extraordinary amount of time to break down in our landfills.  We don’t produce it because we’re purposely trying to see how many pollutants we can add to our dumps or rivers.  We came up with the material because it is resilient and very light weight.  Both of those are good things.  In fact, my neighborhood supermarket has a bench outside the store that bears on it a little sign  that  reads, “This bench is made from recycled Styrofoam.”  I’ve sat on that bench and I can vouch for the fact that it seemed just sturdy as one made from wood or some laminate.

So we go to the supermarket and pick up some meat for dinner and as it sits in the case we look at the nicely shrink-wrapped package and there are our pork chops, neatly arranged in the Styrofoam tray.  Having made our selection, just to make sure, we turn over the package and see the familiar recycle symbol.  We are making not only a tasty choice but one that is environmentally friendly.  Or so we think.

The truth of the matter is that ninety-eight percent of those trays and all the rest of the stuff that is made from Styrofoam will actually end up in land fills or in our rivers and oceans, having been discarded by our recycling centers as unusable.

But wait – why aren’t we making more benches out of it like the one in front of my grocery store to put in the front of other grocery stores or anywhere else people feel the need to place a bench – like our parks?

The simple answer is that one of Styrofoam’s qualities that we admire, its lightness, is the reason that less than five percent of all recycling facilities nationwide actually accept it.  You see, the recycling business is primarily driven by weight.  And it takes an awful lot of Styrofoam and some very specialized equipment to make recycling it cost effective.

Once again, here’s a simple solution which I would offer the Administration in light of the president’s speech.  Require that all recycling centers of some to-be-determined size based on annual volume, purchase and use the equipment that would enable them to recycle this material.

Naturally, they would find a way to pass this along to the consumers who use their services to collect trash and recycling.  I already pay for this service and would be willing to pay a little more to clear my conscience, knowing that the Styrofoam containers with which I am confronted at every turn would have a better resting place than the neighborhood dump.

Well, that addresses two ways in which we might either reduce end consumption of a pollutive product or reuse another one more effectively.  But neither of those will by themselves eliminate our demand for energy to the point where we are not polluting our environment.  As I said earlier, there is no one thing that we can do that will accomplish that goal.  But there are many small things that we can do that will help us achieve it.

Nearly forty years ago, in October, 1973, Arab oil producing nations announced an oil embargo on shipments to the United States because of our support of Israel.  Given the posture of the administration today, we need feel no fear of a repetition of that event – at least for that reason.

This embargo not surprisingly resulted in shortages of gasoline.  The government’s response was twofold.  First was the introduction of a form of rationing which took the shape of only allowing motorists to fuel their cars on certain days based on whether their license plate ended in an even or odd number or letter.  The second was the introduction of the mandatory maximum speed on our highways at 55 mph.

In forty years, several things regarding fuel consumption and emissions have remained constant.  The fact is that we know that vehicles that are operated at higher rates of speed burn fuel less efficiently and therefore consume more of it; and we know that the less efficient utilization of fuel results in greater amounts of pollutants being released into the atmosphere.  It seems pretty obvious that if we want to reduce the amount of fossil fuel we use, we need simply to re-implement those 1973 standards of a 55 mph maximum speed on our highways.

Again, by itself this will not solve our pollution problems.  But it might be yet another tool in our tool box to try to rein in our unbridled exploitation of the energy for which we have an unquenched thirst.

If there is one common thread (other than common sense) which binds these three suggestions together it is this.  Adopting any or all of these will require a bit of sacrifice on everyone’s part.

In the America of the 1950’s and even early ‘60’s I believe that if this were explained in a straightforward way to the American people, we might have grumbled a bit but would have decided that for our own good (and ultimately for the good of the nation) we would pitch in and do our part.  We were less interested in those days in flowery speeches than we were in recognizable accomplishments.

Today, well – I’m not so sure.

great-pacific-dump

PRIDE

Mrs. Bounds was my fourth grade teacher.  I liked her a lot.  She was warm and friendly and so it was easy for me to overlook her small speech defect.

While we children would say “about”, Mrs. Bounds pronounced the word, “aboot.”  I mentioned this to my parents the third or fourth time I heard her say it.  I wanted to know what the correct pronunciation of a-b-o-u-t was.  When I explained how Mrs. Bounds said the word, dad said, “Oh, she’s probably from Canada.”  She was.

Well, I never did find out whether Mrs. Bounds was a big hockey fan or whether she liked catsup.  It was many years before a college friend from northern Minnesota informed me that hockey was the Canadian national pastime and catsup was the national food.  But I did learn a lot from her in the year she taught me.

I remember all of us took a math test which she administered.  I scored a perfect 100.  (We had moved past the third grade stage of having various colored stars pasted on our work and were now having to deal with looking at pure raw numbers).  It was such a young age to be confronted with reality.

When Mrs. Bounds returned my test to me she had a broad smile on her face.  She handed me my test with the big 100 marked on it, put her left hand on mine (now probably the basis for a child molestation suit) and said, “Well, you certainly did yourself proud with this test.”

I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant but I was reasonably certain it was a good thing – a compliment.  And I remember walking around the rest of the day with a smile on my face.  It felt good to have “done myself proud.”

In a much earlier post I told the story of my mother accompanying dad on one of his buying trips to the Orient.  They always stayed in a particular “native inn” (which is to say that the sleeping accommodations were futons) and how mom always remarked about the cleanliness of the place saying, “You could literally eat off the floor, the property was so well-maintained.”

One day while staying at this hotel in Nagoya, mom came home early and interrupted the maid who was going about the job of cleaning the room.  Mom was relatively proficient in Japanese and engaged the woman in a conversation, complimenting her on the outstanding job she did.

The woman, in Japanese fashion, was a bit abashed at this praise.  But my mother went on to say, “You know, with your diligence, I would think there are a lot of companies that would hire you – and probably at higher wages.”  (A typical western response – although I know my mother meant it as a compliment).

The maid said that she was working as an apprentice watchmaker for the Seiko company at night and that in six months’ time would be offered a position there at three times her present salary.

My mother said, “Well, I’m sure you are looking forward to that.”

The maid responded.  “Oh, yes.  But in the mean time I will be the best cleaning lady that I can be.”

That Japanese cleaning lady, “did herself proud.”

My parents in both their businesses were never satisfied with less than excellence.  While mom’s was a one person operation, dad expected excellence from all his employees.  He did not merely preach that at them – he demonstrated it to them in his personal conduct.  Excellence is not an accident – it is a standard – or at least that’s what my parents thought.

Having been raised by people such as they, I naturally tried to meet the high standards that they considered normal.  And, naturally, I expected to find that same desire to be the best you could be in others.  What a disappointment.  Customer service wasn’t bad in the 60’s but it’s been on a hyperbolic decline since then.  If this isn’t it’s nadir, I’m almost afraid to think what’s in store for us consumers.

I walked into my neighborhood Smith Food and Drug store (a Kroger division) about a month ago.  All of the employees were wearing t-shirts with bright yellow lettering on them.  The message on the t-shirts read:

WE CAN MAKE IT RIGHT!

If I happened to wear dentures (I don’t) I can assure you that they would have been on the floor of the store, clacking away in the same manner that we used to see in the early cartoons.

I simply couldn’t believe this message which to me translated as “Okay, we messed up the first time and now we’re going to try to rectify our error.”  If there is another interpretation of that message, I have been unable to figure it out.

And I thought to myself, “Let’s see.  Someone here goofed up something (I wasn’t sure exactly what the antecedent of ‘IT” was), and will try to undo her or his previous mistake.  But if that person made a mistake in the first place, why should I have the confidence that he will be able to fix it the second time around?  I mean, after all, if he didn’t realize that it was wrong to start with, what Divine insight has he since acquired to see the original error?  Or if the mistake merely occurred because he executed his job in a sloppy manner – why should I expect him to be any less sloppy now in trying to fix it?”

If I worked in Kroger’s PR Department, I would issue an immediate recall of these t-shirts and replace them with ones that say:

WE DO IT RIGHT!

Even if that statement is an outright lie, who cares?  Anyone who has ever seen a political spot on TV knows that there is no truth in advertising.

Being raised by my parents had both its high and low points.  Mostly they were the former.  But I know that there were times when I struggled with a particular subject, I wished that they would have been satisfied with an 80 instead of the expected 100.  I knew that wasn’t the case – so I just had to try a little harder and work a little longer – partly to avoid the shame of disappointing them – but mostly out of the fear of losing my own self-respect.

I know that mom and dad always tried to conduct their affairs in a top drawer manner – and with the response they received from their customers, they must have been pretty successful at it.

I guess it would be fair to say, they “did themselves proud.”

GRATITUDE

I remember the evening that Mr. Reynolds came to our apartment.  My parents had scheduled an appointment with him for 7:30.  By then the dining room table would have been cleared, the dishes washed and dried and I should have completed my homework.  I was eleven years old.

Mr. Reynolds sold a product called the “Encyclopedia Britannica.”  It was, by far the largest compendium of knowledge available to the average person.  My parents, who believed that the more a person learned the farther in life he or she might go, were assessing the possibility of purchasing a set for me.  My parents knew that the set was expensive but they did not know the exact cost until Mr. Reynolds revealed that during his meeting.

We sat at the dining room table and Mr. Reynolds brought out his sales literature.  He explained how so many people, experts in their field, had all contributed to the encyclopedia.  And he also explained that there was an annual update which was published and that by purchasing the set, we would receive the next edition of it at no charge.  Thereafter there would be a small fee for each additional update as it was shipped.

My parents looked at me and asked whether I would use this reference library if they decided to purchase it for me.  I knew that I would but I had heard them discuss the price with Mr. Reynolds.  It was several hundred dollars – by far the largest gift that I had ever received.  And I was feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of the present.

I think my parents both knew that I would actually use the encyclopedia and had a sense of my feeling of awe, so although I couldn’t do much more than nod in assent to their question, they took that as a definite, “Yes.”  We selected the dark green faux-leather binding with gold stamped lettering for our set.

Mr. Reynolds expertly completed the paperwork and my father signed it while mother went to her desk drawer to retrieve the checkbook and give him the deposit on the set.  The balance that was due would be billed monthly over the next twenty-four months – but since my parents didn’t like owing money, I knew that this obligation would be retired long before then.  In fact I had a plan to help pay for it.

It was nearing the end of the school year and I had read in “The Herald Tribune” that a bookseller by the name of Barnes & Noble purchased used school textbooks.  Each of us students were given our various texts as part of our tuition fee.  And I remembered that the previous year on the last day of school as I was gathering my school materials, all of the waste baskets were filled with texts that other students had discarded.

I asked my home room teacher, Miss Green if I would be allowed to collect these and take them home and explained the reason that I wanted them.  Miss Green said that she would speak with the school’s principal, Mr. Tiffany but was quite sure that he would approve.

Miss Green was true to her word and two days later told me that would be fine and I had the principal’s permission.  So my next step was to commandeer Grandma’s wire grocery cart so that I could transport all these books the two blocks from my school to our apartment.  Of course, grandma, always a practical person, thought that this was a wonderful idea.  In fact she went to the grocery store in advance of my engaging in the project and secured a number of cardboard boxes so that we could package the books for the bookstore.

Well, the last day of school arrived and I set to work, racing home to get the grocery cart and then back to school.  Foolishly, I fully loaded up the cart but was unable to maneuver it down the school’s stairs.  So I had to unload half of the books so that I could manage the cart.  I left them in the stairwell and I hoped that none of the faculty would see them there.

I quickly wheeled my stash home to our apartment and grandma helped me unload it.  Then back to school to retrieve the books I had unloaded and back home again.  In total I made six trips, but the later ones took me longer as I had to go from classroom to classroom to load up.  It seemed that there was a never ending supply of textbooks

Although I had not gone to every classroom and was sure that there were more textbooks I could retrieve, I was too tired even to consider a seventh expedition and had to be content with the books I had procured.

Grandma and I arranged these in the boxes she had brought home and my father agreed to drive to Barnes & Noble the following day, which was a Saturday.  I think he was a little amused that I had put in so much effort, perhaps thinking that all that work might result in a five or ten dollar return.

Barnes & Noble was located a short distance from my father’s business.  Dad had some paperwork that he wanted to get out of the way so he said that after we had sold the books he would buy me lunch at the little Italian sandwich shop that was down the street from his office.  I was all in favor of that as they made a terrific eggplant parmesan sandwich in a robust marinara sauce.

So we got to the bookstore and started to unload.  But most of the boxes were too heavy for me to lift.  So dad went in and found the department that purchased used textbooks.  He began carrying the boxes in and when he returned he came out with a young employee who helped him carry all the books inside while I stood vigilant, guarding the books that were still in our car’s trunk.

When we were finished, my father locked the car and we went inside where the clerks were figuring the purchase value of my treasure.  With the extensive collection this took a little while – and then the manager of that department said to my father, “We will pay you $180.50 for these books, if that’s acceptable.”

I’m not sure who was more stunned – my father or me.  That was nearly the balance that was still due on my Encyclopedia Britannica (my parents had sent in more than the minimum payment each month).  So we gratefully accepted the cash from Barnes & Noble  and drove to his office.  After about an hour my father finished his paperwork and said that it was lunchtime.

Since I was now feeling extremely wealthy (although dad was holding the money in his wallet) I offered to pay for our meal.  After thinking about it for a moment, he accepted my invitation.  And so we walked to Marco’s where I had eaten on several previous occasions.

As the lunch was going to be on me I upgraded myself from the eggplant parmesan and decided to try the meatball sub.  This was a grave decision as it was one of the pricier items on the menu ($1.45).  Like the eggplant it was fantastic and extremely filling and exceptionally sloppy to eat requiring at least eight of those little napkins that the stainless steel container which sat on our table dispensed.  Despite my efforts to be neat and even with all those napkins I still had to visit the facilities when we finished to wipe the marinara sauce off my hands and face.

Buying my father lunch that day was the only part of my new found money that my parents would accept.  I tried to get them to use the rest to pay for the Encyclopedia Britannica but they refused and took the remaining money and put it in my savings account.

The fact that I had planned on contributing whatever we got from selling the books, however, gave the encyclopedia added value to me.  And although I had spent some time with it, I now began reading it in earnest.

One of our neighbors, Mr. Benson was English and an executive with BOAC.  He had a subscription to National Geographic and was discarding some old issues on the floor of our incinerator (yes, we burned garbage in those and got the whole Global Warming thing started), when I asked if I might have them.  He gladly gave them to me and as he finished each new edition left it at our apartment door.

I was fascinated with the photos and the descriptions of the lives and customs of people from all around the world.  How differently they lived from us.  And so I started to read more about these foreign places in my Britannica.

After a lot of reading it suddenly struck me.  How lucky I was to have been born in America and not the Belgian Congo or Azerbaijan, Ceylon or Outer Mongolia.  I doubted that most of the kids there had books that they could resell and I was almost certain that Barnes & Noble didn’t have offices in any of those places to purchase them.  And those kids would never have a chance to enjoy either the meatball sub or eggplant parmesan at Marco’s.

I would like to acknowledge my friend Charlie for sending me the email which contained the YouTube video you will find below.  That provided the inspiration for this post.  It is a recording of Miss Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” for the first time it was ever performed publicly.  The song had been written some twenty years earlier by Irving Berlin but he had filed it away and it was never published.

This recording was made on Armistice Day, 1938 – as Hitler was moving the entire planet closer to World War II.  It was a time of trouble and a time of fear not only in America but everywhere on our little pebble in space.

Those were disquieting times as are the times we live in today.  But as I listened to this recording, which I heard Kate Smith perform many times in later years, tears came to my eyes and I thought that even with all the travail and anger and dysfunction, I’m still proud and most of all grateful to be an American.

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