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They’re already remodeling the homes of the ’50s

This isn’t the house in which we lived during most of my elementary school years, although as best I can tell, it’s the same model.

Remodeling after 55 years.

The street address is about 10 blocks from where we moved when I was 7 years old. I have vague memories of going with my parents to look at the model homes and then waiting anxiously while our house — the first of three that my parents owned — was being built.

I don’t remember the name of this model, but I remember the price was somewhere between $12 and $13,000. It had three bedrooms and two baths, although I can’t recall if the bath in the master bedroom suite was a full bath or just a shower. The address of our home was 5675 Harshmanville Road in Huber Heights, Ohio.

I also remember that the first phone number we had was only six digits, although we got a different, seven-digit number sometime in the first year we lived there. I actually think I remember both of those numbers.

We lived almost directly across the street from the elementary school, although it was several years before it was built. I went to both second grade and fourth grade in empty homes that were leased to the school district to be used as interim classrooms. Surprisingly at age 62, I remember the names of the five teachers I had in elementary school.

When we first moved there in 1957, there was still a lot of construction going on within walking distance. We used to head down to that area, where there were massive (to a 7-year-old) tunnels that went underground. We used to explore the tunnels, but when our parents found out, they made us stop. It turned out we were walking in what ultimately would be the sewer system.

Of course, all that was a very long time ago. We left Ohio for Virginia in January 1963, the year after Interstate 70 had opened for business just north of Huber Heights. We had moved to a bigger home in the new end of the development in 1961 when our family had grown from two children to five, and we moved east little more than a year later when my dad was offered a good job at the Pentagon.

Huber Heights is more than just a housing development now. It’s a city of its own. I stopped by and looked at our two homes when I was traveling home to St. Louis in the spring of 1985, but I haven’t seen it since. I don’t think I’ve set foot in Ohio since 1990, when my grandmother died at the age of 94.

In some ways, it’s embedded in the past, almost like Colonial Williamsburg, for me. But when I see pictures of houses that were built less than 60 years ago being gutted and remodeled for 21st century families, it says something nice to me. Our house there is valued at about $56,000, which probably says more about the stability of the housing market there than anything else.

What fascinates me about the remodeling is that when it’s done, a family will buy the house. Maybe it will be their first home, and maybe they’ll have two kids, ages 7 and 5. Their children will be able to walk to school in about two minutes, and if their mother doesn’t have a job, maybe they can hurry home at lunchtime and eat in their own dining room.

Just like things used to be.

At least for some of us.

 

 

posted by Mike in American Dream,Happiness,Home,Ohio and have No Comments

Is ‘traditional America’ really gone for good?

Traditional America?

“Is traditional America gone for good?”
– BILL O’REILLY

To answer that question, the first thing we have to do is determine exactly what “traditional America” was. When O’Reilly used the question above for an explanation of why the Republican Party’s message didn’t resonate with voters in the recent election, he was referring to a lack of personal discipline.

“People want free stuff,” he said.

Unlike traditional America, where people would rather die than accept welfare. People worked hard in those days and made an honest dollar for an honest day’s work.

But which traditional America does O’Reilly mean? Could it be 1789, when only white men voted, when black people were slaves and when 95 percent of all working people were their own bosses? Or how about 1880, when the Industrial Revolution had changed everything and people were expected to do menial jobs for low pay? That was the era in which robber baron Jay Gould famously said he could hire half of the working class to kill the other half.

I doubt he meant the 1930s, when much of our present-day safety net was created. Since many people tend to see the “good old days” as the years when they were young, let’s say for the sake of argument that he means the 1950s. The ’50s are perhaps the most misunderstood of all decades, loved by the right primarily because they were the last “normal” decade before everything changes.

Let’s look at the ’50s for a moment:

– According to the 1950 census, there were 150,697,361 people in the United States. That’s less than half of our current population of 309.2 million. Our three most populous states — California, Texas and Florida — had as combined population of just over 21 million then, as opposed to 81.5 million today.

– Unemployment in the ’50s was as low as 3 percent in 1952 and peaked at 6.8 percent during the recession of 1958. By 1966 it was back to 3.8 percent.

– In 1950, American CEOs made 50-60 times as much as the average worker. In 2011, the ratio was 380-1.

House for everyone

– In the 1950s, it was still possible for a man with an eighth-grade education to get an entry-level blue collar job and work his way up to a position where he could support a family, own a home and live the American Dream.

It was a time when anyone who wanted to work could find a decent job, something that certainly isn’t true anymore. There are a couple of things that didn’t exist in the ’50s that made all that possible.

First, many businesses were locally owned and nearly all businesses that operated in the United States were American-owned. We didn’t have multi-national corporations doing business in the U.S. then, so the people who owned businesses felt a certain responsibility to their community and their country.

Second, financial speculation wasn’t anywhere near what it became starting in the ’80s. Far fewer people were in the stock market, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was around 500 for most of the decade.

So the biggest difference was that our rich people were a lot less wealthy than they are today, but average folks lived a lot better. Far more jobs included meaningful benefits like pensions, and even people who didn’t have medical insurance could usually afford doctor visits and other preventative medical care.

'50s ladies

Now the last thing I want to do is say the ’50s were wonderful for everyone. They weren’t. We still had a system of apartheid every bit as rigid as South Africa in parts of the country, and women who wanted to have anything other than the traditional “kinder kueche kirche” life that came from the old country (children, kitchen and church), could expect to have a difficult time of it. As for those of different sexual proclivities, they were firmly closeted and could expect to be called nothing much better than “degenerates.”

But most folks knew their neighbors, and they had enough local networks that there were people they could rely on to help them if they needed it.

And they took pride in their families and their neighborhoods. General Colin Powell, who grew up in a poor neighborhood in New York, said that people behaved well even in bad neighborhoods because they didn’t want to bring shame to their families.

“A sense of shame is not a bad moral compass,” Powell said.

That’s a good thing, and certainly it’s one of the things to which O’Reilly refers when he speaks of traditional America. But if you want tradition, you’ve got to have it on both sides. You can’t criticize people for behaving badly when you have taken away all their options.

And when you live in a country where the population has more than doubled in 60 years, and where the population of the three largest states has nearly quadrupled, you really can’t be all that surprised when things change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

posted by Mike in American Dream,history,Politics,Ranting and have No Comments

Of birthers, bicycles and wonderful Trick or Treaters

Short takes from a journey through a disorganized mind:

I’m pretty fed up with these idiots who keep insisting that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States and thus should not have been eligible to serve the last four years as president. I mean, he had three major obstacles to overcome if he were hiding something. I find it impossible to believe that if there was something to the claims, Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have used it against him in the primaries. Then Republicans certainly would have used it in the general election campaign. Finally, the “birthers” filed suits in court after court that were thrown out.

To believe that Obama really was ineligible, you almost have to believe that everyone is in on it, including numerous Republicans.

The whole thing is ridiculous anyway. The idea that a president had to be native-born was an 18th century fear of European royalty ruling our country. The American people should be the ones to make the decision, and if at various times people might have wanted to vote for Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger (Austrian born) or Henry Kissinger (German born) or for Democrat Jennifer Grantholm (Canadian born), they should have had that opportunity.

Admittedly, I’m prejudiced. I have a daughter who I honestly believe could have a great career in politics should she so desire, but even though she has been in this country since she was 7, she wasn’t born here. I shudder to think of a world where brilliant, personable people can’t run for president, but Michelle Bachman can.

***

Halloween in Jamaica

Speaking of my daughter Pauline, aka the mother of my grandchildren, she and husband Ryan made a big deal out of Halloween in their first year of three stationed in Jamaica. They ordered costumes online. Ryan was something called a Tauntaun, which is a character I failed to remember from the “Star Wars” movie, while Pauline and little Lex have costumes from “Star Trek” and Maddie is a princess.

I get a kick out of the look on Lex’s face. Halloween is three months before his birthday, and he is 1 year old now.

***

I am very impressed by Performance Bicycle. As I wrote last week, I ordered a road bike online. I was told it would be shipped from North Carolina and I would be able to pick it up from the Atlanta store in three weeks.

They cut 16 days off the time.

My bike arrived last Thursday — 16 days ahead of schedule.

I picked it up Saturday, and while I haven’t been on it yet, it’s only a matter of time.

It’s a lot different from my first bike — no basket on the back to carry things, for one thing.

But damned if it isn’t beautiful.

***

Tuesday is election day. Exercise your right to vote, whether you’re supporting the guy I like or the guy I don’t like.

Later.

 

posted by Mike in American Dream,Exercise,Family,Politics,Ranting and have No Comments

Boy, could we really use another FDR these days

“God watches out for drunks, little children and the United States of America.”

I don’t remember the first time I heard that, but it made me laugh knowingly. All throughout our country’s history, in its hour of greatest need, there have been great presidents. In the beginning, when we weren’t even sure what kind of country we would have, there was George Washington to refuse a crown and set precedent after precedent for the way presidents should behave. In 1860, with the Union falling apart, there was Abraham Lincoln to hold it together.

At the end of the Gilded Age, when the robber barons had all but raped the country, there was Theodore Roosevelt to step up with his big stick and shut them down.

The unfinished portrait

And then there was FDR.

Ever since the age of Reagan, conservatives have done their worst to downplay the effect of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 12 years in the White House. They claim the New Deal did nothing to lift the United States out of the Great Depression, that the economy didn’t really turn around until World War II started. They call him a socialist or even a fascist, but the one thing none of them seem to want to admit is that if Roosevelt hadn’t done what he did, it’s likely we would have gone down the same road as Germany, Italy or even Russia.

He was a wealthy man, no doubt, but his own misfortune — he contracted polio when he was nearly 40 years old — gave him great empathy for all the people who were suffering during the Depression.

Contrary to what you’ll hear from right wingers these days, Roosevelt didn’t start the welfare state. The money people got from the government so they could eat was money they worked for. Sure, maybe some were only doing things like sweeping the sidewalks, but FDR understood that people needed to do something to feel that they had earned the money.

Yes, there was another recession in 1937, but that was because Roosevelt — a traditionalist at heart — tried to keep a campaign promise and balance the federal budget. Austerity was the last thing the economy needed.

It was his true empathy for the poor and suffering that made the Democrats a majority party for a generation. That they don’t really seem to be one anymore speaks more to the fact that they have tried to cater to the wealthy, and as Harry Truman once said, give the voters a choice between a Republican and a Republican and they’ll vote for the Republican every time.

FDR had a real connection with the people, and he did a better job of communicating with them in his Fireside Chats than any other president before him or since him. He was the one man who could make a reluctant nation prepare for a war he knew would one day come to them, and he was the one who led them through the dark days after Pearl Harbor all the way up to his death on April 12, 1945.

The New York Times said it best in a eulogy editorial, telling its readers that a hundred years in the future, Americans would get down on their knees and thank God that Franklin Roosevelt had been in the White House when America had to stand up to barbarism.

Some will, of course, but what amazes me more than 67 years after his death is how much his legacy has been subjected to revisionist history by the descendants of the people on the far right who hated him beyond all reason. Oh, they don’t say the same things the haters did while he was alive. For one thing, all the ridiculous lies about how Roosevelt was secretly a Jew wouldn’t fly anymore. What anti-semitism that remains in this country is pretty much underground these days.

But the whole idea that we should help people who are down on their luck has come under attack. It’s amazing how many people treat a third-rate thinker like Ayn Rand as if she were a philosophical equal to Christ himself. People talk about makers and takers and look at the people who are struggling as if they were somehow morally inferior to those who are successful. When a major party candidate talks of 47 percent of Americans as people he could never convince to take responsibility for their own lives, it says as much about our country as it does about the man who said it.

Fifty years ago, Mitt Romney would have condemned himself to the far right fringe with that remark.

Today he’s probably got one chance in three of being elected president on Tuesday.

America has certainly changed.

We certainly are pressing our luck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

posted by Mike in American Dream,history,Politics,Ranting and have No Comments

If you work and treat people well, are you a sucker?

There are two kinds of people in this country …

Wow, there’s an original thought. You can divide people in about a billion ways, starting with men and women and finishing with who watches Honey Boo Boo and who doesn’t.

Give me a minute. I’m hoping to be a little more profound than that. The way I would divide the country is into people who think that if you’re honest, work hard and treat other people well, you’ll get ahead, and people who would call folks like that “suckers.”

Maybe they are, although I think that’s a little like blaming the victim for the crime. There have certainly been plenty of American workers whose companies made good products and turned a profit who absolutely couldn’t understand why people would close their factory and send the jobs to China — just to increase profits.

Average folks simply look at money differently than the uber-entitled rich. People living from paycheck to paycheck and deciding which bills will have to wait till next month might say that if they had a million dollars, all their problems would be solved. The main reason that isn’t true is that lifestyles expand to fit incomes. When I got my first full-time newspaper job in 1979, I was getting paid $180 a week. Less than $10,000 a year. I remember thinking if I could make $20,000 or even $30,000, that would solve my problems. Well, I had nicer apartments and a better car, and I paid my bills on time, but I knew I hadn’t exactly reached tall cotton.

But in general, if a working-class person comes into a windfall, they don’t all of a sudden step up and buy a Learjet or a Bentley. The ones who do are the ones who generally lose it all in the end.

The other side of the coin is the really wealthy, the ones who insist they built everything they have on their own without any help from anyone else. It’s funny, the ones who inherited their wealth are the ones who seem to be the most obnoxious about it. The four children of Walmart founder Sam Walton have spend tens of millions in campaign contributions to try and eliminate the estate tax. The sons of Fred Koch, who made billions in energy and then helped found the John Birch Society, have provided much of the funding for right-wing political groups in recent years.

Australia's $19 billion woman.

But the worst person of all isn’t even an American. Australian Gina Rinehart, who is worth about $19 billion, is the world’s richest woman. Her money comes from mining, and she has been whining about how much she has to pay Australians to work in her mines. She also had some good advice about class envy:

“There is no monopoly on becoming a millionaire. If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself — spend less time drinking, or smoking and socializing and more time working.”

Of course, Rinehart didn’t have to worry about any of those things. She inherited her money.

Now if you’re like me, you find yourself wondering why anyone would need $19 billion. I went through a thing with my friend Mick a few years back where we were talking about an insurance CEO who had made about $110 million the year before. Even figuring about half of it would go in taxes, the executive would still have more than $1 million a week.

So try this:

You get $1 million every Friday. The first Friday you buy a nice house. The second Friday you buy a nice car and set up college accounts for your kids. The third Friday …

You get the picture. Very soon, you’ve got more money piling up than you can spend — unless you decide you need four or five houses, 10 or 12 cars and all the other things that go along with being fabulously wealthy.

Some people read stuff like this and accuse me of hating rich people. That’s just not true. I’ve always been a fan of the “build a better mousetrap” types who come up with a product that improves our lives. But in the last 30 years or so we have seen the advent of jobs where people get rich just by moving money around. And when they move the money around, they try to increase the return on their investment.

That’s why there aren’t steel mills in Pennsylvania anymore, and why most of the textile mills have left the South for South Asia. Not because they can’t be profitable here, but because the profit margin is higher when the labor costs are lower. A business can be running a 10 percent profit margin, but if the “experts” think it should be making 12 percent, then something has to be cut somewhere.

What annoys me the most about it is the people who see unfettered capitalism — what former French President Jacques Chirac called “capitalisme sauvage” –  as the purest of all human motives. It’s as if we’re fine with assuming the worst of people. At least that way we can’t be disappointed.

The true irony is that a lot of these people who seem to worship at the altar of Ayn Rand and rugged individualism also claim to be Christians. It seems amazing to me that in this era that has lasted for about 30 years — back to Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority — the one part of Jesus’ teachings they seem to ignore is the most important part.

Helping the poor.

We don’t judge nations by the quality of their rich people. Nobody thinks America is a wonderful country because we have Donald Trump. The true measure of a country is the quality of life of, for lack of a better term, its middle class. And the real irony is that after doing pretty well in the post-war era, for the last few decades the American middle class has been on life support.

Average folks used to have pensions. Not anymore.

Average folks used to have healthcare through work. Not so much anymore.

For all the ridicule thrown at European “socialism,”  middle-class workers in Germany, Sweden or France generally aren’t filled with anxiety over medical bills, they aren’t wondering if they’ll ever be able to retire and they’re getting more than twice as much vacation time as American workers.

The one thing about the middle class in both Europe and here is that most folks play by the rules. They don’t look at other people as potential victims, or suckers, or steps along the road to getting rich.

There’s really nothing wrong with this country that better rich people couldn’t fix.

 

 

 

 

 

posted by Mike in American Dream,Politics,Ranting and have No Comments

Seniors without money a sad product of our culture

I read a sad story the other day. It said that nearly half of all Americans die with no significant financial assets, that a ridiculously high number wind up with nothing more than Social Security to fund their golden years.

I wish it surprised me, and I wish I thought it was going to get better anytime soon.

Oh, it may eventually. I’m not holding my children up as typical — they are anything but — when it comes to being prepared, but both of them have made saving for retirement a priority since their first jobs after college. If anyone who didn’t inherit a million dollars will be prepared, they will.

Bigger and better toys.

Of course, they aren’t living the typical “American Dream,” which these days seem to mean buying a bigger television with more bells and whistles every time one becomes available and gobbling up every new, trendy you that comes along. I’m not sure it is still true — I’ve not seen the numbers recently — but for years, the percentage of their salaries that typical Americans were saving slipped below zero.

It’s ironic. I saw a question asked by a pollster a few years ago asking Americans their opinion of which of the following three occurrences would be most disastrous for the American economy:

1. A $1 per gallon increase in the price of gasoline.

2. Ten percent inflation.

3. A 10 percent increase in the personal savings rate.

It’s stunning to realize that the worst possible occurrence for the economy would be the third choice, because if people started saving 10 percent more of their money, it would be that were spending 10 percent less. A 10 percent decline in consumer spending would be disastrous. In fact, a decline in consumer spending is one reason the 2007-09 recession has hung around for as long as it has.

My grandparents had one television in their house for the entire time I knew them. They didn’t watch TV in bed, or in the kitchen, or out on the porch. Their TV set was in the living room, and they didn’t change it because a newer, better model came along. They only time they changed sets — with the exception of switching from black and white to color — was when one of their sets wore out.

My parents were pretty much the same. They had more than one set, but they didn’t change for trendy reasons or in response to advertising. They changed when a set wore out.

My neighbors — and I hate to single them out, so I won’t mention names — have a big-screen, HD television on their patio.

God bless the consumer society.

Of course, we live in a community of relatively well-off senior citizens. There aren’t many people here who will die with nothing, God willing and the creek don’t rise.

As for me, I wish I could be proud of myself. Any prosperity I have has had little to do with me and everything to do with my wife. I look around my office and I see a wall of books and hundreds of movies on DVD. I see souvenirs of my career and all sorts of other stuff. I wonder if I would have been happier had I led a more ascetic life, but I suppose I will never know.

I didn’t rise above my culture.

I wallowed in it.

 

 

posted by Mike in American Dream,baby boom,Gadgets,Happiness,Movies,Ranting,retirement and have No Comments

Great books aren’t just for boys or girls

My younger sister is a great thinker and a real activist. She sent me an article she wrote for The Horn Book in which she argued very effectively that we ought to stop dividing children’s books into books for boys and books for girls.

Thinking back to my own childhood, when I read several hundred books a year, I remember that boys were pushed toward Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys while girls were given Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins. That’s probably oversimplifying it — I never read much of any of those series — but I read a ton of baseball books and most of the science fiction written by Robert Heinlein.

A lot of those books came from the Carnegie Library in my mother’s home town. I usually spent several weeks visiting my grandparents every summer, and I would check out five or six books every other day. But there were a few books — rare ones — that I would read over and over again as the years went by.

They weren’t the so-called iconic books of my generation. I never read any Tolkien, and books like “On the Road” left me cold. I did read “The Catcher in the Rye” a couple of times, but I never thought it really spoke to me. Holden Caulfield was half a generation ahead of me.

There was one book, though, that sort of came out of nowhere for me. My dad was born in New York City and grew up in Brooklyn. Starting when I was 7 or 8 years old, we spent time with our grandparents in Brooklyn nearly every summer. I never made it to Ebbets Field, but I saw so many other fascinating things about America’s favorite city-within-a-city.

I don’t know how old I was the first time I read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” The book had been published in 1943, and the story it told occurred more than a generation before that. I don’t think it was the first book I ever read with a female protagonist, but it was certainly one of the first ones that really resonated with me.

It was such a beautiful story, so completely American. Francie Nolan lived in grinding poverty in the years just before World War I, but loved her life and believed that it would get better.

She was the granddaughter of immigrants from Austria and Ireland, with a hard-working mother and a charming, alcoholic father who worked — when he worked at all — as a singing waiter. She essentially had nothing, but she loved so many things about her life and didn’t feel like anyone owed her anything.

The amazing thing about the story — and I downloaded it onto my Nook to see if it was as I remembered — is that while yes, Francie is a girl, there isn’t anything “girly” about the story at all. She is first and foremost a person, an individual about whom we care deeply.

Second, she is completely and totally an American of the period in which she lived. She isn’t some phony Horatio Alger story. She doesn’t go from rags to riches; she survives her childhood and is headed off to college. It’s pretty apparent she has a chance at a good life.

What more can anyone ask of a real story?

 

 

 

 

posted by Mike in American Dream,books,Family,memories and have No Comments

A sax, a trunk and all of a sudden it’s 1986 again

It’s amazing how much my relationship with television has changed over the years.

I was never a big TV viewer when I was young. While I ultimately became a big fan of “Star Trek,” I never watched even one episode during the years it was shown on ABC. The first show that ever became “appointment” television for me was “Dallas,” which came on in 1978. It was around that same time that I first got HBO, and for most of the next decade I watched a lot more movies on cable than I did regular shows with all their commercials.

I still had a few shows that were appointment TV for me — “Dynasty,” “Moonlighting” and, starting in 1986, “LA Law.”

I don’t know if there was ever a show that had a cooler theme song/credits sequence. Starting with the jazz saxophone riff, and then the sound of the trunk slamming shut and showing the California vanity license plate reading “LA LAW.”

That image totally resonated with me. I was born in California, and even though I had never lived there, I had visited the state with my first wife in 1978 and then by myself earlier in 1986. My goal from the time I had started my career was someday to make it to the West Coast, and “LA Law” was so totally ’80s California that almost every time I watched it, it reinforced my desire someday to live there.

Two months after the show came on the air, I moved to Colorado.  Two years later I moved on to Nevada, still watching “LA Law” every Thursday night at 10 p.m. (it had been 9 p.m. in St. Louis and in Colorado) The show lasted until May 1994, by which time I had lived in Los Angeles for four years. I had stopped watching by then. Most television dramas start getting weird after five or six years, and I was working a lot of nights by then anyway.

Appointment television was becoming a lot less important to me by then. In the last 20 years, I only had one show that mattered to me that much, and after four or five seasons, even “The West Wing” wasn’t worth making the effort.

Of course, the advent of DVDs changed all that. All of a sudden, I could buy an entire year’s worth of a show and watch it as quickly — or as slowly — as I wanted, and I didn’t have to sit through commercials. There were numerous shows I hadn’t watched that became favorites on DVD — “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Boston Legal” and others.

But “LA Law” never seemed to come out on DVD. The earlier hit show by creator Steven Bochco — “Hill Street Blues” — hadn’t done all that well, and to date only two seasons have made it to DVD.

Now season one of “LA Law” is out, although technically I don’t think it has been released in this country. The box that came from Amazon says it’s a Region 2 (Europe) DVD, although it plays just fine on my Blu-Ray player. The schedule for release in the United Kingdom is for a season to come out every three months, so who knows?

I do know that at the beginning of every episode, hearing the sax riff and the slamming trunk and then seeing the license plate takes me back in a way no other shows do. For a minute, it’s 1986 again. I’m 36 years old and still working my way toward making my dreams come true.

 

 

 

 

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posted by Mike in American Dream,California,Happiness,memories,television and have No Comments

We may have lost something, but we can get it back

When did we become a country in which everyone felt they had the right to tell everyone else how they should or shouldn’t live?

My guess is that it was right about the same time when our politicians slipped from simply smarmy down to viciously venal.

It actually all fits together. We evolved from people who read books and had intelligent discussions into people who vegetated in front of their television sets and only believed what the loudest voices told us to believe.  This may be difficult to fathom, but until first radio and then television came along, one of the most popular forms of entertainment in small-town America was going to an auditorium and listening to lectures.

Chautauqua

The Chautauqua movement would be almost impossible to comprehend these days. The very idea that most of the folks in a small town would go to an auditorium and spend two or three hours listening to a presentation designed to make them more informed about some aspect of the world is so far beyond modern reality that it might as well be science fiction.

Benjamin Franklin was the one who said the Founding Fathers had given us a republic — if we could keep it — and H.L. Mencken was the one who said in the 1920s that the republican would fall within a hundred years. Mencken gave two reasons — stupidity and greed — and both appear to be in full flight in 2012.

It would be easy — and probably wrong — to say the average member of the public is stupid because he’d rather watch “Jersey Shore” than PBS or listen to Justin Bieber instead of grand opera. The average person is a lot more stressed by life than folks were a hundred years ago.

My late father often told us that our generation had a lot more stressful choices to make than his had. He had health insurance through his job for his entire career, and he had a pension when he retired. He didn’t have to buy insurance or make decisions about 401(k) accounts or individual retirement accounts. His generation — the one that survived the Depression and won World War II — had far more stability in their careers. My dad worked for one employer for his entire career. By contrast, my closest friend hasn’t had a full-time job with full benefits for more than two or three years of the last 25 years.

The fact is, more and more people feel like control over their lives is slipping away from them. Whether it’s conservatives telling them they can’t have an abortion or liberals telling them they shouldn’t be smoking or eating meat, everybody seems to be in somebody’s face these days. And as worried as so many people are about their finances, many certainly resent being told how they have to spend that money.

One of the biggest problems is that while once we were a country where people sincerely believed we were all in it together, today working people have as much in common with Donald Trump or Bill Gates as they do with an extraterrestrial. In fact, just about the only thing we all have in common anymore is that we all are born and we all die.

I just finished reading a book I first read nearly 50 years ago — Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach.” The Gregory Peck-Ava Gardner film made from the book is a classic, but there really aren’t many movies made from books that surpass the printed word.

The book is far more poignant in dealing with its subjects as the end of the world approaches, a world destroyed by politicians and military men. Parents worry about dying before their infant children, an old woman wonders what will happen to her little dog when she isn’t around to feed him. Folks who never gave a thought to international politics, who wanted nothing more than to be left alone to live their lives, died for the hubris of the rich and powerful.

My guess is that most people don’t care at all how other people live their lives as long as those other people don’t affect them. My friend is fond of that old cliche about your right to throw your fist ending where his nose begins, but he has always defined his nose rather loosely. Back in 1978, when you could still smoke a cigarette without making a federal case of it, I remember him and his girlfriend hassling someone in a cafeteria who was smoking at the next table.

I’ve never been a smoker, but I have a feeling that’s where our society’s holier-than-thou complex got started. Once was the time that people who smoked were courteous about it and tried to avoid blowing smoke where it wasn’t wanted. But after a while, that wasn’t good enough, and now there really are some people who would like to prevent smokers from lighting up in their own homes.

Is it even possible anymore for us just to respect each other as human beings? It doesn’t affect me in any negative way if gay people want to marry each other, or if kids want to meet at the flagpole before school starts and praise Jesus. But if you were to listen to some people, these forms of love and worship are worse for our country than all three of the Kardashian sisters combined.

I suppose the problem is that issues became so complex — or at least seemed to — that average people decided they had no chance to understand them. So they chose the loudest voice that made sense to them and started believing everything they heard from that person.

Once was the time we elected people like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Now we have a president who started running for office after two years as a U.S. senator and a challenger who doesn’t even have the charm of Thurston Howell in “Gilligan’s Island.” We call people intellectuals and great thinkers whose politics come straight from the novels of a fourth-rate writer like Ayn Rand.

Couldn’t we at least try for John Steinbeck?

I don’t think it’s too late to save our country, but time is definitely a-wastin’. We need to get rid of the bums, the hypocrites and the grifters and look for some honest folks to make our laws. But more important, maybe most important of all, we need to understand that a gay couple in Hawaii and a foot-washing Baptist couple in Alabama have a lot more in common than they do dividing them.

Most folks just want someone to love, someone to share their happiness and the chance to work for a better life.

Oh, and most of them aren’t at all fond of politicians.

See, that’s a start.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

posted by Mike in American Dream,Happiness,Politics,Ranting and have No Comments

Time to get back to what once made us special

“There is a discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; and millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich; and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere.”

That’s our world, our poor, troubled world early in the second decade of the 21st century. The rich get richer and the poor amass debt and buy guns.

“These are differing evils, but they are common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility toward the sufferings of our fellows.”

We tend to forget that only God, however we define Him, can provide perfect justice. Whatever we do is by nature flawed by the filter of our own weaknesses, viewed through the prism of our limitations.

“But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek — as we do — nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”

Do we really believe that all men are brothers, that all women are sisters under God’s rule? If we did, I doubt any of us could ever use words like “nigger” or “raghead” or “kike” without feeling guilty. I know I don’t think there are very many people in this world who would reject purposeful, happy lives if they had the chance to live them.

“Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men. And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”

Forget Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein and look a lot closer to home. If those of us who have been hateful toward those in power can accept the Bushes, the Cheneys and the Gingriches on the right or the Obamas, Bidens and Clintons on the left as fellow men and women who want only to do the right thing as they see it, and they can accept us the same way, we will go a very long way toward solving our problems.

“Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.”

It’s going to take a great deal of moral courage. Not the false courage that demands others follow the same path to God we do, or live the same lifestyle we have chosen. No, we need the courage to stand up and say children are starving, women are being tortured and men all over the world are being denied basic freedom and dignity.

“For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves, on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that effort.”

Is there a clue here as to the speaker of this amazing piece of rhetoric? The speech was made by an American, far from American shores in a part of the world in desperate need of freedom and dignity at the time it was delivered.

“The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.”

In 1966, speaking to an audience of young people at South Africa’s Day of Affirmation ceremonies, a 41-year-old United States senator from New York spoke in favor of people doing the right thing.

“Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.”

Bobby Kennedy in South Africa

His name was Robert Francis Kennedy, and I believe his assassination in June 1968 probably changed American history for the worse more than any act of political terrorism since the killing of Abraham Lincoln.  Bobby Kennedy died nearly 44 years ago, and in that time we have not had a single effective American leader who urged us to try and be better than ourselves. This year is another election year, and much is at stake. But whether we re-elect Barack Obama or turn him out, we can do far more for ourselves and our country by listening to the words Kennedy spoke 44 years ago.

They aren’t “ragheads.” They aren’t “niggers” or “gooks” or “skinheads.” They’re people, just like us, trying to raise children and find happiness.  And if they hate us, the way we defeat them is not by hating them in return. Not by killing them or conquering their countries.

That isn’t it at all. We defeat them by accepting them as people at the same time we reject their actions.

“Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men. And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”

We don’t need any more Nixons, those who play one group against another to gain money, fame and power.

We’ve been there, done that and have lost much of what once made us special.

Somehow, we need to try something different.

posted by Mike in American Dream,Happiness,history,love,Ranting and have No Comments
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