Friday, November 30, 2012

Christmas Letters

I dislike re-runs. But occasionally, something rankles me to the point that I have to state my opinion more than once. If I feel that one confrontation with an issue has been insufficient, I may take another swing at it.

Today's re-run concerns "form" Christmas letters. My first "form" letter of the holiday season arrived yesterday. Reading it made me want to run into the street and lay down in front of oncoming traffic.

I had been expecting this particular letter since Thanksgiving. It's always the first to arrive and by far the most unpleasant initiation into the holiday season. What on earth makes people write about every pain, stress, illness or tragedy that they experienced during the past year? Does the writer think that the mishaps we all occasionally encounter are the least bit interesting to others? Seeing an envelope with this couple's return address sticker in the mailbox is enough to send a shiver down my back. Not only is their letter a diatribe on misery, but their letters are always written in the third person. Did they dictate to a secretary?

Let's chat a moment about the form letter idea. It seems that many people send form letters now rather than take the time to write an actual sentence or two. Remember writing? Remember pens? Sure, folks are busy in this silly hustle-bustle world. And it might actually take a minute to shape a few words on the bottom of the card. But somehow the gesture of writing a line shows that the sender actually cares about the recipient.

There have been times when I have typed enclosures to my Christmas cards. But even those letters were personal, including the recipients' names and no two letters were the same. Typing is an easy method of communication and there is a wide variety of attractive holiday printer paper available. But no letter should be intended for wholesale complaining about the injustice of one's life.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about Abraham Lincoln, especially in the shadow of Steven Spielberg's new film "Lincoln." Lincoln was a man who seemed to know his audience, a talent lost on many politicians and celebrities today. He knew when to talk and when to be quiet. At the occasion of the Gettysburg's Address, Lincoln followed orator Edward Everett whose pomposity bored the crowd for nearly two hours. No doubt Everett's listeners tuned out his message long before it ended.

Lincoln then rose and spoke for only a few minutes. There is some debate over precisely the words he chose and at least five various versions of the famous speech exist. But the unanimous consensus appears to be that he "nailed" the speech, carefully selecting each word and making every word count. The result was heartfelt and personal and conveyed to the audience that the president recognized the country's pain resulting from the Civil War.

Reading my first "form" letter yesterday, I couldn't help but roll my eyes and chortle a bit at the flagrant whining and self-pitying. Such is the tone of many of the letters that are sent during this joyous season which, after all, is not about us. Senders of such tedious greetings are missing the point entirely.

Like many folks, I have gathered friends and acquaintances throughout life, most of whom I hear from only at Christmas. That's a result of our mobile culture. Hearing a year-end update should be a pleasant experience. I would rather receive three handwritten lines of personal communication than three pages of self-indulgence.

This year, if you are tempted to send a "form" letter along with a Christmas card, stop and ask yourself these questions:

* Does what I'm writing matter to anyone outside of earshot?
* Is what I'm writing something that I want people to remember once read?
* Does what I'm writing make me sound silly, shallow, petty and selfish?
* Is this how I want people to remember me?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, find a nice, fresh pen that doesn't leave behind blobs of ink. Then write a few light-hearted, warm and personal words such as "Have a great holiday season," "Think of you often and hope you are well," or "Best wishes to everyone for a wonderful 2013."

See? That isn't too difficult. Feel free to use one of these phrases as your own. I won't mind.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I'm Not a Child

I have never appreciated being treated like a child -- even when I actually was a child. I hated being spoken to as though I had landed in some alien territory. My parents socialized with several childless couples, friends of theirs from before they had mid-life children. So visits with these couples during the 1950s exposed me to adult conversations and mannerisms. I learned to appreciate conversation on an adult level.

That's one reason I'm so insulted by advertising -- it treats all consumers as though we were unsophisticated slobs who salivate at products being waved before us. We are not children and are willing to hold onto our money until the right opportunity comes along.

You may have noticed a plethora of media advertising recently. Retailers and businesses of all types are frantic to get our attention and our money. Apparently they believe that they can wear down our resistance with repetitive messages imploring us to spend.

Newspaper advertising usually arrives in the form of large, glossy supplements resembling pricey magazines. These multi-page behemoths feature the items we are made to feel we must purchase for Christmas. Skinny models and unreasonably well-behaved kids smile broadly as they cavort through the pages. Fortunately for newspaper readers, the glossy enclosures can be perused and discarded very quickly. I don't know if the advertisers are aware of this sorting technique. Perhaps they believe shoppers wander through their stores clutching the flyers feverishly. Sorry to disappoint. The average flyer remains on my coffee table for .5 nano-seconds. A huge waste of trees, fellas, although I do recycle. An eye-scan through the paper debris and I can resume breakfast.

On the other end of the advertising onslaught -- there's television. Its incessant advertising blather is enough to put me over the edge. It can annoy the most die hard Yuletide fan.

In the early days of television broadcasting, advertisements were usually 30 or 60 seconds long. That got viewers used to few -- even though longer -- commercials. But in the 1990s, the rules for television programming were altered. The FCC dictates were relaxed to allow up to 21 minutes of non-programmed viewing (such as commercials, public service announcements and promotional material) within each hour. Commercials began to shrink over time from 30 and 60 seconds to 10 and 15 seconds. As a result, when a break in a program occurs now, viewers are subjected to numerous short and often obnoxious ads.

Watching these bursts of commercials reminds me of stepping outdoors on a summer's evening and turning on the porch light. That action brings hoards of insects out of the darkness. As the bugs attack, the flick their wings against your face, nearing your eyes and mouth. You swat at them wildly, trying to deflect the assault. The best escape is to hurriedly open the door and switch off the light. That adequately describes how I feel when experiencing an onslaught of numerous short, shallow TV ads.

Attention advertisers: How about trying to be creative? If you are invading my living room, how about entertaining me? Why not make me want to watch your mindless commercial rather than retreating to the kitchen to refill my iced tea? If women are a target shopping audience (and we often do the majority of shopping), give us something to keep us watching. I am more likely to watch an ad featuring an attractive man than one showing a child having a tantrum. It really doesn't matter what product is being hyped. It could be recycled galoshes. But if there is a hunky male featured, I'm going to pay more attention. Just sayin'.

Like the blizzard of political ads that has (finally) subsided, we should take consolation in the fact that the holiday blitz will be over in the near future. But in the meantime, they are quite simply not worth my time to watch.

Remember advertisers -- if you want women to help your sales figures, give us more to look at than Donald Trump and Justin Bieber. There are plenty of households where money is spent by women between the ages of 16 and 90.

How about a little eye candy? Oh, and remember -- we are not children.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Here It Comes!

Now that Thanksgiving is over, we must adjust our thinking and accept that it's time to focus on Christmas.

On Wednesday afternoon, I was standing in line at the local butcher's counter waiting to pick up my fresh turkey. (BTW, if you ever have a chance to order a fresh turkey instead of a frozen zombie bird, please do so. The taste is entirely different.) A tune was playing on a speaker, barely audible above the shoppers' voices. That tune was "Silent Night." Wednesday's date was November 21, over a month before Christmas.

Doesn't that seem a bit premature? Could there have been a single customer in the store who didn't realize that another holiday was lurking just over the horizon? Couldn't we go another week or two before commencing with the carols?

The newspaper yesterday morning -- Thanksgiving morning -- consisted of very little news and 15 pounds of advertising flyers. Everyone recognizes that holiday business amounts to a huge percentage of annual earnings for retailers. But perhaps they could take the money spent on newspaper advertising and use those funds to reduce the prices a few dollars. Everyone would benefit.

I have never understood what mania drives folks to camp out days in advance of Black Friday hoping to score some big item at a steep discount. The news on Monday --November 19 -- showed some folks in Florida already camped out in front of some big box store, awaiting the arrival of Friday. They had pitched tents and were cooking hot dogs on the grill as though they were about to tailgate. Actually they were waiting to spend money four days later. One of the men said that his mother would come down and see the group on Thanksgiving, bringing her good dishes and plenty of food.

Statistically, the Black Friday purchase prices do not represent huge discounts. They bring in customers and attract media attention. However, the same widgets that are discounted 15% for Black Friday will likely be stacked on the shelves in a week or two at 25% off. Some stores will naturally panic when sales aren't as high as expected and will continue to reduce prices repeatedly until Christmas in order to bring up their revenue.

Black Friday is truly a media-inspired event. It brings out the cameras to show footage on television of shoppers bursting through the doors. Local newspapers cover the sales, too, plastering photos on the front page of the "lucky" ones who resisted the need to bathe and changes clothes for days on end to save $2.35 on a sweater. The media does its best to make the non-attendees feel as though they have missed the boat.

I don't stand in line to pay for things, with a few exceptions. The grocery store, of course, often requires that we stand in line. But if a store really wants my money, they will either have enough cashiers available to speed up the process or I go elsewhere. Several years ago I was in the pre-Christmas shopping spirit at a Gap in Chicago. Sweaters were cute and available at a drastic reduction. So I took my purchases and headed happily toward the check out. Then I realized that the cashier's line was longer than the line I had endured to help elect Bill Clinton (first term). The voter line had a purpose. The Gap's line did not. I put my items down and left the store.

When I lived in Northern Virginia, I recall one after-Christmas sale extravaganza at a large shopping mall. The anchor stores had been advertising huge cuts and here was my big chance to find a bargain on the latest fashions. I arrived early, money and credit cards at hand. However, there was NO place to park. Recognizing how large parking lots are in comparison to the actual shopping area, I was undeterred at first. I drove around and around through the filled aisles until it suddenly occurred to me how foolish was my behavior.

In those days, I had virtually two days a week to take care of chores like buying groceries, hair salon trips, retrieval of dry cleaning, accessing veterinary care -- all the things that many folks squeeze in throughout the week. Living as I did and working long days meant frivolous tasks were allotted time only on weekends. So why was I driving around on a Saturday trying to give folks my money when I could be doing something more important? After a few more turns through the aisles, I went home and put my feet on the coffee table.

Spending money is bad enough, especially in these hard times. But buying holiday decorations or gifts should not be a Herculean task. A bargain is where you find it. And sometimes, all it takes is the click of a mouse. So that is exactly how I plan to shop this season -- again.

Long live online shopping!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Send in the Optimists

Gotta love optimism. It is a rare and valuable condition these days. Optimists are people that we need about now.

A friend of mind has recently been battling depression. Thankfully, she is doing better after admitting the existence of her problem and seeking help. She said one adjustment that has really helped is not watching the news on television. Oh, she still keeps current on events by reading newspaper headlines and scanning items of interest on the internet. But ignoring the overwhelming problems of the world helps her to avoid dealing with problems over which she has no control.

I'd heard this theory before. Some folks -- including those who like to control matters that life throws their way -- feel overwhelmed by hearing about all the bad things that are happening at any given time. These feelings can be overwhelming and counter-productive.

Take tonight's news, for instance. A half hour of network news included: the fighting in Israel/Gaza; details of a recent and extensive house explosion in Indianapolis (which has now been deemed a homicide); recovery efforts in New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy; and a well-known puppeteer from a famous children's puppet group who resigned following allegations of a very personal nature. Other than that, there was on-going updates from the resignation of a former CIA director, a report about people's lives being ruined by internet hackers and a story about striking personnel at a well-known discount store just in time for holiday shopping. Whew. And that occurred in a half-hour minus commercial time.

Things have been bad in the world and certainly in this country on many occasions in the past two centuries. Limiting consideration to that time frame eliminates such earlier events as the fall of Rome, the bubonic plague, The Inquisition and The Hundred Years War. This time restriction still allows us to face the rise of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, several wars -- The Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict and Vietnam, plus the Great Depression, presidential assassinations and the Civil Rights Movement. No doubt other atrocities occurred and have not been listed here. But let's face it -- a lot of really awful things have transpired on our planet.

In many of these incidents which occurred before the 1940s, there was little public awareness at the time. There was no television and many areas of the country without radio. Newspapers identified some of the turmoil and movie theatres showed snippets of some stories in a newsreel along with featured films. The public didn't know a lot of the details which was unfortunate for public information.

But was it really unfortunate that they didn't know? How would open dialogue about the existence of bubonic plague have made the public feel? No doubt there would be panic. Hysteria. Violence. What could the majority of people do about such a matter if they had known? Nothing. As the plague swept Europe, villagers heard stories about the approaching sickness. They had little choice but to wait until illness arrived and deal with it as best they could. Sometimes, it might be better if we didn't know about every lurid event over which we are powerless. Perhaps a little ignorance is bliss.

With the approach of the year end, the daily mail is filled with pleas for donations to help various charities. Each day brings another stack of solicitations. Most of us donate what we can as best we can whether serving as a volunteer or providing donations. No one can be expected to give to every worthy cause. In some instances, we need to turn off the sense of panic that such inability brings.

Some people are able to do just that. They remain optimistic about the "big picture" of life and do what they can. I admire optimism. It is optimism that keeps us moving forward and facing the world each day. It is not an easy trait to develop but unfortunately it is a trait which is easy to lose. I used to be such an optimist that some people actually told me I was too smug about life. Well, there is nothing like a few life experiences to take the spirit of optimism out of a person. Once lost, it is difficult to regain.

Looking at the end of another calendar year, I hope we can all find a little optimism waiting for us in our holiday gift exchange.

It's a wonderful gift indeed.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Facing Hubris

Hu-bris: 1. PRIDE excessive pride or arrogance 2. EXCESSIVE AMBITION the excessive pride and ambition that usually leads to the downfall of a hero in classical tragedy.

It was only in the last few years that I began to use the word hubris. Its current popularity is evidence that hubris may have risen to an epidemic level in recent years.

In recent days the national media has been in a frenzy about a particular military professional and former CIA director who was discovered to be involved in some type of indiscretion. Revelation of details relating to the matter have expanded to involve another high-ranking military general along with several other individuals. The entire episode appears to be quite complicated.

None of this should come as a complete surprise. Hubris is now out of control.

Having lived in various corners of the country and worked at several jobs over the years, I have direct knowledge of several cases of hubris. I can only imagine how many other cases of similar behavior have occurred. These are stories to be shared in the break room but do not warrant media coverage. There must be countless examples floating around out there, let alone the stories that make the headlines.

Any analysis of hubris must include scam artists. These are people who offer to install vinyl siding or repair a driveway, asking for money in advance. Of course, they disappear along with your money. Other scams include fund raisers for people who aren't actually sick. How about email scams which outline details of how a significant amount of the writer's money is frozen in a foreign bank? Upon receipt of your bank information or social security number, a large percentage of the sequestered money will be yours.

There are military veterans with storied records who never actually served in the military. Writers with highly-regarded educations who never attended the colleges identified on their resumes. Some people have reportedly impersonated medical professionals without bothering to be licensed.

This week I read a story of a comptroller in a small Midwestern town who pleaded guilty to embezzling $53 million from the city's accounts which allowed her to live lavishly while she continued to handle the town's finances. She will likely go to prison.

In my own experience, I know first-hand of several cases of hubris. One staff worker with a master key and access to offices was arrested for removing personal items from locked offices. Another person with similar access in a different setting took blank checks from Accounting, ran them through the check protector and then cashed them.   This does not even include the so-called "dalliances" which occur frequently in the workplace. Some such relationships are conducted with comparative discretion. Others are not.

Public examples of big-time hubris include famous athletes who may choose to use performance-enhancing aids, then vow to the press -- or even to Congress -- that they did not. They must believe themselves to be above the rules.

Some of these examples date from years ago, before cell phones had cameras and Facebook exposure was widespread. It's amazing to find that anyone -- like a former U.S. Senator -- would post compromising photos of themselves on Facebook without knowing that potentially millions of folks can see them. Stories of such poor judgment are rampant. "I didn't intend for everyone to see them" is a line often quoted in connection with such stories.

Poor judgment. At one time or another, most of us have displayed poor judgment. Telling a friend how much you dislike his/her current partner by saying "I'm glad you got rid of him/her. You deserve better." Then when the couple inevitably reunites, you have one less friend. Poor judgment.

However, displays of hubris are often headline grabbers. Reading about such events, it's natural to ask "What was the person thinking?"

Best to keep a watchful eye for our own lapse of good judgment to avoid making headlines. Hubris may be lurking around the next corner.





Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Renovation Time

One side effect of the approaching holiday season is that many of us decide to begin household projects. Whether families are expecting company during Christmas or entertaining for New Years, most people have at least a few undone chores.

The call is heard: get the projects done. Cool weather is always more conducive to indoor projects. In addition, the end of the calendar year gives us a deadline to finish tasks.

Since moving into my house a number of years ago, there was one, looming task remaining: redoing the kitchen. Why was this task delayed? Mostly because I could not decide what to do. Each time a new trend would emerge, I would cut pictures from magazines trying to analyze options. What style to try? What colors would look best?

The kitchen was finished a few weeks ago and the result is great. But the interruption to daily life far worse than anticipated. The work only took a couple of weeks, but workers were here daily and access to the kitchen nonexistent. Still, it looks great now and I didn't have to do much of the actual work.

A couple of recent events brought remodeling efforts to mind.

First, I was watching an HGTV program about people who purchased unusual buildings and remade them into fabulous homes. The buildings had all been abandoned and decrepit, including a classic old New York bank, a Spanish-style California school and a 19th century church. In each case, the buyers and subsequent homeowners had the vision to recognize the architectural beauty of the building and its potential. Each renovation was massive and no doubt frequently overwhelming. But the end results were spectacular.

What motivates someone mid-project to continue to the finish? There are probably countless untold stories of abandoned renovations where the task became too difficult or large to complete. Perhaps the buyer experienced some type of set back -- financial, personal, medical -- and was unable to complete the work. Perhaps the buyer had a spouse/partner who said, "Enough already."

Several years ago I worked with a woman whose husband was a contractor. He had begun remodeling their own kitchen many years earlier. "It's still not done," she would remark, shaking her head. "He works on other people's remodels all day long and by the time he gets home, the last thing he wants to do is more of the same."

I have to give kudos to those renovators who can stick with an overwhelming project until it is done.

The other event prompting thoughts of home repairs was the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy. Seeing the devastation suffered by folks on the East Coast is heartbreaking. I know what it is to encounter mold and water damage and cannot imagine how anyone can begin the process of clean up. Not only did they have to endure the storm, the frightening winds and rain, but they had to immediately turn their attention to rebuilding/repairing with no time for personal recovery.

Each time the news features stories of communities that have suffered flooding, tornado damage or wildfires, I cringe for the residents. They are dealing with loss on so many levels at once. They have lost everything, perhaps even loved ones. Many have become separated from their pets. They are without comforts, personal items, documents they might need. How can they begin to "fix" something forever gone?

Volunteer efforts appear to be strong, providing food, clothing and shelter within a short period. Volunteer agencies also step forward to help in the long run with clean up and rebuilding.

But as of today, some homeowners are still without power nearly two weeks after the storm hit. I cannot imagine what it takes to continue bravely under such conditions. People who keep their nose to the grindstone and forge on toward the future are truly to be admired.

Knowing that people have lost everything is a sobering thought. It makes the rest of our rather trivial concerns irrelevant by comparison.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Cats Rule

Thank goodness the election is over. Alas, one of my favorite candidates did not win his senate seat despite conducting a clean campaign and looking exceedingly handsome in each photo.

That would be Hank, a cat in Virginia who hoped to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Hank won 6,000 write-in votes and supporters contributed $16,000 to animal rescue groups on his behalf. It's rare to see a candidate with that much class who works tirelessly for the benefit of the community. Gotta give Hank credit.

I have always had immense respect for cats. Dogs are nice in their place. Birds brighten their environment, singing and even talking clearly. There are many other species which make good household pets: hamsters, gerbils, fish and ferrets to name only a few. However, it's hard to top cats as the all-round kings of Petdom.

Just like identifying what constitutes a truly attractive man, the secret to the appeal of cats is their eyes. When observing a cat, most people immediately attempt eye contact. Looking in our eyes is a cat's way of scoping out visitors and confirming they are non-threatening. Many cat behavior experts advise against locking into a staring contest with cats, who may interpret this as a sign of aggression and will often attack if they sense a challenger.

There is "someone home" behind a cat's eyes. The cat demonstrates focus as he analyzes what is going on around him. He pays attention to activities, odors, moving objects, even light and shadow. His eyes may open widely as he deciphers the signs, looking for threats and escape routes if needed. Sadly, these same skills are not evident in many human beings.

Some people simply do not like cats. "They're sneaky." "They bring in mice/birds and that scares me." "They have too much attitude." Admittedly cats are masters of their own domain and people who share space with a cat are keenly aware that they must pay attention to the cat's requests.

Hank, the Virginia candidate, could not express himself to his audience. Many other cats do speak to us -- everyday and often -- but many people fail to read the signals. Perhaps one of the greatest failures of cat ownership is neglecting to heed the signs. It is up to the cat's handler to pay attention, read the signs and obey.

My two cats Max and Tesla keep me on my toes. They co-exist despite being completely different and seriously independent. Max is five years old, 15 pounds and a gentle giant. He looks threatening but the ring of the doorbell or a stray clap of thunder will send him under the nearest bed. Tesla is nearly a year old, persuasion personified. She can get anyone to pick her up and make over her. Tesla knows she is irresistible and wants everyone to remember that fact.

But I am not the only feline fan around. Countless celebrities through time have indicated their partiality for cats. There is something about cats which unites us and which folks more famous than me have recorded. Here are some samples:

"Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea."
-- Robert A. Heinlein

"If animals could speak, the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow; but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much." -- Mark Twain

"I would like to see anyone, prophet, king or God, convince a thousand cats to do the same thing at the same time." -- Neil Gaiman

"The only escape from the miseries of life are music and cats…" -- Albert Schweitzer

"What greater gift than the love of a cat." -- Charles Dickens

"A cat has absolute emotional honesty; human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not." -- Ernest Hemingway

"The smallest feline is a masterpiece." -- Leonardo da Vinci

If you are also a fan of the feline, take pride in your position. If you are among those who never found the appeal of cats, perhaps you should rethink your position. After all, there are many great minds who have found something to love in a fur ball who can't wait to climb into your lap.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Running for Office

Today's the big day and hopefully people are flocking to cast their votes.

That's the American way, the process that repeats every four years. Admittedly, this past year has seemed long and tedious as the field of various candidates narrowed and those remaining took to the air waves.

It's all over, as they say, but the shouting. Whoever wins will have obtained a job I could never envy. Just why would someone run for public office?  The entire process has become nearly prohibitively expensive and anyone with a cell phone can record every misstep by each candidate.  Why would anyone want to run?

I "ran" for Student Council in the 7th grade. It seemed like a big deal. When it came time to vote, someone asked our teacher whether we could vote for ourselves. She said, "Anyone who doesn't vote for himself/herself does not deserve to win." I voted for myself and won, too. While it was fun to serve on Student Council, that was the end of any desire to be a candidate for anything else.

Who ran for class offices in junior and senior high school? Guys who wanted girls to recognize their maturity. Some candidates merely wanted to see if they could win. Many girls who ran were pretty or popular and basked in the attention. Winning also meant having more photos in the yearbook, more than enough reward.

That makes as much sense as anything, I suppose.

A friend recently suggested that candidates run because they have enormous egos. Call it ego, sense of entitlement, poise or naiveté. Something nags away at certain folks who believe they can actually make a difference. That might have been noble in high school but any candidate who believes they will make a teensy bit of difference in the politics of any adult government -- local, state or national -- is living in a bubble.

I'm not experienced in the ways of politics, other than listening to candidates over the decades and voting regularly. I was employed in local government for several years, enough to know that very little is accomplished unless the person making the request is important or well-known in the community. That's a fact stated from first-hand observation and confirmed within a few days. Perhaps that policy is the result of government employees who fear losing their jobs. Perhaps they feel overly-important because they have a job that encourages favoritism. But most workers are merely hanging on until retirement, day-dreaming about life on Easy Street and doing little in the meantime to make waves.

I also lived and worked in the Washington, D.C. metro area for eight years. That's the equivalent of two 4-year terms and, believe me, that was enough for anyone. No wonder that was the length of time chosen for term limits. I did not work in government but witnessed the wriggling and gyrations caused by the influence of government's omnipotence. That period was astonishing and opened my eyes. The national government -- including the myriad of peripheral jobs and hopeful wannabes -- is a mind-boggling creature. Government workers at the highest level are usually exactly where they want to be. Life is good, very good. And they don't want anyone bringing change.

Recent local campaign advertising has depicted sweet-faced, well-groomed family folks who vow to fight the good fight for love of their fellow citizens. That is hard to believe. But if there are those candidates who really believe they can rock the boat of long-time pirates, they are in for a surprise. New arrivals won't be able to find their offices for months. It's a jungle that likes to scare off newcomers who want to see the wild animals. Intimidating. Exclusive. Filled with pork and pretension.

No place for the faint of heart.

So a message to any candidates out there: I hope you won your election if that's what you really wanted. But just remember: be careful what you wish for.

To quote Robert Redford at the end of "The Candidate" when, as Bill McKay, he won election, "What do we do now?"

Friday, November 2, 2012

Falling Out of Favor

A friend and I were recently discussing certain things which seem to have fallen out of favor.

We can all acknowledge that today's world is defined by the here and now. There is little room for yesterday's news in our whirlwind existence. That's too bad. Ignoring the past narrows our frame of reference and deletes ideas and people which are extremely worthwhile and deserving of remembrance.

The late philosopher-poet George Santayana expressed an often-quoted opinion about this subject. He is noted for his statement that "Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them." His concept has been often misquoted but the basic concept is simple: we should pay attention to the past and learn from it. A wise man indeed.

This morning's news about the recovery from Hurricane Sandy sparked a perfect example, not of historical importance but of common sense. The story was about the disruption in cell phone service following the recent storm and how pay telephones had been brought in to enable residents to contact family members and others who can assist. Apparently some people living on the East Coast had never before seen pay phones and had no idea how to use them.

I don't think this observation warrants comment. I merely wanted to pass this along. People who don't pay attention to what happened day before yesterday are missing a great deal.

In order to absorb information from the past, we need to be open to learning about things which existed outside of the past 24 hours. Two personal examples come to mind and are worth repeating.

While working in an office a few years back, I had a co-worker in her twenties who was responsible for several tasks which kept things moving smoothly for the staff. One day I was showing her a simple way to do two of the tasks at once so that she could achieve the same result more easily. "Sorry," she smiled. "I don't care to learn anything more. I've already learned all I want to learn."

The other example involved a comment I made one day regarding something about President Franklin Roosevelt. I don't even recall the context but it most likely had something to do with Social Security. The girl I was talking to rolled her eyes and sighed. "Well, that was WAY before my time. So I don't know anything about that." I calmly responded, "Franklin Roosevelt was WAY before my time, too. In fact, John Quincy Adams was WAY before my time, but I've heard of him."

I used to think that the casual dismissal of the past was something practiced by the so-called younger generation. Now I don't think that is entirely true. The under-20 group does live in its own world with its sense of infallibility and omnipotence. But that has been true since Elvis Presley first came on the scene and rock 'n' roll music separated us from our parents. (In truth, the separation probably goes back to the Pilgrims and even before.)

Perhaps it is natural that we forget a great deal about our past. I've heard a theory that the dominant role of computers has allowed us the luxury of forgetting a great deal of information. Instead of asking, "What was the name of the original Beatle that Ringo Starr replaced?" and perhaps trying to recall it, we now merely Google the question and immediately are provided with the answer (Pete Best). That requires a lot fewer mental gymnastics than a few years ago and we learn that we aren't compelled to recall relative minutia.

But in ignoring the past we seem to have lost a lot of practical knowledge (like how to sew a seam or prepare substitute cooking ingredients) as well of interesting things about numerous topics in the process.

We need to pay more attention to the past. This does not need to be as momentous as the name of the leader of the Nazi party during World War II or which scientist developed Polio vaccine. That data is available from several sources. Life involves a myriad of informational tidbits (how to make our own mayonnaise, the date of Aunt Susie's birthday, which color you get from blending yellow and blue) that we might want to recall.

Exercise those neurons one way or another. Assemble a puzzle or complete a word game. Occasionally pick up a book or magazine. Try something completely outside of your comfort zone.

You might be glad you did.