Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fools Do More With Less

Once in a while I suddenly remember some past naïve belief of mine, and then I wince, shake my head, and say: I guess we all retain a few strange beliefs for a while, like how a box of dry food bits retains some bigger pieces, or a few big trophy deer survive longer—it happens. Naïve beliefs are nothing to feel badly about.

I used to have strange beliefs around “effort,” just like that innocent horse, in the “children’s” novel Animal Farm, by George “Nineteen Eightyfour” Orwell, an obliging horse who would keep trying to work harder: past 100 percent effort, to 105, 110 and so forth. Today I feel contempt if a company spokesman proudly announces such mathematically impossible demands. Orwell’s poor horse kept agreeing to “do more with less.” Then I think, one day, he dropped dead in his harness.

Whenever I read that phrase, “more with less” in the newspaper I feel frustration and despair. Don’t people “get it”? The cold equations are clear: In global terms, we will never be as competitive as we were in the post-war years, before the sudden “mysterious” 1970’s inflation, an inflation that has since moderated but which, due to vested government interests, is never going to go away. Society will always have less… It logically follows that to say we can “do more,” or even do “the same,” is to say our parents and people of the Nineteen seventies were idiots. No so. They liked maximum profits as much as we do, they were already doing about as well as they could.

It’s queer: If I had the strange belief that I should “try hard,” I also had the belief that I should be like a machine, trying equally hard every hour. In fact, I thought, if only I had enough willpower, I wouldn’t really need any time for recreation, I mean, don’t winners like Horatio Alger and Benjamin Franklin work hard long hours? Right up until bedtime? Perhaps it was to counter society’s lingering Puritanical beliefs, lingering past the Great Depression, that suddenly in the 1970’s biorhythm charts became popular. There were charts in the newspaper, right next to the horoscope.

Speaking of “lingering past the Great Depression,” here’s my pet peeve: Today’s generation has forgotten the Depression my poor parents lived through; I get irritated every time I read about some critic of architecture disparaging the “new exciting” buildings of my youth, a style they now call “brutalism.” Every city has a few of those modern concrete—not brick—blocky buildings. Well, in my day, some new buildings were, as they would say in today’s advertising, “Modern yet sensible.” “Daring, yet not costly.” “Economical yet space age.” We didn’t dare make the buildings anymore space age than they were, it just wouldn’t feel right: like putting wasteful amounts of food on the table, or like clothing fabric in China being wasted on collars and cuffs and ankles. — Somebody cried once from viewing my painting by Stephen Lowe of a young Chinese woman walking into the wind wearing patched clothes. —The foolish young critics who disparage brutalism should consider the times, as in “the temporal context.”

As for trying hard, even soldiers, playing for very high stakes, can’t be equally effective at all times. They have a rhythm to their days, their weeks and their “training year.” Napoleon, I dimly recall, said his soldiers would not be any good for fighting at two o’clock in the morning. He’s right; I know that now. So let me be gentle on myself for being human. It’s OK to “waste money” on oil paintings, on pastries, to have our highs and lows, and never mind going around with a strained “life is real, life is earnest” look… unless you’re a big bit in a cereal box. … …And then life will break you small, soon enough.

As I trudge through life, older and tired, with my strangest beliefs having fallen by the roadside, I carry two sane thoughts: One is “Don’t worry, be gentle.”

Another is “Unhappily, I think we compare ourselves to what we are like at our best, forgetting we are usually not at our best.”

Sean Crawford

~I first saw my painting in Victoria, on rice paper. How awed I was, decades later, to see it displayed in Calgary. I snapped it up, as a limited edition print. It’s called Wind Blows Ten Thousand Strands. (Of hair)

~Regarding office politics, I was told the problem with always working your maximum is you would have nothing left in reserve for doing “horse trades.”

~Regarding idealism, my for-profit agency, by trying real hard, keeps the administration costs down to seven percent, like the War Amps do, to free up more money for paying the staff. This when the industry standard is twenty percent. Comically, this flummoxed the government when it came time to give province-wide raises, as the civil servants initially underestimated the amount of new pay our agency needed; tragically, this meant our agency shot itself in the foot, because: when the government announced across-the-board cuts of one percent? We had no fat to chop: We started shaving calcium off our bones.

~Note to my brother-in-law, a hunter: OK, maybe the survival of a trophy deer is not coincidence, but I was stuck for examples; I didn’t want to leave an innocent cereal box standing out there all alone.

~I’m amused by a story out of Vietnam. The U.S. army was using dogs for sentries, patrolling and tracking, but there weren’t enough of them. At a meeting of officers, a general sternly suggested using the animals for longer hours. A worried young lieutenant burst out, “Oh, no sir! You can work a man like a dog, but you can’t work a dog like a man!”     

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Abstractions, Trickling Down

As I write this, 16 year olds in Scotland are voting on whether to separate from Britain. I will not, with an over-simple sound bite, address the issue of adolescents voting. But I will write something essay length, starting with a metaphor:

If “Reaganomics,” the president’s “trickle down” theory, is that as the rich get “more” the rest of us will get “some” then “everyday life-enomics” is where the experts work through “more” abstract knowledge and ideals so that “some” facts and concepts trickle down, sometimes as oversimplified sound bites and slogans. “A citizen’s duty is to be informed—” yes, I know …I could do better.

Sixteen year olds voting? At their age, I would guess, all they have to go on is what has trickled down to them. At least they went to school in Britain. Schools seem to be worse in the U.S. I have read that in America “where you can’t underestimate the stupidity of the public” during all referendums and elections any issues, ideals or ideas must be communicated using only sound bites: “Too explain is to lose.” In Canada, where surprise one-month elections are called, a serving Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, said, “An election is no time to discuss issues.” Of course, a cynic would say Campbell’s Yankee cousins couldn’t discuss issues between elections, either.

Still, 16 year olds voting? I forget, mercifully, whether I still “knew it all” by that age. I suppose idealistic teenagers typically have a black and white view of the world until the dust of the streets greys them.

While mentioning young Scottish voters in passing, a Canadian shrugged and said, “I guess if they’re old enough to fight they’re old enough to vote.” I remember enlisting at age 17. I soon found myself with the eye of a frog and a curious double vision: Above the water line, a clear lookout for fearsome herons. Below: a serene yellow pond-scape. My military middle-aged superiors would make decisions that had me spitting bullets and red eyed with rage—and then my frog eye would click in: One day I too would be middle aged, and then I would be in perfect calm agreement with them.

I think street smarts and coping skills are gained at the personal level—either you learn or you don’t—while at the social level, “life-enomics,” a minority works to allow our society as a whole to grow. And so I depend on trickle-down.

I think the biggest abstractions, like democracy, age of enlightenment and rights of the common man required years and years of thinking and writing by lots and lots of people, albeit a minority in each generation. By now sound bites and summaries have trickled down so that, say, human rights seem obvious. Yet, compared to the past, or the Arab world of today—3,000 princes in Saudi Arabia alone—rights are very enlightened indeed. I don’t travel much, so I guess I can thank the war on terror for broadening my mind regarding Arabs. Broadening all of us, I guess.

It was one of the thinkers whom I have quoted on my blog, Neil Postman, who pointed out that literacy, for adults, teaches one to challenge each sentence upon arriving at the “full stop,” or period. It follows, I think, that Arabs may not reach “enlightenment” through fiber optics and screens; they may well need a class of folks who think with a pen. Hard to manage, I know, in a kingdom or a theocracy.

As for enlightenment, recently I have heard that “In modern times, no two democracies have ever gone to war against each other.” Now, there’s a comforting line to give to any angst-filled teenager. I remember lots of joking talk about angst among university students, but I don’t remember anyone ever saying, “I have angst.” Back when I was an active optimistic teen soldier, serving “the body politic,” it was obvious to me the “body” included philosophers and readers: such folks would be part of committing us to war. Among my buddies was a feeling of an unspoken contract with society: “I will do what you say (fight your war) but you must know what you are doing.” Hence the responsibility of citizens to grab on to what ever trickles down.

During Canada’s peace keeping, call it peace making, in the former Yugoslavia, writer Gwynne Dyer spoke to Canadian university students of voting age, that is to say, citizens. I was present. While saying he is not against us defending Muslims by bombing Serbians, he would remind us “ten per cent of the bombs dropped were Canadian.” We gasped. He continued, “How does it feel to be a member of an aggressor nation?” We gasped again. Later I reasoned it out for a speech to the university toastmasters club. If it’s OK to use force to defend Muslims, then the guilt is collective. Certainly when the Serbians see the planes come over they don’t blame the liberal party, or the air force. They curse “the Canadians.” When the voting members of the “body politic” choose war, then, as my parents well remember, it is underage girls who roll bandages while underage boys haul scrap iron off to be recycled, while other boys who are  underage go off to enlist. In our national family, we citizens better know what we are doing.

The implication, during peace and war, is right in my face: Young sailor boys, air crew and soldiers are innocent. Many of them are too young and "literacy challenged" to read anything, even trickle down writings. If servicemen are innocent then the guilt is not just with society as a whole, but with those old enough to vote, those having had a few years to think things through. As all of us in our everyday peace time life, or in wartime, work to enable some of us to fight to carry out our wishes, the guilt, in general, is with civilians. And specifically? With me and you.

Sean Crawford
September 18, 2014