Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fools and Their Choices

When you walk along a dusty road in a dry valley, how can you tell if you are in Silicon Valley or in Syria? In a democracy or a tyranny? Among citizens or mere taxpayers? Look to the people: By their fruits ye shall know them.


I was young once. Last week, as the wind rustled red and gold leaves around the plaza, I was able to gaze out the plate glass at a red building. I remembered: There, in another time, when my head was in another space, I almost took another road. Thank God for the road not taken!

Today that building front has something out of Star Trek: motion detection sliding doors. In my youth, the doors were left up to me: I was the doorman. Wearing security guard livery. I felt silly, as this was in safe, gun-shy Canada.

The place, with a few demonstration machines already in place—such as the new nautilus hydraulic resistance machine—was to be a fitness center. It was still under construction; meanwhile there were many desks and trainer/salespeople all set to sign up the first customers. Was it all a scam? Would the trainers be too busy for individual attention, would the place be too crowded to enjoy, and would the customers find their “use anywhere” lifetime membership cards would not, in fact, be honored at centers in other cities? I was in no position to judge the future.

However, I was in a good position to judge how the trainers were in the present. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” I could see how they treated me, and it wasn’t pretty. They despised the owners, and they were always chewing on each other’s arms and legs. The issue was not simply low pay: “Man does not live by bread alone.” Clearly they felt exploited, desperate and disrespected. How they treated me was merely a difference in degree, not in kind, from how they treated each other. Like I said, “not pretty.”

One of them was extremely over-weight for a fitness trainer. I suspected his disloyal bosses would fire him once the place was a going concern. And they did. In the meantime, perhaps as compensation, he saw himself as an extra good salesman, and one day, after sales were done, he had everybody meet in the big empty basement for a sales training lecture. That same day, after my shift was done, I took two classmates on a tour. We entered the huge basement from a little corner door. The others were tiny figures in the middle. In case the others thought, “Oh boy, here’s more customers!” I called over “They’re with me.” The extra-weight guy got all angry and yelled, “HEYYY!” I guess he was proud of his extra loud voice projection. My classmates were scandalized.

Later the only female there I liked, a thin attractive shorthaired blond, came over and reassured the guys that any friend of Sean was welcome. I told her they both lifted weights and were both enrolled in a diploma program in Leisure Services. (“The fatboy has just lost a sale.”)

My friends drooled over the pretty lady. When we were alone I broke the news: “In my day we said there were women that do, women that don’t, and women that do it with other women.”

“No way! You only want her for yourself!” We were all young. In a time when “bad” words like lesbian and homosexual were being replaced with the “good” unisex word gay, she was the first gay that I, or they, had ever knowingly met. I remember a trainer, the only male there I liked, watching her out the window one day, playing with her little boy and her dark partner, while the radio played,

“Gather moments while you may, collect the dreams you dream today, remember, the times of your life.” (Paul Anka)

He said it was so neat; I think we both filed the memory away. He soon escaped to get a job with the government liquor stores: A much better place for him. And me? I later went on to qualify, provincially, to teach aerobics, and still later I took anatomy, complete with cadavers, but I never went down the road to the commercial fitness industry, no sir.

Last week, from a warm lobby, I looked out the plate glass window, past cold blowing leaves, looking out from within a successful for-profit company. I thought: Here we wear blue jeans as rich computer nerds do, valuing substance, unimpressed by show, knowing we can get a job down the road if we are ever exploited. Historians will understand: We are like those democracy-loving colonial Americans who, as Benjamin Franklin noted, would quit and head off to clear land on the frontier if ever their boss tried to act like a disrespectful corrupt European. Cherish the middle class! Vive la Democracy!

Here at my company, where we have no “suits,” there is never any pyramid shaped “chart of organization” printed or circulated. Why? Easy: No one wants to feel “under” someone. In dusty Silicon Valley we see no vain pyramids. Here we enjoy lots of respect, no resentments, and productive work. I’m happy here. It just doesn’t get any better.

Sean Crawford
Under a dusty prairie wind
Fall, 2012

~I wrote this after just finishing a lengthy graphic memoir, Marzi, about a girl growing up under communism. (By Marzena Sowa, art by Sylvain Savoia, translated by Anjali Singh, Vertigo) There is no middle class in her world, while the rich are the Communist Party members. What I found significant through Marzi’s eyes was an entire nation of people even more unhappy and cruel to each other than the people in the fitness center.

~Obviously this essay comes when the US has two different philosophies to choose from:
1)    The traditional worldview: focus on the upper class and then the rest of the country will be OK…. The problem, in most countries, is this focus is not held within a context of concern for all.
As I understand it, (and I may well have it wrong) the US variation, amidst despair for any normal business-as-usual economic health of the country, is to say the rich focus is temporary, as in tax cuts, and then in some undated back-to-normal future the rest of the country will again be focused on.

2)    The traditional Anglo-American view: focus on the middle class and then the rest of the country will be healthy, not only economically but politically too… This one has an historical track record, and also has the virtue of simplicity, as you don’t need to decide “how temporary” is the focus on the rich.

I favor option 2) because, historically, once the middle class declines it is very difficult to restore, if only for political-cultural reasons.

~When Rome declined it was, of course, partly for social reasons, not just economic. (they really messed up) For how a swift middle class decline is feasible for purely economic reasons see my book announcement of A Time To Start Thinking archived June 2012 under America Descending.

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