Thursday, June 25, 2015

As Summer Fades

Note: This is a re-run: Consider it a memo to me and you both, presented not after summer has faded, but in advance—not like last time.
In Alice (from memory) the king says to his wife, “The horror of that moment I shall never forget.” The queen leans forward and says, “You will, dear, if you don’t make a memo of it.”

But first: A little humor is always in order.
Some folks didn’t get an old memo, from 2002…

As you know, there is a confederate flag flap going on in the U.S. Opinions are mixed, and the State of Virginia has joined the fray by announcing it is phasing out its confederate vehicle license plates. (I’m as surprised as you) Meanwhile, science fiction writer John Scalzi has covered the topic on his blog, back in 2002. It’s hilarious to read him calling the gallant Confederate States of America, CSA, a bunch of losers. Loooosers.

I did read every word of Scalzi’s dense post myself, and I can say: Please don’t think you’re “s’posed to” read every word of his detractors, or “s’posed to” skim every line those idiots write. I didn’t. I just skipped down to Scalzi’s hilarious rebuttals. Here’s the link.

Summer Fades

Another summer is fading into fall. The morning radio folks say, “It went so fast!” They ask, “How did that happen?”

I ask this too, of myself. It’s not as if I merely drifted or fell asleep at the switch. No, every weekend I seriously meant to— but I didn’t— and then, there I was: Having a not-so-happy weekend with “a skeleton at the feast.” Maybe I’m too serious.

And at the fading of every Sunday’s light I’d say, “Well, maybe next weekend…” Yes, I’m too serious. It’s a human thing, isn’t it?

In fairness, when it comes to procrastination, I’m sure even carpenters and kings delay buying more cabbages until their supply runs out. I’m still smiling over a certain soldier, General Rick Hillier. His posting was supposed to be at the end of summer. But then H.Q. moved up the schedule. “The move is next week!” There he was, with only one week to get all his yard work and chores done… only to have the army, at the end of the week, put the date back again to the end of summer.

The ever-so-disciplined general was ever so pleased. The soldier wrote, (p 136) “In hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened. Because it had prodded me into getting the things on that list done in record time… If I hadn’t had the pleasure of that first phone call from Cam, I would have procrastinated and ended up cramming all that work into the last week that I was home.” Well. What can a less disciplined guy like me do but smile, and join the ranks of carpenters, kings and generals?

Summers fly, as the years flow by. Someday, if I can cut back on the junk food, I’ll be as old, and maybe as wise, as that 60 Minutes TV humorist, Andy Rooney. Old Rooney is almost offensively realistic—thank God for his humor—about the gap between what is real and what Home and Garden magazine, and everybody else, says we “really should” do.

I’m reminded of that war game-and-history magazine by Avalon-Hill (the games sold paid for the history research) One day during the cold war they speculated on what would happen, if there was a war, and the Soviets had to reinforce the Pacific coast using their Trans-Siberian Railroad. The editors published their careful war game calculations, based on many things, including total Soviet rolling stock. Then a number of model-railroad enthusiasts wrote in to say that, based on the numbers, the Reds could in fact move considerably more supplies… The editors responded, tiredly, saying they based their figures not on what the Reds could do, but on what, given human nature, they probably would do.

I get it. As educator Kurt Hahn often said, “Human nature is very prevalent.”

Meanwhile, the summer isn’t quite over yet. “All righty, then!” Maybe I could right away get to –uh—to feeling productive by writing a memo to myself, for next year. Call it Summer Fades.

Sean Crawford
and, as flags are flapping,
June 2015.26

Footnote: The book quoted is A Soldier First subtitled Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War, HarprerCollins Publishers Ltd 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Poetics of Billboards

I wonder if U.S. citizens take the prevalence of billboards for granted… because they feel helpless to have any effect? Consider: If they feel “everybody else” believes in “extreme freedom” for capitalists to put up lots of billboards, then they feel helpless to discourage billboards, and so they stop paying attention: They take such eyesores for granted, like a husband not noticing dirt.

I for one believe there is hope. I say this based on a California writer, whom I’ve met, and my brother in law.

I’ve often mentioned writer David Gerrold, and his masterpiece, which is NOT about war, called The War against the Chtorr. Not about war? Not war as we know it: It’s about an alien-from-outer space ecological invasion. Remember: Gerrold is from crazy southern California, and so his series, understandably, is hopeful, about a hero, and his stressed-out society, learning to grow, and accept more and more responsibility…. I have to chuckle: I too have known personal growth, and I too, like the hero during book four, have known the embarrassment of suddenly realizing that I still haven’t grown up as much as I had hoped.

In the book Hawaii is totally free of infestation. No war. The army endorses a California-type human potential course on the big island—and sends the hero there. I’ll never forget one brief scene: The hero is looking out his hotel window and marveling at how quiet things are. Then someone tells him: The street seems so quiet because of something psychological… there are no billboards allowed.

I believe Gerrold the artist is aware of the subconscious price we pay for an overly chaotic environment. Here in my home town—very short on billboards I might add—we respect the subconscious by having a building code where, among other things, there are height restrictions so the human sky line along the river valley matches the skyline of nature: no chaotic jagged roofs along the valley. I suppose our American cousins would have suppressed their awareness in order to accept billboards. Too bad.

What makes me hopeful is that so much of Gerrold’s Chtorr future series is based on the present day. What if Hawaii, unlike the U.S. mainland, really does have such zoning? An exciting thought. Could the rest of U.S. America grow to have such awareness, and grow in responsibility to engage in such zoning?

I’m also hopeful because of something my brother in law told me. He lives in the middle of British Columbia, a province of Canada. He’s part aboriginal, by the way. So it’s politically OK that he told me how when you are on the remote highway you can tell when you are suddenly driving through an Indian reservation: There’s an abrupt presence of billboards. Which implies that non-Indian land, both private and crown, enjoys zoning regulations against billboards. Not like in the U.S. of A. Which means there’s hope for Americans: They could follow Canada’s example, becoming less libertarian, and acquiring more common sense. A hopeful thought.

In the meantime, until the day Americans wise up, a sense of humor is never out of order—so here’s this week’s poem:
by Ogden Nash, 1932

I think that I shall never see,

A billboard lovely as a tree.

Indeed, unless the billboards fall,

I’ll never see a tree at all.

Sean Crawford

~I copy-checked the poem using Quote Investigator.

~For Canada and Britain's equivalent of the Chtorr, for a weed where it's a criminal offence to remove it yourself (because it's too powerful) see today's June 19 CBC radio,   

~As for the Chtorr story, Gerrold has finished the ending but now needs to fill in the missing volumes. As I understand it, he put his story on the backburner after accepting responsibility for raising The Martian Child, now a major motion picture starring John Cusack as the father. Strange how having a child illuminates your priorities.

Sometimes, like everyone else, I dim my awareness; I resort to humor.

I don’t have any mid-life crises myself, no, not I, but if I ever reread Gerrold’s Martian Child book I’ll know to skip the gloomy-to-me first chapter where he reveals his yearning for adopting a child. My God has not blessed me with children. Perhaps because I don’t have a wife.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

David Halberstam was a Harbinger

Note: This is a condensed re-run, posted as part of acknowledging recent reader preference for essays regarding Don’t Be In Denial About American Decline.

I condensed it because the Wall Street meltdown, no longer a fresh horror, no longer motivates readers.
I’ve deleted the lessons from Vietnam, where Halberstam eventually realized the US had recently acquired hubris. And I deleted the footnotes.

It was on this day three years ago, in 2007, that David Halberstam, while a passenger, was killed in a car crash… Although many of us believe in going through our life in this democracy as “passengers,” Halberstam believed we could aspire to be "crew," active citizens. He obviously wrote his books for concerned readers. I wonder, today, if he merely cast his pearls before swine. Poor guy.

Before his untimely death he had won many journalism awards, including the Pulitzer, and to what avail? Despite Halberstam’s fine work his fellow Americans, in the long run, have ignored his messages. I don’t think we realize whom we’ve lost, for he was a blend of Cassandra and Prometheus. Perhaps, by the end his days, his researched-in-vain findings were tearing at his vitals. More likely, he maturely coped. After all, to understand all is to forgive all. And Halberstam, a hard working researcher, understood people.

The Reckoning

The current world wide recession, which began with the awful U.S. implosion, was, in essence, predicted in Halberstam’s small-page book of only 126 hardcover pages, The Next Century (1991)

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Wall Street meltdown, as the U.S. pondered whether to bail out the car industry, there was concern being expressed as to whether General Motors (GM) was capable of internal reform. I chuckled when all-but-bankrupt top automotive executives flew to meet with the government in Washington…. because they made the mistake of flying in an expensive private jet. It became a front-page scandal. People wondered in public if profligate GM was hopelessly addicted to being prodigal… and, as well, stuck with second-class, by world standards, designers and engineers. As all this public discourse was happening not a single person, to my knowledge, referred to Halberstam’s thick best seller The Reckoning (1986) Here he documented America’s auto culture as being a culture of arrogance and resistance to reform, as in, for example, front wheel drive being common in Europe a full ten years before the U.S. auto makers introduced it.

The Reckoning compared and contrasted not merely the automotive cultures of Japan and America, but, equally important, the educational cultures in which the workers and designers were embedded. His book “could have been called The Wakeup Call” as he contrasted the school systems. The New Century examines education too:

QUOTE ...He (Ayama) believed a mistake of historical proportions may have been made as Japan prepared to deal with its future. The nation, he suggested, was producing workers rather than full citizens, and he once told me in passing, almost as a throwaway, that it was a great deal easier to produce a good car than it was to produce a good human being.UNQUOTE

Recently, as the American people, in this brave new millennium, have semi-confidently plunged into two new Asian wars, I’m sure no one read Cassandra’s – er - Halberstam’s old Vietnam book, The Quagmire. He won the Pulitzer for his dispatches that preceded that book. As you know, the trick in Nam was “to win the hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese, to convince them to reform themselves enough… so then they would freely choose democracy over communism. 

Today I’m unhappy. Never mind reforming GM: Are the American people ready for reform?

Over Christmas, I read in the (2009-2010) Economist that household debt in the U.S. has risen, just in the last decade alone, by 30 per cent.

I remember as a young man reading how the Japanese were amazed at U.S. behavior, exclaiming that the U.S. economy would collapse in a single day if the Yanks ever stopped buying on credit!

It was to Japan that Halberstam went away to spend months and a small fortune, gambling that he would learn enough, that his book would pay enough, to recover his costs. This in a land where prices are very high and businessmen don’t believe in being open and honest the way Americans do. Happily, Halberstam’s gamble paid off, or so he must have thought. Too bad his work is all but forgotten.

Oh, and lest we forget, it was before the Wall Street recession that a certain South American supermodel made the world news. She insisted on her contract being written to say she would be paid in Euros, not U.S. dollars. No one laughed at her for thinking Americans would have problem soon if they didn't reform. Even a beautiful bimbo could foresee how the average U.S. citizen is less likely to reform than to go wimpering off into the night. At least, so far, that’s their track record, as individual consumers and as federal citizens— update: The Americans are breaking their streak of preferring security to freedom. They are about to allow the sun to set on parts of their patriot act.


Halberstam offers some scant comfort. As regards the U.S. sliding from super power to major power status he was pleased that at least the various state governors, being closer to factories and investments on the ground, “get it.” The bad news, at least at the time he was writing, was that the feds “didn’t get it.”

QUOTE;…I was one of two speakers before the governors of fifty states of the Union. It was a memorable occasion, not merely because of the distinguished audience, but also because Henry Kissinger was the other speaker.UNQUOTE

It was amazing how out of touch Henry Kissinger was. I guess that's why Halberstam’s book, The New Century, has a tale of that astounding night as chapter one.

QUOTE The governors, I noted, were in a good position to know if America was going to be a great power in the years 2010 and 2020 because they knew the quality of our average high school graduates far better than did the people in our national security complex.UNQUOTE

For me, appreciative of media, I am pleased to see that Halberstam presents significant consequences flowing from how the public now prefers to get their news from moving pictures. Screens. Using terms like “sound bites,” and “trivializes,”he shows how this new preference has altered, significantly altered, the quality of political discourse among citizens and civil servants. At some level, surely, if the public doesn’t seem to know of their changes then it’s not by accident. It’s as if they don’t want their “choosing to change” to be an informed choice. Call them infantilized. For me, it’s nice to hear Halberstam’s voice in the wilderness calling for print. (See my essays tagged newspapers)


 …It is from countless social indicators, in contrast to the years up to and including WWII and President Harry Truman, that Halberstam, in The New Century, has been able to abstract a crazy-sounding Big Concept: the U.S., at the federal level, has come to value power over truth. Call it hubris.

Of course, hubris was something the Greeks knew of all too well. Hubris, they knew, leads always to a fall.

Somehow, strangely, U.S. hubris has not been dented so far, not even after the U.S. has created a worldwide recession. Still, I haven’t lost hope – And so I am grateful to those few poor heroic voices such as David Halberstam.

Today, in memory of him, instead of being a passive user of my credit card, I will stop and actively review whether I am living within my means. “A Boy Scout is thrifty.”

Sean Crawford
North America
April 23, 2010
June 2015