Monthly Archives: December 2008

WAITING

Falls behind the Montague Book Mill

Falls behind the Montague Book Mill, December 22, 2008

On Monday I went to the Book Mill in Montague to photograph a lovely young women who at 17 years old is in her senior year at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  She began the program at the university when she was 14.  David Detmold of “The Montague Reporter” asked me to take the photo for the paper. Someone else had already written the article so all I had to do was meet her and take the picture and leave but I chose not to rush.  I like to take my time with portraits.  It helps me get a better picture if I can get the person to relax and quit paying attention to the camera. It gave me an opportunity to talk with her and she turned out to be totally charming.  She said in public school her 4th grade teacher made her sit off by herself because she didn’t know what to do with her. I thought that was awful.  What a wasted opportunity on the part of the teacher.  After that her mother home-schooled her, and then the university brought her into a program they had for exceptionally bright young people.

That morning I drove very slowly on roughly plowed streets to get to the mostly frozen bookstore/restaurant. Today the roads are clear of snow although it’s still piled up on lawns and open spaces.  The ice has been melted by warmer temperatures. What’s left behind is sand and gravel that makes the road crackle under my tires.  In the higher elevation there is still ice along the side of the road, and slush that makes the ride up and down the hills quite a challenge. As I drove through the forest Saturday night on my way to Wendell, it was the fog that made the trip heart-stopping.  I surely held my breath through most of the 30 minute drive with no cars on the road ahead of me to follow and no visibility beyond the range of my headlights.  Putting on the brights only made the lights bounce back at me off the fog. The party, however, was totally worth it with a live band to die for and fun people to share the night.  It was a 60th birthday party for an old friend who danced the night away with the energy of a teenager. Hooray for Deva!

While we party and celebrate family events and the long awaited end of 2008, we also wait for the world to change. We are holding our breath waiting for our new President to take office.  We are waiting for signs that the economy will improve before we go out and buy that sweater or new pair of boots.  Truth be told, if we just wait a little bit longer we won’t need those sweaters or boots because spring will be just over the horizon and we’ll be thinking of summer clothes. Sometimes waiting brings change that makes new opportunity possible.  If I were in the garment business, I’d be thinking about really great summer dresses. When’s the last time anybody had a nice summer dress for us to buy?

Barack Obama said during the campaign that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  The meaning of this was unclear to a lot of people (and frequently made fun of by the press) but his supporters seemed to get it.  Did they?  Or did they just like the sound of it?

I took it to mean that we are the ones that will solve the problems of this nation. We wait, and wait, for a leader or a saviour but in fact we are the ones that have to save ourselves.

Take the matter of clothing.  Of all the reasons out there for the disappointing holiday sales, the one most overlooked is the total lack of invention and creative thinking in the garment industry. Having made the decision to outsource most of the production of clothing to third world nations like Vietnam and Hondorus, a choice promptly followed by a dumbing down of the clothing designs to accommodate the less experienced employee pool, what is found in most clothing stores is just plain boring.  I say, if clothing manufacturers want to improve their sales, and really this is true for all categories of products, they need to bring their production back home to the good, well educated, experienced, American workers who have produced quality goods for over 50 years and were once considered to be the backbone of this society.  You cannot have a strong consumer economy without two things – good paying jobs and good quality products. If we start making things here at home, we build the quantity and quality of the goods we have to sell overseas. That helps solve our trade imbalance and improves the lives of Americans by giving them good paying jobs.  Which obviously gives them money to spend.  That is the way the economy used to work, before somebody decided that Americans could make less money and still spend lots of it on products that were made more and more overseas.

I never could understand how the economic policies of the conservatives, starting with the Reagan administration in the 1980s, were supposed to work.  It just didn’t make sense to me.  If they sent all our jobs overseas, who was it they expected to buy all those products when they brought them back to the U.S.?  The concept of outsourcing our jobs while still expecting the American people to keep shopping in order to support an economy built on American consumerism seemed bizarre. And yet, it worked for a really long time.  I finally got it after the entire system imploded a few months ago.  The answer was simply to provide a whole lot of credit to everyone and encourage Americans to borrow beyond their means and go into debt to purchase foreign made goods.  This house of cards was doomed to ultimately fail.  There have been warnings. The tech bubble. The Wall St. collapse in 1987, the recession at the end of the first Bush administration.  Sadly, the failings that caused that recession were overlooked and attributed to “bad actors” instead of the failure of supply-side economics.  Then we had trickle-down misery, with the rich mostly protected from the consequences of their bad behavior.  This time it just crashed down on everyone.

So why am I writing this – to depress everyone even more? No.  To say that we are the ones who can save this economy.  If the world depends on us buying their goods, then we should, prudently, return to buying what we need, and even a little of what we want, with an eye to saving some money in an actual bank so the banks won’t have to always have their hands out to the feds to give them money to lend.  If we continue to wait, and wait, and wait, then we are waiting for something that cannot come without us.  It is in fact our inaction that is at least in part responsible for the economic downturn that, ironically, is causing us to not shop. So, shopping is good as long as we have the money to pay for what we buy.  Spending is a necessary part of the process of living in this modern society.  Saving is very good and we should do more of it.  And cash is better than credit when you’ve got it but credit is good too, to get you through a time when you have less money than you need, as long as you can feel secure that in the future you’ll be able to pay it back. Digging yourself into a hole you can never get out of, that’s the part that’s bad.  And living like there’s no tomorrow is bad because tomorrow always comes and sometimes that can be a big surprise if you’ve been living in denial.  Reality.  That’s what this is.  In the end, we will all be better off living in reality.  Maybe then we can all stop taking all those anti-anxiety medications and we can get a night’s sleep without sleeping pills.  That would be a good thing.

SLOW MOTION

Rockefeller Center holiday display December 2001
Angels & American Flags
Rockefeller Center, December 2001
    

I feel like the world is slowly collapsing around us as we sit and watch, helpless to stop it.  We are waiting for the new President.  We’re waiting for Wall Street to start acting rationally again.  We’re waiting for banks to start lending, for somebody to help the people who are daily being forced out of their homes as foreclosures continue unabated, for something to stop the constant loss of jobs and company closings.  We watch, we wait.  I’ve felt this way before.

It’s like the days after Katrina when the people of New Orleans couldn’t do anything but wait for someone to come help them.  The waters had stopped rising but everything was ruined.  There was no place to buy food, no fresh water, no way in or out of the city because there was water all around and so they sat in shelters or on roof tops while bodies floated by.  Those on dry land couldn’t get gas for their cars or money from their banks.  The gas stations were dry.  The banks were closed.  Nothing worked.

In the days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the trains stopped running in Brooklyn where I lived.  The quiet was eerie. A lot of the stores were closed.  People were afraid of what would come next.  We hid in our homes, only going out for food or other necessities.  I remember I kept a radio in my ear as I did my errands because I was afraid to be away from the news for even a minute.  People put together survival packs with water and flashlights and portable radios and – yes, gas masks.  We were afraid someone would drop chemical weapons on us next.  We were afraid of everything.  People couldn’t sleep because every time they heard a plane fly overhead they thought it was another attack.  The whole city was sleep deprived, paranoid.  An entire new meaning to the saying, the city that never sleeps.

Now we wait while the members of the current administration try this and that, and mostly fail to make a difference.  They’ve spend billions of dollars to prop up the banking and financial institutions that were at fault to begin with.  Money that was supposed to be used to help people stay in their homes somehow ended up being spent on bonuses and dividends to stockholders in companies that back in September were supposedly about to collapse.  Nobody understands anything, the American people have absolutely no faith in those in charge, and so everyone is sitting and waiting for a sign that it’s safe to spend a few dollars on Christmas gifts before they take that risky trip to the mall.  We could all just skip Christmas, we’ve done it before.  In 2001 my son and I agreed there would be no holiday gifts exchanged. It just didn’t seem right.  Instead I sent out cards to all my friends and family with a photo of the American flags flying at Rockefeller Center in place of the usual gold and silver holiday flags.  Around the nation, the idea of all those American flags on display was taken to be a sign of patriotism.  For many of us in New York City it was more about honoring the dead – like the flags we put on graves on Memorial Day.  We were a city grieving, the flags were our way of expressing our grief.

Now in a way we are grieving again but nobody feels like flying flags.  We are the ones being buried now, buried under a mountain of debt.  We have been victims of multiple outrageous schemes that have stolen our future.  We look down a long tunnel of despair and fear is surely creeping back into our psyches once again.  We get daily advice from people on CNN who still have their jobs, preaching about being frugal and planning our 2009 budget, cheerful young folk who imagine that a 50 year old man with kids in college who just lost a high paying job and is now about to lose his home can solve his problems by planning a family budget.  Frugality is a given when you’ve lost everything.  With any luck the guy losing his home won’t have cable news anymore so he won’t have to listen to their nonsense.

After fiddling for a week, the President finally announced on Friday that he would give the money to the auto industry to keep them from collapsing along with the rest of the economy.  He did basically what he could have done a week ago but somehow needed to look like he was giving it a lot of thought first.  In the meantime the stock market did its panic dance and people stayed away from the stores wondering if they would have jobs next week.  Way to go W.

Everyone’s counting on Obama to save us.  NY Times columnist Tom Friedman wanted him to take over last month instead of waiting until January.  Too bad we have those pesky laws to get in our way.  I thought he was nuts when he said it but now I wonder if there will be much left to save by the time he gets to take the oath of office on January 20.  Of course, the lack of confidence in our future is at least in part due to the steady drumbeat of dire predictions – the statements of “the worst economic crisis since the great depression” do nothing to encourage the Americans who still have homes and jobs and money in their pockets to go out and spend some.  Having been on a 10 year shopping binge, there really isn’t all that much we need to buy right now and there’s nothing wrong with a nice pair of socks for a Christmas present.  Being frugal is what we’re all about right now.