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.