Monday, March 23, 2020

Getting real about the 517


The absolute worst.

Okay, so I have some thoughts on one of those social media "copy & paste to your status if you agree" things that's going around these days:
I grew up in Michigan. When I was a child our area code was 517. Eating out at a restaurant was a huge deal that only happened for very special occasions . McDonald's was a rare treat. Fast food was a bologna or pb&j sandwich to take outside in the yard . Eating ice cream was a treat on a hot day. You took your school clothes off as soon as you got home and put on your play clothes. We had to do our homework before being allowed outside to play. We ate dinner at the table. We went to school everyday and rode a bus with 3 to a seat. There was no taking or picking you up in the car, you walked! Our phone hung on the wall in the kitchen and had a cord there was no private conversation or cell phones! Most TVs didn’t have remotes, we had to actually get up to change the channel.
We played Mother May I, Hopscotch, Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, 1,2,3 Not It, Red Light Green Light, Red Rover, Hide & Seek, Truth or Dare, Tag, Baseball, 4 square, Kick Ball, Dodge Ball, and rode bikes.
Girls could spend hours playing Barbies or house. Boys played football in the yard.
We played baseball or softball at the local park every summer and swam in the river or the lake . No one had their own pool!
Staying in the house was a punishment and the only thing we knew about "bored"--- "You better find something to do before I find it for you!"
We ate what mom made for dinner or we ate nothing at all.
There was no bottled water; we drank from the tap or the water hose (warm).
We watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, and rode our bikes for hours and ran around in the woods.
We weren't AFRAID OF ANYTHING. If someone had a fight, that's what it was and we were friends again a week later, if not SOONER. We played til dark, sunset was our curfew.
School was mandatory and teachers were people who you could TRUST and respect.
We watched our MOUTHS around our elders because ALL of our Aunts, Uncles, Grandpas and Grandmas AND our Parents best friends were also our PARENTS (they COULD & WOULD WHOOP Y'ALL!,) and you didn't want them telling your PARENTS if you misbehaved.
These were the good ole days. Kids today will never know how it feels to be a real kid. I loved my childhood...!!!
Kids these days will never understand how we grew up!!!
 Good Times 
Copy & paste if this was close to your childhood.
There's a lot to this, so let's break it down.

I grew up in Michigan.  When I was a child our area code was 517. 

So, this is kind of insidious.  It comes across as just a sort of geographical marker that's maybe expressed with a tinge of old-man-berates-cloud vibe on the days when area codes really meant something or whatever.  But actually, they kind of did.

See, Michigan basically has four parts.  There's the Upper Peninsula, a great deal of which is nearly virgin wilderness and the population density is like zilch-point-two.  So that's irrelevant.  Then there is "west Michigan," which is basically everything from Traverse City down to the Indiana border and at least west of Lansing; it has kind of a fuzzy eastern boundary but the important thing about west Michigan is that it's more in the Chicago orbit than the Detroit.  Under the original 1947 area code map, both the UP and west Michigan were in the 616.

Then you have "Southeast Michigan," which is basically Detroit, its suburbs and exurbs, and then "northern Michigan," which is actually northeast Michigan because the Upper Peninsula is a different thing entirely.  Southeast Michigan was long the well-recognized 313, until population numbers became overwhelming and it was broken into the 248 (north of 8 Mile), the 734 (western Wayne suburbs and Ann Arbor), and then further divided from there in future years.

So BITD, the 517 basically covered Lansing and the slice of Michigan mostly east of I-75 from just above Flint up to the Mackinaw Bridge.  You might never have heard of any of these places unless you are from Michigan, so let me clarify: what's important is not what these places are, but what they are not.  Being from the 517 meant being from the part of Michigan that was in the Detroit orbit, but not Detroit or Flint and not a suburb of Detroit.  Never mind the Tigers cap or Red Wings jersey; there's a certain kind of person who would be very careful to let you know that although they are from Michigan, they are certainly not from Detroit.  Having a 517 area code meant you didn't need to clarify.  People would just know.

Eating out at a restaurant was a huge deal that only happened for very special occasions.

This is accurate if "restaurant" means "real restaurant" and not "glorified fast food franchise" como Olive Garden or Chi Chi's.  And also if you are not counting take-out steak sandwiches from Tony's or picking up (this is before delivery yo) pizza from Little Caesar's.  Thought you were from the 517, bro?

McDonald's was a rare treat.  Fast food was a bologna or pb&j sandwich to take outside in the yard.

This might have been somewhat true if your parents didn't both work.  But for us latch-key kids, fast food was a staple of the diet.  To this day I can give you the detailed lowdown of the offerings at Mickey D's, BK, Taco Bell, A&W, Subway, KFC, and probably several other fast food joints I have not stepped into in years and may have even forgotten existed.  I can tell you which places took "special orders" and which did not, which places undercooked the fries, and which places let you order water and fill the cup with soda multiple times.  I still drink out of promotional Coca-Cola glasses from Burger King.  And this is to say nothing of the essentially fast food "sit down" restaurants I mentioned above: Bonanza, Denny's, Howard Johnson's, Ponderosa...  I'm a grown man and am still kind of pissed that Hardee's bought our Burger Chef and eliminated the car meal.

Yeah it was empty calories and maybe I want nothing to do with it now.  But step directly off with the Little House on the Prairie nonsense.  "Fast food was bologna or PB&J."  No.  That was a "cold lunch" that you might take to school if you weren't into whatever evil crime the cafeteria planned on committing with government cheese that day.

Eating ice cream was a treat on a hot day. 

Generally true.  But some caveats do apply.  First, this probably refers to the Hav-A-Bar ice cream cart that would randomly appear like twice in the summer and all the kids would come running with fists fill of dimes and nickels in hopes of scoring a creamsicle or chocolate eclair.  The worst was having to settle for the bomb pop.  Oh, the hated the bomb pop.  So yes, in that sense this is correct.

But they also made those 5-quart tubs of shit ice cream that you could pick up at any local grocery store.  Those, most people had around.  In fact, the existence of those damn 5-quart tubs was often given as a justification for why your mom wasn't going to give you the $0.65 you needed for a proper ice cream sandwich the one time you actually heard the Have-A-Bar cart in time to catch up with it.  "We have ice cream in the freezer!"  You'd probably search the couch cushions and come up with $0.55-just enough for a bomb pop, not the good stuff.

And it wouldn't necessarily be a hot day, either.  As anyone who grew up in the 517 well knows, the temperature on any given summer day could range anywhere from about 40° F to well over 90° F.  As long as it wasn't raining, any day could be your day.  So it wasn't like you never got any ice cream.  Except maybe for this Red Fern Grows motherfucker, who probably only ever had the fake vanilla ice cream that his grampaw rolled out using ice-filled coffee cans in the barn.

You took your school clothes off as soon as you got home and put on your play clothes. 

Truth.  I still do this.  Honestly one thing that has been a difficult adjustment with the COVID-19 work-from-home thing is not feeling like I have "work clothes" and "home clothes."  Kind of strange that I consider this a personality quirk that I ought to perish while Beaver Cleaver insists it's a figment of virtue.  But to each their own.

We had to do our homework before being allowed outside to play. 

You know, until very recently it was against the law to swear in Virginia Beach.  They even had signs up downtown and the police were authorized to write you a ticket if they caught you.  But you'd have to be real f*king numbnut to actually receive one of those citations. 

So yeah, most peoples' parents probably had a rule that you were supposed to do your homework before you could go outside.  But how were they going to enforce that, even if they did happen to be at home?

Mom: "Did you do your homework?"
Kid: "Yeah ma."

Honestly, what kept kids indoors through most of the school year was the damn cold and darkness.  This is the 517, remember.  Not freaking homework.  We didn't really have that much homework anyway, despite what boomer might tell you.

We ate dinner at the table. 

Ah, ha ha ha ha ha ha.  Yeah, you ate dinner "at the table."  By yourself, probably, with the black & white TV going or maybe a copy of the Saginaw News.  Maybe with your sibling (whose dinner you also cooked).  Or maybe you really just ate dinner on the living room couch like every other freaking person.  SRSLY.

Most of us were lucky if we had a "family dinner" more than once every couple weeks.  Go on back to the '50s with that shit.  You had dinner "at the table."  Who cooked it, Mrs. Garrett?

We went to school everyday and rode a bus with 3 to a seat. 

Yeah, that sucked.  Though most of the time it was two to a seat; three was not uncommon but not really the rule either.  Regardless, this was all a function of overcrowded schools and fucked residential segregation anyway.  Nothing to look back upon with any kind of nostalgic fondness.  Half the time you were just happy to get on a damn bus after waiting 25 minutes in the bitter cold for the damn thing to show up.  Thanks to being a K-12 student in north Michigan I still have a pretty good sense of how painfully frozen your fingers and toes can be without actually being "frostbitten."  Three to a seat?  Not a big hit.

There was no taking or picking you up in the car, you walked! 

Like hell you did.  I don't know what the walk score is for the 517 but the number of people who lived within walking distance of a single damn thing worth walking to has got to be well under 10%.  And the public transit was shit too, so if you weren't walking you weren't taking the bus either.

MAYBE you would ride your bike.  But bikes--pretty much all fixed-gear, steel-frame monstrosities that we rode in all kinds of rickety physical conditions and without helmets or any kind of safety training--were essentially a form of entertainment and an intra-neighborhood form of transportation back then. You weren't going to ride your brown steel Murray with the loose handlebars four miles to the mall (on the other side of Bay Road or Tittabawassee) and back.

Being a teenager in the 517 had basically two phases: before you could drive, and after you could drive.  "Before you could drive" was all about getting rides or having friends who could drive.  If you couldn't drive and you couldn't get a ride, then you were stuck at home with your Atari 2600 and microwaving Banquet TV dinners for your younger brother.  You'd sell a freaking kidney for a driver's license.  Or in my case, a Commodore 64.

Our phone hung on the wall in the kitchen and had a cord there was no private conversation or cell phones! 

True, but usually the phone cord was long enough that you could take it into another room if you needed to talk privately.  Plus it wasn't too long before we started having multiple phones within the house--so then the only risk was your brother or your mom picking up the receiver downstairs and listening in.  But I am sure that never happened to me.

Most TVs didn’t have remotes, we had to actually get up to change the channel.

Yes, that was such good exercise.  I'll bet over the span of a K-12 education is probably added up to at least 30, maybe 40 calories burned by getting up to change TV channels.  Probably held the whole obesity epidemic in check all by itself.  High-fructose corn syrup never stood a chance against the literal TV dial.

What was probably more significant is that most TVs were not equipped with cable signals or satellite and so you were limited to the channels you could get with your over-air antennae.  In the 517, we basically had channel 5 (NBC), channel 12 (ABC), channel 25 (CBS), and channel 19 (PBS).  On a good day you might be able to pick up TV 50 from Detroit, or a CBC broadcast from Ontario.  But usually that was it.  So everybody basically watched the same news channels and the same sitcoms and the same game shows and the same sports and the same TV-movies.  The cultural influence had to have been incredible; whether it was objectively better or worse than what we have now, who knows--but certainly there were advantages and disadvantages.

We played Mother May I, Hopscotch, Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, 1,2,3 Not It, Red Light Green Light, Red Rover, Hide & Seek, Truth or Dare, Tag, Baseball, 4 square, Kick Ball, Dodge Ball, and rode bikes.

My favorite was playing baseball but using a tennis ball as the ball.  Every kid was f*king Darrell Evans.  Or maybe Lance Parrish.  Still can't believe they f*king traded him.  What the hell is "Red Light Green Light" though?

Girls could spend hours playing Barbies or house. Boys played football in the yard.

Hey, so let's dispense with the subtlety and just go straight for sexist gender stereotypes from grandma's world!  WTF.

Also, if we're gonna go back to that world then I may as well point out how you generally didn't play football "in the yard."  You climbed the fence and played on the real field at your local high school.  Only if you were a weak-ass "scaredy cat" would you stay home and play football "in the yard."  The "yard" was for pickle, or maybe whiffle ball (with hitting the ball onto certain parts of the house counting for different scores).  But what would this guy know?  Girls played the fuck out of pickle and whiffle ball.  I even had some on my actual Little League baseball teams.  Go have your heart attack, OP.

We played baseball or softball at the local park every summer and swam in the river or the lake . No one had their own pool!

Oh, come on.  People had pools.  It was the '80s, not "the time before waters."  I will say, I swam in just about everything from Lake Huron to the gravel pit half a mile from my house to my friend Anthony's awesome in-ground pool to my grandparents'' terrible above-ground pool to Lake Michigan to various inland lakes and rivers all around Michigan to the Y to the aptly-named "Bad River" in St. Charles.  So that part is true: if there was water, we was gonna go up in it.  (Or "down in it?"  What's the cool way to say that?).  But this "we didn't have pools AND WE LIKED IT" nonsense is for the aquatic birds, to which some of us like to feed Alka Seltzer.  Because we were such good kids.

Staying in the house was a punishment and the only thing we knew about "bored"--- "You better find something to do before I find it for you!"

Okay, this was true.  This was called being "grounded" and it was basically the worst punishment available for parents who didn't severely beat their kids.  (Although my parents began levying actual monetary fines, which 😐 ).

We ate what mom made for dinner or we ate nothing at all.

This must be be put into context, which was that mom only made dinner a couple times a week.  Usually she had to work, so either you were making dinner yourself or food was being purchased (see the take-out and fast food options outlined above).  And it wasn't really that you "ate nothing at all."  It was that you didn't eat dinner--and then you filled up on Red Vines and Coco Wheats later that night.

There was no bottled water; we drank from the tap or the water hose (warm).

Why would you drink bottled water when you can drink from the hose?  Every Gen Xer knows the best drinking water comes from the hose.  Yeah, it can be a little warm.  But the hose water in the 517 has that awesome metallic flavor.  I'm sure there couldn't possibly have been anything bad for you in it.

We watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, and rode our bikes for hours and ran around in the woods.

The Saturday morning cartoons part is accurate.  Richie Rich, Thundar the Barbarian, and Plastic Man were my favorites.  Though, once channel 66 came on, we used to get to watch ole Loonie Toons or WB stuff all week long.  And actually Scooby Doo was on after school even before that.  So this might be one of those things where the memory distorts the actual thing.  But it's just cartoons, no big deal.

I touched on bikes above, but yeah--bikes were a BFD.  I lived across the street from a big apartment complex and we would play "bike tag," which I imagine you find self-explanatory from the name.

The "running around in the woods" part, eh, I don't know.  Maybe that guy did.  But that was probably a good way to get abducted or DDT poisoning or some shit.  We'd ride our bikes through the woods though, that was fun.

We weren't AFRAID OF ANYTHING. 

I used to ride by rickety bicycle with the loose handlebars down a three-flight concrete staircase behind the HMO clinic behind my house.  That was right after digging through their dumpster for cardboard boxes to build a fort out of.  Then my buddies and I would probably go sneak under the barbed-wire fence into the local gravel pit to go and catch crawfish, or maybe an illegal swim (in the gravel pit that was sealed off because it was not a safe place for anyone to swim, fish, or be).  And any kind of abandoned equipment was always the best toy: derelict cars, busted stereo equipment, old refrigerators--to say nothing of actual abandoned structures.  We all had BB guns and after a while picking off green army men in the sandbox just doesn't do it--you need a live targets, preferably ones that might shoot back.  Safety goggles?  Eh.

So yeah, we weren't afraid of anything.  But a hell of a lot more of us died back then too.  What was that Orwell line?  Ignorance is strength?  Yeah, that.

If someone had a fight, that's what it was and we were friends again a week later, if not SOONER. 

Okay, is that different for kids now?  I didn't think it was.

We played til dark, sunset was our curfew.

Pretty much.  You couldn't really see the basketball hoop after dark so what was the point?  Plus the mosquitoes are relentless.  But keep in mind that in summer in the 517, it doesn't really get dark until after 9 pm, sometimes close to 10.  For me, I never even really had a curfew.  What would have been the point?

School was mandatory and teachers were people who you could TRUST and respect.

Okay, so school is still mandatory and there have always been both crappy teachers and great teachers and everything in between.  So to the extent this suggest today's teachers are somehow less deserving of trust or respect than in the past, that's bunk.

We watched our MOUTHS around our elders because ALL of our Aunts, Uncles, Grandpas and Grandmas AND our Parents best friends were also our PARENTS (they COULD & WOULD WHOOP Y'ALL!,) and you didn't want them telling your PARENTS if you misbehaved.

Okay, well, this is another thing that is still kind of true in its own way in the present, and also something that really stopped being true in the manner the author suggests once the auto industry began its major decline in the early '80s and people in the 517 started moving away in droves and really the community fabric started to fray.  There is not much opportunity left in the 517, so most people who grow up there need to leave--and where they go, they don't know all their neighbors and aunts and uncles of neighbors and so forth.  Such is life.  Plus I already covered that in a previous blog so let's move on.

These were the good ole days. 

For some, perhaps.  But our childhood in the 517 was unsafe, devoid of culture, riddled with racial and ethnic discrimination, limited by poverty or at least relative poverty, insular, arbitrary, and not nearly as hard-core as the meme suggests.  If we thought it was so great, it was probably because we were too ignorant to know better.

Kids today will never know how it feels to be a real kid. I loved my childhood...!!!

So today's kids are not "real kids."  Interesting.

Kids these days will never understand how we grew up!!!

Perhaps not.  But the chances of them understanding might improve if you they were given a more factually accurate explanation in a respectful way--rather than a bullshit story delivered in a manner certain to insult their intelligence.

⚜ Good Times ⚜
Copy & paste if this was close to your childhood.

Yeah, gonna have to pass on that.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Los avestruces


I read The Plague about 20 years ago and that's what my copy looked like.  I'd seen Outbreak in the theater a few years before that, mostly because my girlfriend at the time was on her way to medical school and had a thing for infectious diseases.  She worked for some professor at the University of Michigan studying cholera, so maybe for that reason I tended to see outbreaks as something that really only posed a risk to people in developing countries forced to cope with massive mosquito populations and a lack of potable water.  Outbreak seemed full-on Hollywood to me, no chance of anything like that happening here.  And while The Plague was much more realistic, it came across to me as a period work--something that couldn't happen anymore, not in an industrialized country anyway.

Even so, I can't say I've been totally dismissive of disease threats over the years.  Mad cow disease seemed like something that was going to be a real problem back in the early 2000s--a fully terminal illness spread by invisible microscopic prions that are undetectable and indestructible and could be in your beef.  But mad cow is not infectious and public health authorities have more or less stamped it out through testing, prohibiting cattle cannibalism, and restricting certain imports.  Then in the mid-2000s came the avian influenza scare, which one of my favorite authors suggested was going decimate the developing world and in a worst-case scenario could cause a global holocaust on the order of 900 million deaths.  But the bird flu didn't really grip either--and that was in the midst of the generally mendacious, incompetent Bush II administration.  So a plague?  Eh.
"Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise."
But here we are.

I've spend the better part of the last 48 hours reading various forms of literature on coronavirus and epidemic containment, posting social media articles about the importance of implementing social distancing at the earliest possible times, and urging local school officials to suspend in-person classes.     Most, if not everyone I've encountered, who has approached the issue either from a purely public health perspective or even just an agnostic, what-makes-the-most-sense sort of open-mindedness have readily acknowledged the science and the public health expertise and quickly agreed that we should be flattening the freaking curve A.S.A.P.  But not everybody has been looking at the epidemic pandemic through those kinds of lenses.
"Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, 'doing business.'"
Closing schools and businesses is going to disrupt all kinds of activities.  If the schools aren't open then people will need child care, or else they won't be able to go to work.  If their employers are closed or their jobs don't allow for WFH options then they may not be able to work regardless.  If people aren't working then they may not be getting paid.  If people aren't getting paid then they are going to have trouble paying their rent or mortgage, their utility bills, their student loans, or even affording day-to-day necessities like food and transportation expenses.  This is to say nothing of all the actual work those people would otherwise be doing, and that will now be delayed or just won't be getting done, and whatever implications that has on society, the economy, et cetera.

So people don't want to close schools and businesses, and say they won't do so unless and until doing so becomes absolutely necessary.  All that is perfectly understandable and the reluctance to close schools and businesses was well and good before the coronavirus arrived.  But now that it's here, the time to act has come.
"He knew quite well that it was plague and, needless to say, he also knew that, were this to be officially admitted, the authorities would be compelled to take very drastic steps. This was, of course, the explanation of his colleagues' reluctance to face the facts."
Though we've reached the point at which closure is necessary, things are remaining open. What gives?

I've lost sight of what people are waiting for.  First we were waiting for cases to reach the U.S.  Then, I guess, we were waiting for cases to reach our state.  Then to reach our town.  None of this made any sense to me in the first place; with modern air travel once a virus reaches San Francisco or Seattle it's going to be all across the country within a matter of hours.  But fine--you want to wait until there are confirmed cases in your area, I disagree but fine.  Well, yesterday there were reports of students in our local school systems here in Richmond being tested for the virus--and yet the schools remain open today.  What are they waiting for?
"The public lacked, in short, standards of comparison. It was only as time passed and the steady rise in the death-rate could not be ignored that public opinion became alive to the truth."
I don't know.  I think the schools should be closed.  And yet, here I am, letting our kids go to school anyway.  What the hell am I thinking?  Not sure I really know that, either.

Obviously I am not an epidemiologist or public health professional.  I'm not a doctor, nurse, or health care worker.  So who am I, really, to say that the schools are wrong to stay open?  The principal at my daughter's school, and the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools (where our exchange student is enrolled) both say they are in close contact with the Virginia Department of Health, are taking the virus seriously, and are prepared to announce closures if they need to.  Who am I to say that's not good enough?  Indeed, it's not as though I've got health department officials to consult with.  Why should anybody listen to me?

I'm probably just an irrational parent overreacting to the latest craze.

Except I really don't think I am.
"There comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two do make four is punished with death."
Okay, maybe not death.
"Many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits, as yet. Plague was an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come."

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Never send a boy

Image from Democracy Now!, https://www.democracynow.org/2019/11/27/1999_wto_protests_20_years_later 

The layoffs were never a surprise.  The rumors would circulate for weeks ahead of time, and even when they were formally announced you'd have already heard that somebody's dad got a pink slip or someone's neighbor didn't go in that day.

When they happened you'd be sure to watch the local news.  It was always the same interview: a middle-aged man, always with the ballcap, standing outside an auto plant, whatever personal combination of nervous, angry, demoralized, upset, worried showing clearly in his posture and visage.  "What are you going to do now?" the attractive, young female reporter would ask him.

"I don't know."

You'd get the details from the newspaper.  Ours, the straightforwardly-titled Saginaw News, would usually come around six.  200 at Grey Iron.  160 at Steering Gear.  278 at Central Foundry.  Another whole division at Fisher Body in Flint.  This was always front-page, obviously.  Usually they'd have a map of the different plants or an infographic showing the types of jobs being cut: machinists, tool & dye makers, always lots of unskilled assembly line positions.

This was a strange way to learn about how cars were made, a reverse-engineered understanding based on which production lines were being shut down or what kinds of workers were out of a job.  But it did get the point across: manufacturing was dying in this country.  There was no future in it.  Certainly not in the auto plants where your father or your uncle or your grandfather--or maybe even your mother--once earned a living and hopefully still did.

And it was a good living.  But it was hard.  Assembly-line work was brutal: dirty, dangerous, loud, and monotonous--oh, so monotonous.  The lubrication was everywhere--it would subtly soak into your sweatshirt, your jeans, the pores of your skin.  The foam earplugs would throb, would chafe.  That might distract you from your aching feet, or the soreness in your shoulder--only the right one, or only the left.  On the worst days the metal would rise against you--the little parts slowly nibbling away at your glove, hitting the same tiny spot over and over and over again until they made a hole.  Then that metal would gnaw your fingertip, wearing the skin thin.  You'd watch the slow creep of the time-clock, silently praying for the shift to end before the metal would break through.  Usually it would end on time, but just usually.  And just on time.  You'd try to hold the pieces in a slightly different way, try to adjust the glove to somehow stop it, but on those days the effort was always in vain.  You could only look forward to the next day, and the next pair of gloves.  But that, at least, gave you something to think about: where you'd buy them, what material you'd get, when could you make it to the store.

The clock crept more quickly this way, but usually there was nothing to think about at all.  Just the next piece of metal and the slow creep of the clock.  You couldn't wait for that clock to run out--to line up with your cardstock timeslip in hand and slide that baby just so until you feel that perfect "cah-CHUNK" of another hard day done.  Run that baby out!  Just so long as there's another eight hours on the clock tomorrow.

That was a bigger clock, one with hands that measured years and decades rather than hours and minutes.  But that clock was running out too.

Some people didn't get it, of course. There were still plenty of people around town who never finished high school but lived in nice houses and drove nice (American) cars and lived comfortable lives thanks to General Motors.  Or Chrysler.  Or a tier-one supplier.  Or maybe a tier-two.  Or maybe some other business that thrived selling products or services to those autoworkers.  It was an economy and it was real and it was all still there.  Sure there were layoffs.  Sure, the UAW was on the defensive every time--fighting to preserve wages and positions against successive rounds of cuts rather than the old days, when they agitated for better wages, health care, pensions, and even civil rights.  But people would always need cars.  And even if robots could build cars, somebody would need to build the robots, right?  It couldn't all go away.

And man, did our people hate the robots.  Every mechanical arm or automatic palletizer was somebody's $30K per year job, with benefits.  (And that was a decent check: $30K a year in 1985 would well be over $70K now).  Every mechanized welder or painter meant one less (highly-paid) skilled position, actually maybe three or five.  Good technology came with names like Atari or Walkman; industrial automation was the devil incarnate.  Nobody in Saginaw ever heard of Ned Ludd.  He would have been their hero.  Him and whoever invented euchre.

Better to hate machines than hate other people.  But there was plenty of that, too.  For decades the domestic auto industry had dominated our highways, with the "big three" of GM, Ford, and Chrysler controlling over 80% of the U.S. market share well into the 1980s.  But Japanese automakers entered the market in the late '60s and steadily gained ground.  This competition was bad news for the Michigan-based U.S. auto giants and was largely resented throughout the Midwest.

And the threat wasn't just from foreign competition--it was from Asian competition.  European carmakers like Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, and Renault had long had a presence in the U.S. market.  But nobody ranted about German or competition or sold tickets to smash an old Fiat or Alliance with a sledgehammer.  Never mind that companies like Toyota and Nissan bought parts from U.S. suppliers and built their own assembly plants in North America and employed U.S. workers--or that American companies like GM and Ford off-shored plenty of their own production and purchased cheap parts from foreign suppliers as well.  The economic insecurity combined with racism and the mixture proved downright ugly.  RIP Vincent Chin. 

One byproduct of the racism and bitterness was that it obscured the fact that the autoworkers actually had a point: much of the competition that was costing them their jobs was objectively not fair.  Even if the executives at Ford or GM were determined to continue making cars in Michigan and buying parts from domestic suppliers, doing so would be suicidal when producers in Indonesia or Mexico or Vietnam or the Philippines could make equal or better products at a fraction of the cost.  And this was possible because factories in those and other developing countries tended to built in free enterprise zones, where worker safety and environmental protection laws did not apply (or were not enforced if they did) and wages were notoriously terrible.

Fair or not fair, the writing was on the wall--and those of us who read it got the hell out.  Many of us got out physically--fleeing the Rust Belt for beacons of opportunity in coastal cities, college towns, or wherever else buildings were going up instead of coming down.  Others may have remained in the Midwest physically, but pursued careers in health care, law, music, engineering, finance, culinary arts, education, tech, glassblowing, the god dam military, whatever--anything but manufacturing.  In fact, you didn't really even need to read anything: Bill freaking Clinton told us there just weren't going to be any more factory jobs, so we had better go off to college.  And then he went and signed us up for NAFTA and, later, the WTO.

So that was how it was supposed to work for us Generation Xers.  Manufacturing was a lost cause. We'd give up on that, but trade it for better opportunities in tech and highly-skilled service fields.  It would take education, sure--but we'd make sure that was available.  I know it's different than what you're used to.  But times have changed.  This is the right plan for a 21st century world.  Trust me.

Sure, Bill.

It didn't take thirty years to realize the plan was crap.  The promised educational opportunities and high-tech retraining did not materialize.  Students were force to borrow, and borrow bigWages stagnated even for those who transitioned into the newer jobs.  Some lady at Harvard explained that it now took two incomes for a household to afford what a one-income household once could.  It turned out foreign workers could do lots of tech and service jobs too--and that freely opening the U.S. market to products produced in free enterprise zones was a grave threat to the environment.  By 1999, we Xers weren't having it.

They didn't listen then, sprayed us with tear gas instead.  And they still won't listen to us now--20 years later, when it's clear as day that they were wrong and we were right.  They lost us.

Some of us turned to the fringes.  If Al Gore or John Kerry wouldn't listen, at least Ralph Nader would.  If Barack Obama isn't interested, maybe it's worth checking out Jill Stein or whoever the socialist party is running.  Or just stay home--electoral politics are for schmucks anyway.  But we mostly sucked it up and voted for the mainstream candidates--not because they were ever right, but because the other choice was always even more fearsome.

Us, they'd lost.  But there were others, people they never had in the first place.  Those who hadn't read the writing on the wall.  Those who hadn't listened to Bill Clinton's warning.  Those who thought that if the robots could build the cars, they could at least build the robots.  Those who didn't consider it work unless your sweat mixed with oil and your ears rang and your feet killed and the metal dug into your flesh.  Those who wanted to watch a clock and punch a card and hate every second and think about gloves and nothing.  Those who paid $5 for three swings at a Toyota and brutalized Vincent Chin.  They were still there.  And they made sure those of us who'd gotten out knew that we were not welcome back.  Now the sledgehammers are AR-15s.

Many of them had gone to the fringes too.  The Bushes weren't their people, but Pat Buchanan was listening.  The militias were recruiting.  The Tea Party was open.  And then came Donald Trump, who said he would renegotiate the trade agreements.  Bring the jobs back.  Real jobs, with sweat and pain and gloves and timeclocks and meth.  And he said he'd make sure "real Americans" get those jobs too, not undeserving newcomers.

He was probably lying, of course--as Trump's indifference to working class issues is immediately obvious to anyone who's paid the slightest attention to Trump.  And yeah, whether he was actually lying or simply unable despite an honest desire, he has not succeeded in restoring U.S. manufacturing jobs.  But at least he talked about it. at least he said he would.  That's more than could be said for his 2016 general election opponent--another corporate Democrat who would have kept the Washington Consensus humming along.

I grew up in Michigan.  I have long since "gotten out."  But it's still my home state; I still cheer for  the Tigers and Red Wings.  I still tell people how Lake Michigan has the best beaches.  I know how to pronounce Mackinac and I still play euchre.  And so I felt personally crushed when the news media called Michigan for Trump in 2016.  I said I could not believe it.

"Why not?" asked a Korean-American friend.  She'd grown up in the same town as me, had been around the same people, read the same newspaper, seen the same stories on the local news.  I was not welcome back, but she'd never felt welcome there in the first place--amid the Asian-bashing, the anti-intellectualism, and the specter of economic birthrights withheld behind chainlink fences and dying in extinguished industrial furnaces.  You've heard of white privilege?  It's a concept easily rejected under six figures of student loan debt, but never have I understood its meaning more clearly than in that moment.  Why the fuck not, Eric?  Indeed. 

The 2020 presidential race comes down to the Rust Belt once again.  There are those who've physically remained, but you sprayed them with tear gas twenty years ago, ignored them ever after, and finally they couldn't hold the barbarians from breaking through the gate in 2016.  If you want to take it back, you have to fulfill your broken promises: educate our kids, put U.S. workers on a level playing field, give us the damn raise Bill Clinton said we had coming thirty years ago and for crying out loud get serious about the environment.  That starts with sending somebody who will at least offer to do so.

We have a saying in euchre: "never send a boy."  It means don't play a weak trump card when there's a chance it could get over-trumped by an opponent.  Yeah, don't do that.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

I wanna new drug


Just looking at some options.

Alcohol.  Probably the main advantage is that it's legal and readily available wherever you happen to be.  Plus it's fun to experiment with new labels or new cocktail combinations and whatnot.  But that's about it.  Hard to attain the desired level of buzz without overdoing it, you consume a ridiculous amount of calories, and there's hangovers.  For me, the worst thing is that a single sip tends to render me some degree of useless for the rest of the evening.  Grade: C+

Watching sports. Also legal.  Can be enjoyed at various levels of intensity.  Has social, aesthetic, and intellectual aspects.  Really good for blocking out those unpleasant realities.  On the other hand, watching a sport tends to be boring unless you follow at least to some threshold level--so it's a major time commitment and tends to produce a profound addiction that is very difficult, if not impossible, to break.  Fosters absurd forms of parochialism and makes me hate you because of the Ohio State shirt you have on.  Also, your team is going to lose, probably a lot.  Grade: C+

Eating at food trucks.  Legal most of the time.  The food is usually excellent, though can be disappointing.  Weather dependent.  Good way to meet nice people--though the conversations tend to be brief and superficial.  Prices vary, but calorie intake is almost always sky high.  Main drawback: just kind of a thing you can do, isn't really going to distract you from existential terror.  Grade: B+

Marijuana.  Semi-legal in a handful of states.  Much better high than alcohol, no hangover.  You're still going to be useless though.  Really f*ing useless.  Lots of cool bongs and pipes and edibles and stuff.  Problems: expensive, a pain in the ass, the need to be discreet, munchies, sometimes you get paranoid and hear yourself saying things that you know are stupid but you can't stop yourself and then you get more paranoid and say even stupider things and get frustrated and what the hell am I going to do and then you go to bed at 5:15 p.m.  Grade: B

Scale modeling.  Not against, the law, but one of those things that makes people suspicious--especially if you go for the cheap toxic glue.  Takes a hell of a long time and requires intense concentration, research, etc.  Some financial commitment but not expensive.  Drawbacks: most kits are either for sports cars or various military equipment, messy and takes up space, eventually you are probably going to mess something up and the steering wheel won't fit right, yeah you can modify the kit but good luck with that, and what the hell are you going to do with a 1/32 scale replica of the HMS Pinafore that tips over on its right side after you actually finish the thing?  Grade: C

LOTR movie marathons.  Legal outside of China.  Maybe in China, not sure.  Hobbitses very subversive.  Takes a while.  Good excuse to use your big TV.  Hey, I still have something that plays DVDs!  The Bridge at Khazad-dum scene occurs.  Happy ending.  OTOH no Tom Bombadil, and then at some point you need a break from it.  Probably going to have to do this alone.  I guess you could just re-read the books (again)?  Grade: A-

Bodybuilding.  The activity itself is legal, but often crime-adjacent.  Very time-consuming and rather ineffective absent a total lifestyle commitment.  You get to have muscles and shit.  Is that all?  All.  I guess for drawbacks there is a risk of injury, it can get expensive, and you have to read all those websites that say "everybody else is wrong, click HERE for the secret method of sculpting that 8-pack" and then you click and it requires you to enter your email address and consent to text messages from douchey salespeople.  Well, I guess you don't have to.  Grade: B+

Domestic chores.  Legal if you are doing them yourself.  Always good to have a clean house.  You're going to do it anyway so maybe if you claim it as your hobby and tell people you enjoy it then you can fool yourself into actually digging it?  Eh, that's a strange way to live.  Drawbacks: sucks in every way.  Grade: F.  Maybe a D- if combined with gardening.

Playing the banjo on the front porch of a ramshackle Appalachian cabin.  Always going to award good points for music.  Develops manual dexterity.  Burt Reynolds might come.  Not really anything bad I can say about it, though I do wonder if it's actually possible to get the true PBOTFPOARAC experience if you're not a genuine hill boy and just kind of doing the Appalachian poverty tourism thing.  Nonzero chance of being eaten.  Grade: B+

Cruises.  The food's not great, you get to stop in the ports and be like "hey I was Jamaica!" but no not you really weren't in Jamaica, you might get SARS or the coronavirus or something.  Probably not going to sink.  BUT, gets you the hell away from reality for five or seven or however many days.  Hella expensive.  Maybe you can afford it but we're all about opportunity cost at Entitled White Jaywalker.  They'll probably have you drinking alcohol.  Grade: D+

Tik-Tok master.  Involves artistic/athletic movement.  Evidently it's possible to make money.  Can be done in short spurts of time.  Problems: probably need to be under 25 and in tune with youth culture regardless.  I guess I really don't know enough about it, should probably end now.  Grade: C-




Sunday, March 1, 2020

Hail Mary


Gonna go ahead and do my "please vote for Elizabeth Warren this Tuesday" post. Then hopefully I can set the politics down for a bit. Certainly I have something else to discuss. Right?

There are three major federal issues facing the U.S.A. One is the environment/climate change, an international problem which threatens the long-term habitability of the entire planet. Second is the inability of the U.S. economy to adequately redistribute wealth and the resulting widespread poverty and inequality of opportunity. Then there's the erosion of basic constitutional checks & balances, which by now have transformed the U.S. into something less than a meaningful democracy.

Only the two progressive candidates running for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, intend to and least try and address all three of these issues in a major way. Buttigieg and Bloomberg at least have significant environmental platforms; neither Biden nor Klobucher plan to do anything big at all. Accordingly, only the progressives merit serious consideration in this race. [Edit: just learned Mayor Pete has pulled the plug, so that's how real time this post is yo]

Sanders earned folk hero status for standing up to the Democratic establishment in 2016 and has built an impressive grassroots movement that might well deliver him the nomination. He's strong on every significant issue, and the strength of his grassroots movement promises to afford significant political capital once he's in office, should he make it there. A vote for Sanders is a vote well spent indeed.

But Elizabeth Warren is the best candidate in the race. She's just as good as Sanders on practically every issue--including various micro-issues that most candidates haven't even thought about. Where she distinguishes herself is in her detailed plans for how to actually get everything done and where the money will come from. As a long-time independent who's had to burn some bridges with mainstream Democrats to get where he is, Sanders would likely struggle to gain uniform Democratic support for his plans and ideas; Warren, by contrast, is well-positioned to have Dems line up behind her make stuff happen in the first 12 months or six months or even first 100 days. And she is a safer bet against Trump, as she would enter the general election cycle more or less free of the political baggage that dogs Sanders (and which figures to ensure he would--however unfairly--receive hostile treatment throughout the general election cycle from a mainstream media that has already declared him an extremist).

To be honest, 2016 was the most important election of our lifetimes and we already lost. There's a good chance the damage the Trump administration has inflicted can never be repaired, and little reason to be confident it will be even if the possibility exists. But maybe there's a chance. If a progressive can win the 2020 election, come into the White House with majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, get the Senate leadership to dispense with filibuster nonsense and then go FDR on shit for the next two years, then perhaps we do have some shot at preserving a habitable planet and restoring an acceptable level of legitimate democracy to the USA.  

Even with Warren, that's only a chance. But she's the best chance we have. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to take it.

On Water Clocks and Weaklings