Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Why should we care? (An unnecessary ramble.)

If you’ve been around the block a few thousands times, or even if you haven’t, you hit a point every-once-in-a-while where you throw up your hands, or throw down your laptop, or you throw up on your shoes. You mutter, probably too loudly, “Why should I care?”

In many ways, it seems, we inhabit a world that has given up on caring. So much of what we consume seems imbued with a shoddiness that is often insulting. Even a restaurant that has the temerity to charge you $19 for a measly hamburger appears to be ok with just slapping something in front of you with little pride or care.

I remember when my wife and I were remodeling our apartment, even at a relatively expensive store like Restoration Hardware we couldn’t find bathroom vanities that were not made of particle board. It seems like the whole country, including the great edifices we once assumed were made of marble, are in fact made of particle board.

It all starts at the top, I suppose. The grifter and grafters and outright crooks who control our political system. The abnegation of the principle of ‘one person one vote’ with the Supreme Court’s ok of “Citizen’s United.” The list goes on and on.

It seems our national mantra is “anything worth doing is worth doing shoddy.”

I suppose it’s been this way for a while. I remember when I was a kid driving with my mother through the Bronx on the punchline to a thousand New York jokes: The Bruckner Expressway. Robert Moses mapped it out in 1951. It’s still not finished today.

On that particular day, driving with my mother in her green 1951 Plymouth, the news crackled on the AM radio and said all the cement used in the Bruckner (ostensibly sold to the city by suppliers from “the Company,” aka LCN, aka the mob) had been made with too much sand. The whole thing was expected to collapse any minute.

For my entire life, projects like the Bruckner have been a metaphor for America. Everything costs about a billion times more than it should, takes twenty times as long to build as it should, doesn’t last and doesn’t work. Oh. And it’s ugly and deadly. And slow.

So, why should we care?

Certainly, in our current economic system, “Serfdom 2.0,” it’s hard to give a shit. An article from 2018 reported that the head of one advertising holding company made approximately 596-times what the median employee made. Another holding company chieftain was more moderate. He made 264-times as much as his median employee.

What most people forget about along the way is that since “the golden age of Liberalism,” which lasted roughly from Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in 1933 to the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1980, rightly or wrongly, an expectation was established.

In fact (this may come as a shock to some readers) back in the day, there was something called a “raise.” This was a monetary increase from the employer to you in recognition of your length of service, quality of work, work accomplishments, or simply appreciation for your efforts.

This quaint notion has all but vanished.

The same corporate entities that understand the logic behind financial legerdemain such as the depletion allowance should, presumably, be able to comprehend an appreciation allowance. The depletion allowance gives you a tax break as your resources deplete. The appreciation allowance, in concept, should impel you to give your resources more money as their worth appreciates.

But no.

Which brings us back to the question: why should we care?

In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl states a few ideas that might help clarify. (By the way, “Man’s Search for Meaning” is one of the greatest books ever written. The question is, are we good enough to learn from it?)

1.    You choose your own attitude.
Whether you’re a lowly copywriter, a slightly-more-elevated dog-walker or a .345-hitter for the Yankees, people can always find reasons to ‘phone it in.’ That's your decision to give up. Frankl recalls, for instance, people combing their hair while at Auschwitz. As Frankl says, there is “sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.”

2.    Happiness comes to those who believe.
People who know me will find it somewhat notable for me to be writing about happiness. I virtually define the word lugubrious. You might even say I’m downright grumpy. And grumpiness is fine. However when a job has to be done, your job, it has to be done well. Doing a job well brings internal happiness, even when external rewards are sorely lacking.

That doesn’t mean we should accept the lack of external rewards. Only that we should  do our best till external rewards become attainable.

3.    Where there’s a why there’s a way.
Once you know why you’re working—for your own personal integrity, so your kids can have a better life than you did, so you can take a week in Barbados over Thanksgiving, or so you can retire someday—then you work. Hard.

Of course, if you’re in the right job, sometimes the why is because you love what you’re doing, who you’re doing it with and who you’re doing it for. But if things are, as they are so often, unsatisfactory at work, you find other reasons to persevere.

I’ve always been blessed as a human in that no matter what I’ve been paid to do, I’ve always found a way to like it. When I worked as a game-room attendant at an amusement park for $2.30/hr. I was the best game-room attendant in the world. You couldn’t find a cigarette butt on the floor, a broken pinball machine or a winning skee-ball game.

Likewise when I installed aluminum siding for two Italian brothers who spoke no English and when as a 20-year-old I worked the 4PM-Midnight shift in a downtown Chicago liquor store across Rush Street from a whore house, I found things to like in what I did to keep me energized and, yes, laughing.

Many years ago, I learned something at my best friend’s father’s funeral. Even when he was an old man, when someone asked the senior Mr. Watts how work was going, he’d reply, “still learning, still laughing.”

That’s pretty good. About all you can hope for.

Though a pat on the back, a handshake, a thank you, or heaven forfend, a raise wouldn’t hurt either.

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