Tuesday, February 21, 2017

¿Dónde Están los Trabajos? or Where are the Jobs?

When I was a kid there were four breweries near my hometown of East Orange, NJ. Rheingold was in Orange, and was a 15-minute walk my house. I often passed it walking to the Y on Saturday mornings. Pabst, in Newark, was a 15-minute bike ride away, and on the way to my grandparents’ house in Newark. Ballantine, also in Newark, was a 20-minute drive away, and we passed through its huge complex whenever we went to the Newark Drive-In. Anheuser-Busch, with its huge animated flying eagle sign, was the one we saw the least. It was only 18 minutes away, but we only saw it when we went to Newark Airport, and that wasn’t all that frequently.

Of those four breweries from my childhood, all but one were gone by 1987, taking hundreds of jobs with them. Ballantine, once bigger than Anheuser-Busch, closed its plant and sold its brands in 1972. Rheingold, a local favorite since the 1800s, folded in 1976. And Pabst closed its Newark brewery in 1986; leaving only Anheuser-Busch brewing in Essex County.

And we won’t even talk about the Schaefer, Piels, Ruppert, and additional Rheingold breweries across the river in New York City.

What caused the closing of 75% of the breweries in North Jersey?

I’ll tell you one thing for sure…it wasn’t “immigrants taking the jobs from ‘real’ Americans.” In fact, most of those breweries were founded by immigrants. It also wasn’t the jobs being shipped south of the border, to where cerveza could be made more cheaply. So then what was it?

One thing was the inability of what had been strong regional brands like Rheingold and Ballantine to compete with expanding national brands from Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, and Miller. Another…and perhaps the biggest thing…was modernization. When Pabst closed its Newark plant in 1986, they moved production to a much larger, and more efficient, facility in Northeastern Pennsylvania; a plant that was able to brew many different brands of beer with fewer people.

Now let’s move up to Central New York, where I live now, and let’s talk about modernization again. There’s a chocolate plant in Fulton that closed as a result of that. Once again, it wasn’t immigrants taking jobs away from “real” Americans; and it wasn’t the plant being moved south of the border, closer to where the cocoa beans came from. It was that there was a larger, more efficient, centrally located facility out in the Midwest.

The big air conditioning company in DeWitt…that we stole from Newark back in the 1930s? They did move south…closer to where their customers were. After all, why build air conditioners in Upstate New York and ship them to North Carolina, when you can build them in North Carolina to begin with? No immigrants involved here.

Then there are mergers and acquisitions…always big job killers. When the fire engine company in Florida bought the one in Central New York, all they really wanted was the customer list and the intellectual property. They didn’t need a factory up here; they already had excess capacity in a very efficient facility down there. Do you see any immigrants taking jobs away in this scenario?

Oh…and the big plant nearby that made soda ash for over 100 years using the Solvay Process. Those jobs abruptly disappeared in 1985 when a natural source for soda ash was found out west…where it could be mined much more cheaply. Who was to blame for those jobs disappearing, and can anyone bring them back?

No. No matter what anyone says, those jobs, like Little Sheba, are gone, and ain’t coming back. But maybe, just maybe, rather than trying to bring back the “good old days” that never were, there’s something new and better on the horizon that takes a bit of imagination to see and bring about…imagination that we haven’t been using because we still want to do things the old ways, and are unwilling to adapt to new realities.

And because it’s easier to blame someone else than to make those changes.


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Birds Do It...

There’s a store here in town that specializes in erotic books, videos, and all kinds of sexual goodies. There used to be a Radio Shack next to it, and I would always joke about how the people who wanted to visit that other store would always stop in Radio Shack first for a couple of batteries. That way, if anyone claimed that they saw their car parked in front of Boulevard Books, they could always truthfully say that they were at Radio Shack.

But Radio Shack is long gone…at least from our area…I was actually surprised to see one in Denver last year. Now anyone who wants “plausible deniability” has to go to the nursing uniform store that’s in its place. And let’s face it, people are less likely to need a set of scrub tops than a couple of CR 2032 batteries. But this got me thinking…why does it even have to be this way in the first place?

The old song lyric goes, “Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it”, so why do we pretend…or feel we have to pretend that adults don’t have sex? Or at least, why do we have to pretend that adults don’t want anything that you might find in a store like Boulevard Books.

Perhaps the question is why do we have to pretend that “respectable” adults wouldn’t want anything that you might find in a store like Boulevard Books…and why might you be embarrassed to run into someone you knew while you were shopping there?

I’ll tell you, it was embarrassing enough running into one of my 9th grade students in the lingerie section of Target a few years back. We stumbled into each other, pretended not to see each other, turned around, and kept on shopping. But still…why can’t we admit that 9th grade girls want nice underwear and that I might be shopping for my wife (yes, I know what some of you are thinking, and let’s just not go there right now, thank you very much). Had we run into each other in the sporting goods department, we might strike up a conversation, but because we were both in lingerie, we officially didn't see each other and it was something that was never to be spoken of…ever.

But going back to the original question, why is it considered a huge social embarrassment to be seen in, or even have your car seen next to a store that specializes in supplies for things that everyone knows that everyone does? Why can’t going to Boulevard Books be seen as no different than going to the local Ace Hardware?

And even if you decide to go the more “discreet” route, and do all your shopping online, why do those companies make a big deal out of promising to send your package in “plain brown wrapping”, with a return address and line on your credit card bill that doesn’t reveal anything?

Why the f*** can’t we admit that people f***, and might want a few items to go along with the experience?

There seems to be no stigma to buying certain items in the “sexual wellness” section of the local Walgreen’s, and putting them on the counter with your tissues, vitamins, and potato chips. There also seems to be no stigma to grabbing those items from the “personal needs” section of the local supermarket, and putting them on the conveyor with your cucumbers, sausage, and Naked Juice.

And holy crap, the stuff they have in the back of Spencer’s at the mall! But no one will give you a second look if you say you want to shop there. After all, maybe you’re looking for a lava lamp.

But still…a store that’s obviously dedicated to erotic books, videos, and sex toys? For some reason we still feel a need to make sure that no one sees us entering or leaving that place. And how silly is that?

So yes…I’ll admit to having visited Boulevard Books. But I’ve also bought batteries at Radio Shack many times.

And let’s not go there either.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot?

…and never brought to mind?


That’s because the Inverse Square Law says so. And the Inverse Square Law eventually works its way on all relationships…including extended family members.

So what does the Inverse Square Law have to say about this? Well, the simplified version is that the intensity of a relationship falls off more and more quickly the farther away you are from it…until you’re down to practically nothing.

This came to mind as I was looking at the list of people we send Christmas cards and family newsletters to, and thinking about the five people who would be culled from it in the coming year. People who I haven’t heard from in like forever. And after I thought about it a bit, I realized that I was OK with culling them…because the Inverse Square Law had had its way with them, and maybe it was time to let them fade out. Maybe, for them, the Inverse Square Law had had its way with me long ago, and they were more than happy to let me fade away, but I kept sending those damned cards and newsletters.

But really, think about it…your best friend from high school, your old college roommate(s), all the people you hung out with at your old job, even your cousins from across town that you used to play with all the time…as you go farther away and see them less, the relationship is bound to fade as time goes on; and it’ll fade more quickly as more time goes on.

Unless, of course, you are intentional…or even unintentional…about keeping it up.

What are the intentional ways of keeping it up…of keeping the relationships from fading? The usual things: regular cards, letters, email, phone calls, and visits….in both directions. If one party thinks they’re doing all the heavy lifting, resentment will speed up the work of the Inverse Square Law.

And yet sometimes, even with being intentional about trying to keep up a friendship, there comes a point where it starts to feel forced and unnatural. There comes a point where you realize that maybe it’s time to let the other person go. After five years you still have a lot in common. But after 10, 20, 30, or more, your lives have diverged to the point where you have nothing in common anymore except some fuzzy memories from “back then.” Memories which may not be enough to shore up this fading relationship. There comes a point where you ask yourself if you’d still be friends with this person if you both met each other now for the first time.

What are the unintentional ways of keeping a friendship up? Well, one of the best known ones is Facebook.

Facebook is an odd hybrid of both intentional and unintentional. Yes, you’re intentional about joining Facebook. Yes, you’re intentional about accepting someone as a friend, or asking to be theirs once you find out that they’re on. And yes, you intentionally joined that group dedicated to your old high school, your old hometown, the choir you traveled across the country with when you were in college, or some other organization you were a member of at one time. Yes, you were intentional about all that. But after that, a lot becomes unintentional and coincidental in a way that feels very natural and unforced.

It becomes unintentional because Facebook’s magical algorithm has things randomly pop up in your feed from these people every now and then, for you to see, reminding you that they existed. And the beauty is that they didn’t have to specifically target you, which could be awkward. You just happened to be in the “virtual hallway” when they walked by. And if you happen to comment on one of those posts, you briefly enter their lives again, in a natural and unforced way.

As long as you are Facebook friends with someone, the work of the Inverse Square Law is slowed down.

And yet…and yet…sometimes there does come a time to realize that it’s time to let go of someone who used to be a friend. And sometimes you’re relieved when they let you go. Which brings us back to my original question:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot…and never brought to mind?

I’m thinking that sometimes auld acquaintance should be let go.

But...I’ll privately drink an occasional cup of kindness to those I’ve let go…and who’ve let me go.

Including the five I’m culling from my mailing list for next year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

What's Your Holiday Bubble?

A few weeks ago I was walking through the “seasonal” section of Target when a little girl grabbed a bright blue and white gift bag and asked her mother, “What’s this?” When her mother answered that it was a gift bag for Chanukah, the puzzled kid asked “What’s Chanukah?”

To her credit, her mother said that it was a Jewish holiday celebrated around the same time as Christmas, rather than the old “It’s the Jewish Christmas” that so many of my Jewish friends absolutely hate. And yet, I was still surprised that her mother wasn’t able to give her the Reader’s Digest version of the Chanukah story that I assumed everyone knew…after all, I learned it in kindergarten, when Miss Laughlin, my very Irish teacher, asked us all to bring in empty paper towel and toilet paper rolls so that we could make a menorah for our bulletin board. Or maybe she could explain, but just didn’t feel like doing it right there in the middle of Target.

Now, the fact that this girl, who was at least 10 years old, didn’t know what Chanukah was, when I knew at age five, got me thinking about the “holiday bubble” that most of us Christians live in. The holiday bubble that some of my Jewish friends complain about, where they know much more about our holidays than we do about theirs.

And then I thought some more, and realized that we all live in holiday bubbles. My Jewish friends may know all about Christmas because they can’t avoid it, but how many of them know anything about any major Islamic holidays? How many of my Islamic friends know anything about any Hindu holidays? How many of my Hindu friends know anything about Kwanzaa?

And how many people have any idea what December 17th was?

Let’s face it, we all live in holiday bubbles where, if we’re part of the mainstream group, we pretty much just know our holidays, and the barest minimum about anyone else’s. And if we’re not part of the mainstream, we know our own religious/cultural holidays as well as those of the prevailing culture.

But not much about anyone else’s.

And that’s perfectly logical and normal.

That little girl and her mother, who knew next to nothing about Chanukah are no more to be disparaged than the Jewish girl and her mother who know next to nothing about Ramadan, or the Muslim boy and his mother who know next to nothing about Divali.

This country is home to so many people from so many different religions and cultures, that unless you’re an anthropologist (or a librarian), it’s next to impossible for any one person to know all there is to know about everyone’s holidays.

So I think we should all cut each other a little slack. I especially think that those of us who are in religions and cultures outside of the American mainstream should cut everyone a little slack, because as I mentioned before, it’s highly likely that they don’t know much about some other culture’s celebrations.

And yet…I wouldn’t be doing my duty, both as a former teacher and a current librarian, if I let that mother, or anyone else just go their own way without taking the time to learn a little something when the subject of someone else’s holiday comes up. So I recommended a book to them.

And to you…I recommend something as simple as just spending a few minutes with Wikipedia. Yes, I know what some people say about it being unreliable because “anyone can edit it”, but my favorite quote about it is “good enough to settle a bar bet, but probably not something you’d want to cite in your dissertation.”

Once again, I’m gonna say that we all live in “holiday bubbles”...or maybe cultural bubbles is the better term. So before you complain about someone from the mainstream getting the information wrong about your celebration, stop to consider just how much you know about the celebrations of the next group over.

And I hope you enjoyed Beethoven’s Birthday!