Monday, January 14, 2008


Lisa writes with feeling about dignity or the lack thereof we’re facing. Lack of community and modern technology have created an unholy alliance that allows us to let it all hang out because nobody knows who we are and go just about anywhere we want in order to do it.

We’ve always pushed the envelope. Cromwell’s commonwealth of plainclothes, closed theaters, whitewashed churches and a ban on celebrating Christmas is offset by the Restoration. Complete with silks, satins, outrageous wigs (and that was for the men), the comedies of Wycherly, and a king who was too much a gentleman to ignore a pretty (and willing partner). Charles II fathered at least a dozen children, acknowledged them all, yet died without a legitimate heir. He was also too much a gentleman to put aside a barren queen.

Regency excess was followed by Victorian whalebone. Clingy empire waistlines gave away to corsets and crinolines. Seventeenth century lace and frills (again for the men) gave way to sober shirtfronts and starched collars.

 America’s Gilded Age was a glittering era of starched shirt fronts, bared shoulders, glittering gems and Robber Barons. The Grover Cleveland of the 1880’s joined list of public men with private affairs (and children born on the “wrong” side of the blanket) that included Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.

The Roaring Twenties gave way to a worldwide economic collapse followed by a World War followed by what I guess you could call the fit in at any cost fifties.

Through the years there was an unwritten code that allowed the private affairs of public men, and women in some cases, to stay private. Was this wink, wink hypocrisy? Or was it simple acknowledgement that no one is perfect? Most of us tittered when Bill Clinton claimed he smoked, but didn’t inhale. Perhaps it would have been better if he’d just said “mind your own business.”

The generation that helped win WWII was also the generation of the Organization Man. If the corporation said “move to LA” the answer wasn’t “but my whole family lives in Chicago.” It was “how soon to I need to be there.” The family scattered and the folks got too old or tired of shoveling snow and moved to Florida. We lost not only family ties but community ties.

We traded the Ma and Pa diner on Main Street for the McDonalds near the new freeway exit. We gave up the folks who knew our names for the harried sales help with name tags. We gave up the gal or guy behind the counter who knew just how we liked our coffee, that the eggs should be over easy and the hash browns extra crisp for fix your own coffee, eggs cooked to fit a biscuit and potato patties in greasy little baggies.

We traded the local shoe store where they knew your size and the clerk would probably tell everybody at the pub about your new pumps for do it yourself at Fred Meyer.

We traded the local hardware store and the guy behind the counter who probably helped you plan your new kitchen and would sell you three widgets if you needed them for plastic packaging with two more than you needed.

We traded the local meat market where the meat in the back was probably chewing grass in the next county  a couple of weeks ago and the butcher knew who was in the market for soup bones for CO2 treated meat in plastic packaging and E coli.

We traded the anticipation of the first local tomatoes of the summer for red “things” that look like tomatoes and taste like plastic.

There were three or four TV channels and we all watched Ed Sullivan or the Untouchables, or Laugh In. Folks knew which friends or relatives probably wouldn’t answer the phone when PBS ran the original Forsyte Saga back in the sixties. It was a community of sorts. New shows had at least half a season to find an audience, maybe even a season or two.

Now we have I don’t know how many channels and shows that don’t find an audience within the first couple of weeks simply disappear. They’re gone before I even know they’re there. I loved the X-Files. After I stumbled over it half way through the second season and eagerly looked forward to any reruns from season one so I could catch up.

We traded standing on the stool watching and “helping” mom make dinner for soccer moms, video games and little kids who have to have their moms figure out when they have time to play together.

We forgot, if we ever realized it, that businesses are in the business of selling “something.” The move towards preserved prepared foods had been slowly growing for over a century before WWII. And the first efforts at preserved foods were to supply the military, long distance shipping and the pioneer trade. There was a huge need during the war for food that could be prepared and preserved or shipped as mixes for military use.

After the war there was all these consumables needing consumers. We found ourselves with a new label. We were no longer customers we were consumers and Madison Avenue stepped up to the plate. The cake from the mix was “in” and do it yourself was out. Even if the home made cake tasted better. Somehow dinner in a can was trendier than what you cooked in your own pan at home. There was this new line in the national ledger. The consumer price index. And forty years later we found out that what we’d been consuming had more in common with the chemistry lab than the pantry just off the kitchen.

We woke up one day and discovered that the local shops where your custom (patronage) mattered were gone. We ended up with big box stores that advertise gift bags for the first five hundred customers who show up at 2 AM on Black Friday and are “shocked” when everybody stampedes through the door trying to be first. And happy as hell that the stampede made the regional cable news channel for a bit of free advertising. They ran it over and over and over.......

And the elected hired help has cooked the books so that only the finished products and the money used to buy them are counted in the national ledgers. Mom staying home and baking bread or cookies isn’t even a blip on the radar screen. Mom going out and working so she can buy bread and cookies for her family is part of the Gross National Product. Jerry was the guy downtown who sold hardware, not Jerry’s, the big box store across town that you can use for your daily walk.

I don’t want to go back to the days when we had to make everything ourselves, a bad harvest meant everybody in the neighborhood might go hungry, or it taking a week to get to Portland by horse and wagon. There has to be a balance between being a consumer and a customer. We aren’t going to be treated with respect or allowed any kind of dignity unless we demand it and work towards a day when the threat to take our“custom” someplace else means something.

You go girl. I'm not sure we have time to wait for the pendulem to swing back.

1 comment:

mlraminiak said...

I've suspected for a long time that any country that relies upon a consumer-driven economy is in BIG trouble.  Plus, there is something just...WRONG that the health of the American economy depends upon all of us idiots regularly going out and buying things we really don't need, but Madison Avenue has convinced us that we have to have...  Lisa  :-]