Monthly Archives: July 2012

Safety First

In Bill Bryson’s memoir “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” he visits the idea of safety.  For a white kid growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in a nice neighborhood, it was a safe place.  It was so safe that a young boy could break all kinds of rules and suffer minor consequences.  He could walk from his home a couple miles to visit his mother and father in downtown Des Moines.   No safety helmets were needed for bike riding.  No child seats or air bags. No child safety caps or bottled water. Smoking was good for you and so was dirt. Oh yes, there was Polio, the Bomb, and Cicadas “the size of hummingbirds”, but people seemed happy and secure. Continue reading

Dig It! – Making a Wrong Turn in the Fifties – Updated Version

I recently wrote about the difference between a job and work; between “useless toil and useful work.”  And why do we work?  When did we start to devalue leisure time?  A hundred years ago people in the I.W.W. argued for more leisure rather than higher wages.  Keynes talked about the ten hour week.  So when were basic needs replaced by wants? Adam Curtis in “The Century of Self” speculates that it started in the 1920s with the rise of advertising.   But the real push to go beyond needs seems to have occurred in the 1950s.

I just finished Bill Bryson’s memoir “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” about growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s and 1960s.   Like all his books, it is filled with amazing detail, hilarious stories, and keen social commentary.  For white folks in America things were pretty good in the 1950s.  Bryson remarks that their basic needs were being met (although he thinks the toys of his childhood like Mr. Potato Head and the Slinky really sucked).  But instead of being content they started living large.  They went from not needing a car at all in cities with streetcars and rail service to buying two cars.  They needed bigger refrigerators and more gadgets. “…televisions, room intercoms, gas grills, kitchen gadgets, snowblowers, you name it.”   That meant they needed bigger places for all the new stuff.  And so they worked more and women started working too.  They were sold the idea of “careers” which were jobs where you could “get ahead”. Continue reading

Boat Riders and Book Writers – Updated With Better Video

One of Gary Larson’s cartoons that has lingered with me over the years is the one where a small wooden shed sits in the middle of a construction site with a big mound of dirt.  Above the shed is the sign “Fred’s Fill Dirt and Croissants”.   I love it because it appeals to my love of contrasts and supposed contradictions.  It is also the story of my life.  Granddaughter of rich people from Philadelphia who made their fortune in bobby pins and hair nets and the granddaughter of a failed farmer who ended up on the Ford assembly line.  Trained to teach lofty subjects to college kids, but happier doing pratfalls in French farces in Off Off Broadway theaters.   Now living on a cattle ranch going to boat floats and book readings in one week.

“BOAT FLOOOAT! BOAT FLOOOOAT!”, the guys on shore yelled out to a river raft filled with pirate hatted young men. Continue reading

Tupperware and Condoms

In rural America, it can get really lonely especially for women. (Men have to “go to town” a lot for “supplies”.) So for some quick socializing lest you start talking to your dog a little too much and too loudly, you go to a hostess party when invited. What I discovered out here in Montana was that working and ranch women tended towards product selling parties such as Scentsy Candles, Norwest cleaning supplies, or the old standby, Tupperware just to have an excuse to get out of the house. The more, shall we say, upscale and college-educated women  tended to host luncheons for worthy causes. Not saying it’s strictly a money thing, but it mostly holds true that working women can’t get away during the work week to go to a Planned Parenthood luncheon and my college educated middle class crowd are not going to sit around discussing how to make a Scentsy bar of soap last longer. They can afford expensive soaps and so they spend their free time raising money. That’s just reality and not snobbery. And it turns out that the more “high class” luncheons come with a price. Continue reading

“Floating Saloons”

Continuing my series on Bar Codes and Saloon Life, I went to check out the annual Yellowstone Boat Float.  Last night was the start of the Boat Float where young people man rubber rafts, fishing boats, makeshift vessels made of oil drums and plastic bottles. It’s a three day drinking affair. Every night they land their vessels and drink some more, listen to bands, and get arrested. The town folk come to watch.  And sometimes it is dangerous and there is always somebody that gets in trouble on the river or at the parties. Ah Jack London would be in heaven.

“In the saloons life was different. Men talked with great voices, laughed great laughs, and there was an atmosphere of greatness. Here was something more than the common-every-day where nothing happened. Here life was always very live, and, sometimes, even lurid…Terrible [saloons] might be, but then that only meant they were terribly wonderful…In the same way pirates, and shipwrecks, and battles were terrible; and what healthy boy wouldn’t give his immortal soul to participate in such affairs?”

And lo and behold, there was very much a pirate theme to many of the rafts.  Pirate flags flew proudly in the wind.  Pirate hats adorned many heads.  There were Indians and Vikings.   There was a guy packing some heat.  Of course some of this dangerous behavior was undercut by a lot of cute dogs some with their own life vests and some with, yes, pirate hats and Viking horns.

I’m still editing some movies of the event, but until then here are some pictures to enjoy.


“Faces Along the Bar”

I picked up a book at a student book store in New Orleans because it’s title leaped out at me. “Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman’s Saloon 1870- 1920” by Madelon Powers.  It’s an academic, well foot-noted but not dry analysis of the saloon culture that arose in the U.S.  with industrialization.  Various middle class progressive reformers like the “Committee of Fifty” comprised mostly of clergymen and academics studied this culture partially to figure out how to create substitutes for it.  They tried to take the energy of the informal working groups in saloons and shovel them into union halls and temperance tearooms. But the saloons prevailed until prohibition.  They served as a way of self-organization and a way of integrating into American life.  They followed a tradition that Alexis de Tocqueville noted earlier.  He called it “the art of association”.  He observed that Americans seemed obsessed with material acquisition and individualism.  The only thing tempering this dangerous self-interest was their equal tendency to form voluntary associations.  And Powers includes saloon life as a form of voluntary association much like joining lodges, political parties, church groups, and Social Aid and Pleasure clubs like the ones that still exist in New Orleans. Continue reading

On Work/Jobs/Career and Leisure – Updated

I watched my husband swath the alfalfa last Saturday.  It’s a hot, noisy, dusty…well, really  crappy job.  There is nothing idyllic about it although he did comment that he saw a crow catch a mouse, something he had never seen before.  Thought crows ate bugs.  So there you go; a first.

But swathing does have a certain sense of power.  Swathers are big bad machines that can slice up critters hiding in the grass and ruin your hearing.  So when you’ve been out in the heat and the dirt; driving around and around in circles or up and down, row after row, cutting and hacking, you have every right to take the rest of the day off.  Which is what my husband did.  He went to town for some beers.

That got me thinking again about work and leisure.  It is not a new topic but it needs to be discussed in serious ways amongst us.  It would be a good topic for a non partisan group of neighbors.  What is work and what is a job?  Why do we need “careers”?  Careers are sometimes defined as “lifelong work”.  Now isn’t that dandy.  Sentenced to life….long….work.  Whoo! Hoo!  I’ve got a career.   It is also defined as a “permanent calling”.  Oh, that sounds very hoity toity; a calling.  But the permanent part sounds grim. And it is soooo anti- freedom loving American.

I asked my husband for his off-the-top-of-his-head definition of career and he said, “Well, I’d say with a career you can get an upgrade. Some people can’t upgrade, so that’s a job.”   Ah, ha!  The word career then could turn any job into something more desirable.  “I am entering a career in waitering and hope to advance to head waiter or move up the ladder to private butler at the Rockin’ Buckaroo Dude Ranch.”  (Yes, there is a dude ranch that has luxury camping tents with king size beds and your own personal butler. )

But what if having a “career”  is also a sneaky way to make us spend money on college and so to confer on us some sort of status?  Instead of working your way up from a boiler room on Long Island up to hedge fund trader, you can get a degree in selling ice to Eskimos at a very prestigious college.  Much more fun and half the work.  And very hoity-toity sounding.

What is this obsession with work that Americans have anyway?  This week I ran into a sewing materials store to buy some thread and I started chatting with a couple from Australia visiting Montana.  They were here for six weeks!  They officially have four weeks per year off and took an extra two in order to really see America including Hawaii on the way home.  They were shocked to hear that here in the greatest country in the world most people in companies might get two weeks off and work their way up to three.  But most people don’t get any paid vacation at all.

“What?!” they exclaimed.

“Yes,” I said, “we live in a very primitive country here.  We aren’t really free.  We have been brainwashed into thinking freedom is something to do with choices in cereals and having a lot of weapons to kill other people just in case they have the cheekiness to not like us very much.  Meanwhile we have few holidays or vacations where we explore other countries like people in developed countries do.  Add to that expensive healthcare, pitiful pensions, exorbitant education costs, and lousy trains, and you’ve got a pretty primitive kind of society for such a big fat empire like the U.S. of A.”

“You are nothing without work.”  You hear that all the time.  What a crock.  I’ve discovered Michael D. Yates when I was reading everything  I could about why the Wisconsin uprising ended up in a mush.  He wrote a piece in March called “Whoopee! We’re All Gonna Die”.  He expounds on the ludicrous way we sheeple buy into the notion that we all want the dignity  and fun of working until we drop.

In his piece he relates a disturbing story from The Guardian and comments on it.  Sounds like something written by Terry Gilliam.

A friend of mine referred me to an article in the February 16, 2012 issue of the Guardian (United Kingdom), in which it is reported that: “Some long-term sick and disabled people face being forced to work unpaid for an unlimited amount of time or have their benefits cut under plans being drawn up by the Department for Work and Pensions.” Those ancient Wal-Mart greeters will have to work in those wheelchairs just to get social security. And if they need kidney dialysis, the machines can be hooked up to the chairs while they smile at the customers. Perhaps there will be a nonagenarian so disabled that all he can do is blink his eyes. Then some bright young technological wizard will be tasked to find a way to turn those blinks into labor.

Time to have a talk with your neighbors.  Get what needs to get done, done.   Make what needs to be consumed but stop with making all the bric a brac and the knick knacks.  Michael Yates is right;  we need more security not less and a lot more leisure not a life of joyless toil.  So cut some rows, fix some fence, and head to town for a brewski. And start to look for alternatives like the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) idea to provide for the basic needs of everybody on the planet. Hey the banks stole around 800 trillion in the latest LIBOR scandal.  That should work to fund our mad scene of a life filled with time for family and friends and thought.  Now that’s a career I could get behind.

UPDATE: Last night after I published this I woke up and followed a link from Naked Capitalism to a item in the Financial Times called “Enough is Enough of the Age of Consumption”  This article by Robert and Edward Skideisky references the John Maynard Keynes essay I was going to look up on a recommendation by a NC commenter. Keynes wrote “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” in 1930 and “predicted that by now we would only need to work  15 hours a week… The rest would be leisure time.”

The Skideiskys point out that conventional wisdom in economics said that there were three stages of economic development; the age of capital in which people save  their income; the age of consumption where they consumed their income; and the age of abundance where they would say “enough is enough” already.  Let’s work less.

What went wrong?

Well,  producing more than we really need seems to be the culprit along with kicking small farmers off the land and into factories. Large land owners don’t seem to be a good idea.  Saying that, of course around here, will make me few friends.  Montana is home to Ted Turner who owns a good chunk of the state and has his buffalo a roaming and his restaurant “Ted’s” to eat bison burgers.  The idea of large chunks of land with cows and other critters roaming isn’t a bad one.  If we could have some shares in it rather than have just a few wealthy lords makes more sense.  But that’s another whole essay.

Working with our present system, looks like we should have that Basic Income Guarantee.  For people who don’t mind tedious jobs in factories or driving a tractor up and down, we make sure that they have plenty of leisure time.  We could also make sure aka subsidize that artists, musicians, and other performers could create.  Scientists seem to never want to stop working so give them what they need to invent things and cure diseases.

This morning I heard that the LIBOR scandal number was $350 Trillion.  Less than the $800 Trillion I read from Taibbi who got it from the WSJ, but still enough to finance a more balanced world where people have time for themselves and their own ideas of leisure.