Friday, June 19, 2020

A Dream of the Good Old Days Before Juneteenth was a Holiday

Just now, like many of us, I'm holding my breath that Agent Orange won't carry on to drop his COVID nukes in Tulsa. The day after Juneteenth. We celebrate today, for tomorrow we may die. I wish all my black sibs the happiest of Juneteenths, the newest Federal holiday!

I'm also trying just now to restart my entire read-through in Chinese of the Dream of the Red Chamber. This is a book which many Chinese count as their North Star for what it means to be human on the planet. I remember thinking that as well. Like reading Tolstoy, I don't quite remember why. I only know that it changed me.

And I remember very well driving out to Madison, Wisconsin as a grad student of classical Chinese literature. I was going to attend the first-ever international conference on "Redology." That's the term for academic study of this singular Chinese novel. 

Along the way, I dropped off my friend at the University of Iowa where he was attending the renowned writing program. His father, Parker Po-fei Huang, a well-known poet among Chinese, and a low-ranked but highly esteemed "native informant" at Yale, where language instructors were not professors - his father had told my friend that he had no business writing; he hadn't truly lived. I could relate. My own father was stern that way too. 

But we all loved Professor Huang. I guess we all have our less good sides. 

I was allowed to sit in on a class. I don't remember the notorious tear-down masculine ethos that got the program so many celebrated and mostly male authors. I do remember wistfully feeling that I was not of that crowd.

How well I also remember driving north to arrive at the beautiful campus on Lake Mendota at Madison. It was summer, and the coeds (code for women in those days) were sunning themselves on the grass all over campus. A northern and wooded grassy California beach. I was somehow shocked. Never had I seen so much brazen skin. This was not my conception of what 'midwest' means. Not my crowd either, for sure!

The opening reception was held on the panoramic top floor of a circular tower. All the younger westerners were glued to the windows, gazing out over the beautiful campus to hide our social awkwardness. Very few of us were expected, after all, to have some bit of expressive performance queued up for presentation on demand, as all Chinese are. All the senior Chinese scholars were looking inward toward friends, and new acquaintances they had already mostly read. 

In the buffet line for dinner I chatted with David Hawkes, the premier English-language translator of The Dream of the Red Chamber, or as he properly called it, The Story of the Stone. All of us were waiting with 'bated breath for his completion of this life's work. I was a bit star-struck. I chatted up a different professor who was into using computer technology to analyze classical Chinese literature (he confessed that he couldn't really read it himself). That was according to the dictates of the structuralism which was then in vogue. The science of literature. Looking for stable patterns across works. 

But what I wish to write about today is our economy. I'm old enough to remember the 'good old days' when the local hardware store was manned by knowledgeable clerks who raised families on their salaries. Our store stocked everything from model airplane engines to lawnmowers, and all the parts and tools in between.

Milk was delivered in heavy refillable bottles then, and Grandma would sometimes send one of the kids down to the ice cream store with a crock, reminding us to have them pack it tightly so that it wouldn't melt along the walk home. 

Now I buy things from Amazon, and watch the prices creep up to cover the free shipping, while the quality seems increasingly indifferent. Caveat emptor and read the editorial reviews. That old hardware store would never tarnish its good name the way that Walmart always does, or Home Depot, or Amazon, by allowing shoddy goods along their shelves. They couldn't afford to. What happens when all the minimum-age hardware helpers age out?

My friend, a structuralist himself, and brilliant professor of Chinese met us at the conference. He took me - well, I took him since he didn't drive - to visit his old college friend who lived just north of Madison. This was a talented young man who'd forsaken an academic life to start a business. 

He had designed a refined set of mountain climbing chocks, and had set up a very high-tech and sophisticated manufacturing process which he explained to me in detail. The process ended up with nicely anodized pieces which were color-coded for size and usage. They felt wonderful in the hand, and apparently - by virtue of angles, metallic composition and surface treatment - held wonderfully in the field. 

Again, who knows what such a business was doing in Wisconsin, but he enjoyed showing me all the steps, partly because I understood them, and likely mostly because I was so googly-eyed. I especially appreciated the step where the nearly finished pieces were blasted with glass beads to provide golf-ballish micro-divots.

Speaking of which, I've only swung a golf club once in my life, and that time the ball went exactly where I was aiming it, to my absolute horror. It sailed right across the neighbor's long back yard, across the street and over the next lawn right into the "picture window" of the hardware store owner who lived around the corner. This is a sin from which I shall never recover. It taught me to always fess up (which I didn't do that time). I was a natural Zen archer, I guess, as I remember the magnetic pull of window to ball. 

It definitely wasn't my doing, although come to think of it I got three bulls eyes the first time I held a bow and arrow and the first time I fired a .22 rifle. I should have known better. But then I was never able to repeat those feats. Story of my life. 

Anyhow this wonderful climbing hardware manufactory was set to go out of business before it even sold its first chock (I received a bag of them as souvenirs). The poor fellow hadn't realized that even the niche sport of climbing was controlled by the one large manufacturer who determined which products could be stocked on pain of withholding all the others. This was just when even sporting goods stores were turning Big Box, and before distribution channels got disrupted. 

Just as is now the case with movie theaters, R.I.P., it doesn't matter how good the product is if you can't get it on the shelf at eyeball level. Money changes hands, as I learned later in the beer retailing business. Smaller brands have got to cheat to win: You have to brazenly follow the big boys and swap the shelves when no-one's looking.

I hadn't heard of WalMart or maybe it hadn't gotten started yet, but I did get an education from that young entrepreneur near Madison about how "Wall Street Money" will pay to overstock shelves with goods sold at a loss for the sole purpose of forcing competitors out of business. I also learned that such practices were illegal in Germany, say, among other countries. 

Some long time later, circumnavigating the continent in all innocence on my little Harley, I happened into Bentonville, Arkansas, where I took a break in front of what looked like the old five and dime hardware store I grew up with. 

Inside, a very nice old man who looked the part gave me a kind of personal tour. It was a museum disguised as a store. I knew something was amiss when I saw a photo of Gerald Ford shaking Sam Walton's hand. Sam would get the Presidential Medal of Freedom later from George H.W. The same medal that Rush Limbaugh just got.

So we give out medals to those who destroy the very fabric of our society now?? People on Wall Street - investors - make a bet on what will be the next blockbuster. But it's really not a bet. It's a sure deal that an entire industry will be disrupted, which means destroyed, by predatory marketing practices. Along with the industry go unions, local ownership, and knowledge of the sort built up over years of purchasing decisions and getting to know the people. 

Gone now as the cost of doing business is so much else that we once did value. Local eateries. Doctors who make house calls. Packaging that isn't killing the planet. Short hauls from farm to table. Local craft beer. You know, the stuff that's coming back, if you're white and well off. At least we got the wholesalers out of the way. Hmmmm. 

Frankly I think black lives have gotten more and more marginal during my lifetime. Our celebrated progress with civil rights hasn't translated into main street lives simply because those aren't the kinds of businesses that we value anymore. 

When things are created digitally - where there is no marginal cost for each additional widget - mountains of investment will be piled into whoever gets the most eyeballs. The losses equal the mountains upside down until the existing players are fully destroyed to leave a sole monopolist. The monopolist is never guilty of the syndicate-style behaviors which anti-trust regulations were designed for. 

These are all nice and mostly white and mostly male youngsters who want to hit it big. Well sure, sometimes they cut corners and act ruthless. Young blonde women beware. Anyhow, the consumers fall like flies in their belief in falling prices. Those falling prices are themselves a temporary illusion, but life is short. 

And it's not as though Google is providing their services for free! Read Surveillance Capitalism, please! We are not the product. Our behaviors are. We all work for the Man for free now. Click to agree, and Yahoo!!

Eyeballs or ears, it's an easy bet that Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern will get most of them. Pornography powered the Internet. Any hit to our most basic emotional plexus. And this is how we want to engineer our future? Well, I guess it is, now, isn't it?

Plastics, Benjamin, plastics.

You have to imagine a world without plastics to imagine a sustainable future. That's a fact. It's hard, but not impossible, to do. Wooden boats are more fun to own than the plastic sort. And they last longer. But you have to enjoy the actual work to own one. You don't need toxic paints - water based or oil - when you can use linseed oil and so forth.

Plastic bags were invented as a way to support the industry which would otherwise have been too expensive for the car companies. That's a fact. Black lives keep getting reinvented downward from slavery to jail (Watch 13th please!) so that we can have our capitalism and eat it too.

This is no way to live, people. We have to bring our economy back down to earth, and use the digital stuff to compute optimal infrastructures according to the data from our now fully instrumented planet. Sure, we need to have the entertainment side - the plastic baggies - to support that overhead, but it's already a done deal.  We just have it all upside down and backwards again is all.

Digital and plastics are fine in small quantities, so long as we pay up front for all their externalities. Short of that, bakelite is pretty good. Natural rubber and steel. Stuff that requires skilled workers to maintain. Writing on paper.

We will always require good writers. My apologies. I can fix a lot of things, but I don't seem to be able to fix my writing. Sorry!

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