The Apartment

shag carpeted bathroom
Image by brianellin via Flickr

 

The Apartment

 

The invention of the teenager was a mistake. Once you identify a period of life in which people get to stay out late but don’t have to pay taxes, naturally no one wants to live any other way.   Judith Martin 

 

It was a normal Saturday morning, stirring about 11am after a late night in West Los Angeles.  My roommate, an early riser, had been awake and away for hours.  He probably took a quick glance inside my room and shook his head in disgust, making a noise similar to Lurch on the Adams Family.  The apartment was an interior designer’s hell – – a collision of hand-me–down furniture, green shag carpet, Ansel Adams photographs, a Pothos house plant with one vine that stretched about forty feet, a television that could not receive channel 7 and a Harmon Kardon stereo system with speakers the size of the Empire State Building.  The bathrooms had not been cleaned in months.  When one would shower, it was usually with a petrified sliver of cracked soap the size of a postage stamp that at some point had just stopped producing lather.  There was one white towel that we hung carefully when we “entertained”.  Otherwise, we used the same beach towel to dry ourselves.  I don’t think we ever washed the sheets.  

 

I opened the food pantry to find a box of Corn Flakes which after shaking seemed adequate for at least one bowl of cereal.  A silverfish skirted out of the light into a gap between the poorly fashioned cupboards. The refrigerator, whose light bulb had long since burned out, held nothing edible except mustard and one can of Tab. I hesitated.  My stomach growled in impatient protest.  I opened the can of Tab and poured it over the corn flakes, waiting until the carbonation subsided enough to see the flakes below.  I lifted the spoon and opened my mouth.  The Tab was cold and the cereal crisp.  It was another day in the bachelor apartment and it was going to be a good one. 

 

The El Nido Apartments were a cross section of urban Los Angeles – – a page torn from the telephone book of life.  Don and Mary Stillman, veteran property managers, occupied the apartment adjacent to the entrance of this 100 unit residential apartment building, watching closely everyone who came and went through the grated gates of the shaded complex.  Mary had penciled eye brows, a fake beauty mark and a dark confused wig – – a dead ringer for Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane”.  Don suffered from emphysema and carried a large oxygen tank around with him.  He was a tough man, a sort of Lloyd Bridges throwback from his days on “Seahunt”.  Don and Mary were the surrogate parents of this massive complex of singles, families and elderly. 

 

It was our first apartment and the lack of supervision was intoxicating.  Aside from the absence of hygiene, nutrition and money, we were young professionals with great prospects.  The bachelor pad was certainly not the most evolved among our friends.  On the architectural ladder of evolution, our habitation could be best described as Early Neolithic.  We were not quite walking upright but we were certainly not living like swamp dwelling paramecium that were living at home.  You may be single when you live at home but you are NOT a bachelor. We had luckier friends who either by birthright or professional occupations had more evolved living arrangements at the beach or in nicer neighborhoods.  Their Bronze Age abodes were white carpets, wood floors and kitchens that looked as if they had been designed by Martha Stewart. 

 

This cave of drywall and shag was our palace – – a sacred place to retreat from the vagaries of a new world of suits, clients, responsibility and competition.  The three story complex was a hollowed square with all apartments looking out over a central open atrium contoured with Polynesian fish ponds, palms and birds of paradise bushes.  The epicenter and hub of the social activity was a kidney shaped pool surrounded by ancient chaise lounges and patio furniture.  At night, green, yellow and red landscape lighting would wash the foliage with a theme park kaleidoscope of colors.   

 

We did not exactly get off on the right foot with our landlords.  We were post graduate delinquents who were slow to remove the reckless mud from the boots of our less accountable college days.  Periodically, we would surreptitiously take out my fly-fishing rod and cast for the ten pound carp that gathered like undersea cows, opening their mouths in insatiable hunger anytime a human walked by.  With a Lays Cheeto attached to a # 8 Caddis fly, we caught – – and released, I might add, several of the bovineous creatures before landlady Mary accused us of poaching her  “koi”.  Koi are very expensive ornamental fish that presumably eat small cubes of kobe beef and candied krill.  These monsters would devour cigarette butts or possibly a small child if it were to fall into the shallow water.  Mary chastised us with a martyred, Blanche Dubois affectation.  Although she lived in an apartment complex with fake hair and fake ponds filled with garbage fish, she was determined to enforce a level of decorum that we derelicts initially resisted. She was a relic and an artifact of a time and place that no longer existed outside the gates of the El Nido.     

 

At the holidays, the apartment façade was decorated with garish Christmas lights and an artificial tree that stood open to the elements and lost its cloth ornaments in high winds.  We realized this display was Mary’s way of trying to recreate a sense of home for so many people who found themselves living in residential apartments away from places more familiar and more caring.  Over the 18 months we resided at The El Nido, we met people on their way up, on their way down and headed no where.  My car was broken into several times.  I remember feeling so angry and violated as I came out to find a broken window and the entrails of my new car stereo hanging lifelessly from the dashboard.  I finally ceased investing in my audio system as I was only supplying local criminals with seed corn.  Mary and Don did their best to fight off the urban creep that threatened their oasis of civility but in the end, resigned themselves to the fact that certain corners of the property were best avoided.  Don would always grumble, “if I was twenty years younger, I’d catch those damn punks and string ‘em up by their hair!”  He was convinced anyone with long hair was a criminal or draft dodger. 

 

The day we moved out, Mary and Don came to say goodbye and it was as if I was moving away from home all over again.  My new apartment would have white crpet, wood floors, fresh towels and bars of soap. The refrigerator would be stocked with food and I would use real plates, utensils and napkins.  Yet, I was strangely melancholy when I loaded that last box in my car.  It was after all, just 500 square feet of shag and kitsch.  Yet, that first apartment, not unlike that first car is something you never entirely forget. 

 

P.S :  I still have those speakers and loaded with Led Zepplin IV, they can knock down a nine year old at twenty yards…  

Hard Times

(The Depression) The Single Men's Unemployed A...
Image via Wikipedia

Hard Times

“Gore Vidal uses the phrase, the United States of amnesia. Well, I say United States of the big A — Alzheimer’s, because what happened yesterday is forgotten today.” Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel will forever be remembered as an apostle to our past. The actor, radio host and biographer dedicated his life to chronicling diverse aspects of our American experience so that we might not lose sight of ourselves.  Terkel lived the images that he projected – – a child of Russian immigrants, a student of journalism and theatre, a blacklisted artist who would not inform on friends and a present day Tom Joad, advocating for the disenfranchised, bullied and under represented.  In an interview just before his death, Terkel lamented our sound bite society’s inability to reflect and learn from even our most recent current events.

In his award winning oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, Terkel conducted a symphony of history – trumpets, trombones and saxophones of the 1920’s, the melancholy deep bass of the Black Tuesday stock market crash and the chaotic syncopation of economic and social hardships of the 1930’s.

Terkel left us more than narratives, he guided us through heartache, human endurance and history and through this experience, we learned to sing a richer anthem about American living and learning.  His recording of American’s personal Depression stories revealed not only our failings but our triumphs and the human instinct to persevere in the face of great crisis.    Immigrants, minorities, investment bankers, union activists, musicians and working class families all related the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances that carved deep psychological lines into the rouged, youthful cheeks of a nation emerging from the prosperity of the early 20th century.

The Blues of our current economic uncertainty are not unique sounds to our generation.  Every society faces periods of uncertainty that threaten prosperity.  These challenges in hindsight often become the defining moments for a generation.  Those that choose to dismiss the factors that precipitated the Great Depression as singular and unique ignore the past.  CS Lewis referred to this indifference as a “snobbery of chronology”, a syndrome where descendents armed with hindsight often view themselves as impervious to replicating the missteps of their predecessors.  The arrogance that develops as a culture achieves advances in medicine, technology and science often impedes our spiritual and social progress.  The lack of heavy lifting tends to atrophy the muscles of character that people need in times of challenge.

In 1929, the stock market crashed.  Entire fortunes were lost.  People committed suicide rather than face the humiliation of total material ruin.  In the late 20’s, the Dow was soaring. Everyone became a stock speculator and could indulge their irrational exuberance with easy credit and margin purchasing of equities.  Gains were kept of the table to double down on even bigger bets. Consider the echoes of Martin Devries, a prominent Chicago and NY broker as he reflected on Wall Street in 1928.

“There were a great many warnings.  The country was crazy.  Everybody was in the stock market, whether they could afford to be or not.  You had no governmental control of margins, so people could buy on a shoestring.  And when they began to pull the plug..you had a deluge of weakness.  You also had short selling and a lack of rules.   It wasn’t just the brokers involved in margin accounts.  It was the banks.  They had a lot of stinking loans.  The banks worked in as casual a way as the brokers did.”

Herbert Hoover and the Republican party held the White House and governed with laissez faire fiscal policy and a populist view that periodic downturns were the natural fires that needed to be allowed to burn themselves out within the forests of our endlessly promising economy.

By raising taxes at a time of tight unemployment, the US government took more money out of the hands of consumers thereby reducing consumer consumption – which is critical to economic growth.  The Fed’s reaction to the crisis was to tighten policy and drive a kind of Darwinian cleansing of weaker financial institutions.  Confronted with the embarrassment of a sudden financial tailspin, the government under reacted and then overreacted.  When banks failed, the Fed did not lend the failing bank money or afford additional money to other banks to compensate for the shrinkage in money supply.  The Fed instead squeezed monetary policy and tore at the deep fissure in the economy. Lack of credit led to banks failing at an astounding rate. Frenzied queues of depositors attempting to withdraw their savings from uninsured banks “ran” to withdraw savings that were either illiquid or nonexistent.  The lack of liquidity caused mortgage defaults, bankruptcies and financial ruin.

To add insult to injury, in 1932, a Democratic Congress and a worried, willing Republican Hoover administration passed the largest peacetime tax increase in history.  According to web based financial writers Gold Ocean, “Marginal income tax rates were raised from 1.5% to 4% at the low end and from 25% to 63% at the top of the scale. A huge tax increase by any measure.”  As US consumption shrank and unemployment rose, Smoot Hawley was passed to stimulate jobs at home by reducing imports, This lead to a global trade war that debilitated the world economy.  Most historians agree that it was only WWII that got us back on the economic track.

The level of financial hardship was unprecedented. There was no place to hide as our parents and grandparents were pulled down into an economic sink-hole that stretched from China to Chile, and New York to Melbourne.  Families were fractured as fathers left to try to find employment in far off cities.  Some families were never reunited.  Mothers went back to work doing odd jobs while older siblings raised younger brothers and sisters.  Aunts, uncles, and grand parents moved in to offset expenses.  People became infinitely more dependent on one another resulting in stronger, more tightly knit communities of common interest.There was a gracious humility in many towns that hung like the sweet smell of lilacs in spring as people accepted life on life’s terms and understood that gifts were to be shared with those closer to the abyss of poverty.

Life was about making ends meet.  Basic necessities were rationed and would remain precious indulgences for over a decade.  A new sense of social justice emerged in America as dust bowl minstrel Woody Guthrie and social activist/writer John Steinbeck chronicled the inequities and humanity that blossomed in the miasma of depression. The anvil of hardship pounded an entire generation and out of it, there emerged an alloy of American values – – resilience, dedication, community, empathy and equity.  These attributes would be put to good use in 1941 as a generation rose up to defeat global fascism, stand up to communism and to form the foundation for a benevolent world power.  The lessons of the depression taught those who endured it to live within their means, and not take on massive amounts of personal debt.  They understood it meant relying on your own initiative to solve personal problems, not abdicating this responsibility to large government.

We now find ourselves in the midst of another financial crisis.  We are worried.  Oil is at an all time high.  People are losing jobs.  The Dow teeters each day like a four foot Jenga stack.  Most do not remember that it took the Dow until 1954 to match its high of 312 that it had held in 1929.  Credit is tight. Those who watched the missteps of the Fed in the 1930s know that the supply of credit is the issue, not money supply.  We have learned that there can be abundant money in the system, but if a conservative paranoia swings the pendulum too far to where banks hesitate to lend, business can’t expand. With over massive and ever expanding public debt and an economic recovery shored up by rotten timbers of cheap creidt , we know there is more pain to come and that scares us.  Anxiety and lack of faith opens up the Pandora’s box of society’s self interest.  Self-centered fear triggers many character defects – the penchant to hoard, to be selfish, to be ignorant of others in need and to prioritize oneself above all others.  The exact opposite of how history has taught us to survive catastrophe.

If Studs were sitting with us by a summer camp fire, he would surely tell us of hard times and hobos, migrant workers, dust bowl farmers and soup lines.  He would also reassure us with personal stories of compassion and love, attributes that he believes are the ties that lash the broken boats of any society and help protect against the ravages of indifferent dark passages.  He may even suggest as Dickens once mused, that we are in for “the best of times and the worst of times”.  The question is whether we can find critical perspective, strength and wisdom from the words and actions of others who survived the Great Depression or whether we dismiss these personal memorials as trite, gilded nostalgia.  Terkel would urge us to faithfully learn from the past, carefully nurture the present and actively participate in making the future.  Sometimes, he would argue, the things we fear most, are the things we most desperately need.

Character, after all, is found in the hard times.

A Pirate King

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 depict...
Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 depicting the battle between Blackbeard the Pirate and Lieutenant Maynard in Ocracoke Bay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Pirate King Henry Lytton denounces Major-Gener...
Pirate King Henry Lytton denounces Major-General C. H. Workman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For I am a Pirate King! And it is, it is a glorious thing to be a Pirate King!

The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert & Sullivan

 

After 25 years of laboring on the great, sweaty iron dreadnoughts of insurance and healthcare, I recently decided to jump ship.  My plan was several months in the making and every step had to be meticulously detailed.  Yet, even with maps, charts, compass and provisions, it would require a leap of faith to relinquish my role as first mate in a for profit navy to become an adventurer.  Like most fair weather sailors, I was unnerved by sailing solo and tended to lose my emotional nerve when the economic seas got too rough or my ship drifted too far from the shore.  Yet, the lure of new ports of call and the thrill of no longer being under the yoke of a distant monarchy compelled me to resign my station.  I would leave my decks in good order to embark on a summer as a ronin privateer.  For three months, I would be beholding to no master.  I would wait until the Fall when the days shortened and the winds shifted to seek out a new fleet.

 

I made a log of everything I wanted to accomplish in ninety days.  Upon further review, I realized I was being a bit delusional in thinking that in a mere three months I could explore the vast open ocean of my life’s unfulfilled ambitions.   My first mate/chief petty officer gently suggested a course correction.  It was clear she did not want me rooting around the galley every day disrupting the routines of the other sailors.  She had enlisted with me for breakfast and dinner, not for lunch.  “Why don’t you just spend the time fishing, hiking, writing, golfing and spending time with the troops.” She was on to something.  Why could I not reinvent myself from ship’s captain to pirate king.

 

“NOW his future lay plain before him, and glowing with unimaginable splendor. …How gloriously he would go plowing the dancing seas, in his long, low, black-hulled racer, the Spirit of the Storm, with his grisly flag flying at the fore! And at the zenith of his fame, how he would suddenly appear at the old village and stalk into church, brown and weather-beaten, in his black velvet doublet and trunks, his great jack-boots, his crimson sash, his belt bristling with horse-pistols, his crime-rusted at his side, his slouch hat with waving plumes, his black flag unfurled, with the skull and crossbones on it, and hear with swelling ecstasy the whisperings, “It’s Tom Sawyer the Pirate!—the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main!” The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain

 

My first official week of being a pirate king was a blend of seasickness and excitement.  I was still gaining my sea legs learning the first mate’s regimen of feeding the crew, cleaning the main sails and delighting in the endless archipelago of activities that a pirate king could explore. I watched as the shoreline disappeared and was amazed at how quickly the breach that I had left in my old ship’s lines had closed.  I felt guilty for leaving my station but knew this was a rare opportunity to be in the company of adventurers.  It was summer with long lingering twilights and warm sunny days.  I had to adjust my senses from constant battle and hand to hand fighting to once again being in touch with the subtle indulgences of life – the distant slap of a fish as it rose in the afternoon shallows, the youthful ambition to explore a deserted island or the patience to rest quietly in a hammock buffeted by an early morning breeze.  My time was limited.  I knew September was out there, hunting me like an English Man of War.  My first mate wisely suggested that I needed a star to steer by.  She suggested a special “ Pirate King and Me“ trip that might forge a lifetime memory and conveniently get me out of the way.

 

 

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder
I’m an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late,  
Jimmy Buffet, A Pirate Looks at Forty

 

My youngest son was the first beneficiary of Operation Pirate King.  I suggested that we drive up to the White Mountains in Northern New Hampshire to attempt to climb Mt. Washington.  Over the course of four days, we would become Long John Silver and Captain Kidd, modern day buccaneers – – pillaging pop tarts, tossing back pints of Sprite grog, raiding room service, playing poker, and recklessly racing past our bedtime like hobos easily eluding a one legged rail yard policeman.  The spontaneity of the adventure took us both by surprise as we suddenly graduated from maps and graphs to sailing up Highway 93 past signs alerting us to watch for moose, bear and deer.  The Presidential Range loomed above us atop a great sea of pine trees.  We anchored in the harbor of the Mountain View Grand, a 19th century hotel gilded with a rich history of generational reunions, presidential visits and simpler times.  On our first full day, we attacked the “Tuck” trail, a 2200 foot vertical ascent to Tuckerman’s ravine, the most vertical route up Mt Washington. At the base camp, a 700 foot headwall climbed above the timber line to a serpentine spine of rock trail that gained another 1000 feet to the summit. To these two free-booting pirates, the gray gathering rain clouds and the fact that we had consumed our last Pop Tart an hour earlier proved too daunting.  The tallest peak in New England would not hoist our flag today but we would be return to take the granite citadel.

 

Over the next three days, we competed as only plunderers can, fighting for bragging rights in fishing, swimming, billiards, gin rummy, poker, golf, and ping pong.  The hotel staff negotiated a détente with us, giving us free reign in the restaurant and assigning us stature by allowing us the same table each evening where we inventoried our spoils and mapped out our plans to loot the following day for all that it was worth.  Our expedition was quickly coming to an end. While bike riding on a trail in Franconia Notch State Park, we saw a large black dog running toward us, presumably off leash with no owner in sight.  My fellow buccaneer excitedly turned to me, “Dad, I think that is a bear”.  Lacking a spyglass and unencumbered by our matriarchal risk manager, we inched closer, watching the bear cub as he ambled towards us and then disappeared into the wild north woods.  It was a classic moment — wild kindred spirits coursing past one another in a great ocean of forest and woods, hurdling toward some unknown fate. That last evening, we sat in the dark talking, in glorious violation of our bedtime curfew sharing tales of treasure, murder and betrayal.  He asked me to once again tell him the story of black hearted pirates.  When we got to the part about the blood thirsty Blackbeard, my son became very still.  I presumed that he was contemplating a misshapen, seven foot, hulking sociopath who robbed, pillaged and killed his confederates for the slightest infraction.  As with all scary summertime stories, the conclusion brought a long pregnant pause and the timeless question:

 

 

“Dad, where did Blackbeard live?”

 

 

“I think……right….. around……. HERE!”

 

 

“Sure” he laughed with the bravado of the unconvinced.  He laid motionless, a still, frozen shadow on an adjacent bunk.

 

 

“Don’t worry pal.  The pirate king won’t let anything bad happen to you.”

 

 

He relaxed. “ ‘Night dad.  I had a fun day”…As my sailor slipped off into the land of nigh, I smiled.  It was a wonderful thing to be a pirate king….

 

America’s Ex-Wife

image1The number of American presidential candidates varies with the sunspot cycle and the phases of the moon. Being a Republican, I’m backing Hillary Clinton.  Because she could lose.  The reason is not that she’s a woman.  The reason is that she’s the particular woman who taught the 4th grade class that every man in America wished he were dead in.  Hillary Clinton is Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown.  Hillary Clinton is “America’s ex-wife.”  ~PJ O’Rourke

 I have to sheepishly confess my petty satisfaction when Obama garnered the democratic nomination for President.  It was pure schadenfreude for many watching Hillary Clinton cede her manifest destiny.  I am still not entirely sure why she bugs the hell out of me.  I begrudged her candidacy each painful step of the way.  It was the first time I felt like voting against someone instead for someone.  And yet, on the day it became clear that Obama had the mandate from his party, I felt a twinge of guilt.  Was it me?  Or was it her?

Many may vehemently disagree with me, but I have concluded that Hillary Clinton was perhaps the most qualified in the field of presidential nominees – both Democratic and Republican.  Wait, wait, don’t roll your eyes and groan.  Even my father, an ardent anti-Clintonite, agrees with me that as president, she may have very well turned out to be the most balanced – tough, focused and as a beltway insider, perhaps most bipartisan.  I have no doubt some of her policies would have had impact on those already concerned about being in too high a tax bracket and given shivers to those laboring in industries that would prefer less regulation and government intrusion.  Yet, curiously, our aversion to Mrs. Clinton seems to be driven less by her policies and politics and more by her persona.  It seems we focus less on what she is saying because we’re so focused on how she is saying it.  What is it about Hillary that gets so far under our skin?

I asked a psychologist friend to help me deconstruct my visceral reaction to Citizen Clinton in hopes that I might come to grips with my Hillary heartburn.  After hours of analyzing my misspent youth, relationship with my mother, ex-girlfriends, conservative father – all the while having me play with a GI Joe to get in touch with my inner child – he offered several theories..

1)    Latent Misogynist – This suggested that I secretly hated all women, particularly women who possessed intellect, confidence and ability.  Given that I married a woman who brought many of these attributes to our relationship, I could confidently say I was not harboring a secret nostalgia for the good old days “whar’ women folk was in the kichun’ bar’foot and pregnunt.”  I actually loved the fact that my teenage daughter had a role model who was cutting a path all the way to the White House.  Just why did it have to be Hillary?

2)    Clinton Hatred – I voted for Bill Clinton – twice.  He did a good job as President.  I recognize he was helped by a Republican congress that would not let him drift too far left.  Bill was and is a charismatic windsock – blowing in whatever direction the breezes of public opinion direct him.  However, he made you feel like you were important and possessed a great ability to motivate people into action.  I also spent several years living overseas and witnessed the incredible surfeit of goodwill the Clinton presidency accumulated for America, which the Bush administration has now overdrawn like a profligate teen.  Hillary was there every step of the way – physically, emotionally and intellectually.  And, if Primary Colors is to be believed, the woman some have dubbed “Lady Macbeth” had a lot to do with Bill’s success, including sweeping up behind his many personal transgressions.

3)    Clinton Conspiracy Theorist – What really happened to Vince Foster?  What about the mysterious deaths befalling the state troopers who had provided protective services for Bill during his alleged extracurricular activity?  Is Hillary really Jimmy Hoffa?  Oliver Stone, is there a grassy knoll here?

4)    Xenophobia – From the moment Hillary “took on healthcare” during the ‘80s, I was annoyed at her gall to tackle something as complicated, dysfunctional and profoundly in need of change as the US healthcare system.  Besides, she was proposing changes that would effectively mess with my industry’s mess…and my livelihood.  I mean, how dare she?  It didn’t matter that our efforts to date had done nothing to really fix the problems.  Who was this presumptuous interloper talking about healthcare purchasing cooperatives and increased regulation?  The male chauvinist in me wanted to yell, “Hey, lady, I smell something burning in the White House kitchen!”  It did not matter to me, or Harry and Louise for that matter, that much of what she was saying had merit.

5)    Political and Economic Mistrust – I was genetically programmed from the time of conception to distrust anyone who espoused the 3 R’s: regulation, redistribution or redistricting.  The road to serfdom is carved by politicos who enjoy spending other people’s money advocating collectivism and a massive centralized government.  Hillary scared me on several occasions with her bellicose rhetoric against business and free market economics.  She had a penchant for distorting issues that I felt did not inform the public’s IQ around energy, healthcare and foreign policy.  Here’s the problem: we are in the midst of a Republican presidency that has presided over historic deficit spending and its own dubious distortions.  So how can I hammer Hillary when the neo cons have led us so deep into a quagmire of self-inflicted decline.

At the end of our session, my counselor said he was pleased with my progress but that my recovery would still probably take years.  He recommended that I repeat over and over “Kenneth Starr swims out to meet troop ships” while walking around the house wearing Ilsa, the She-wolf, pumps.  We agreed that I should continue my therapy as one thing was for certain: Hillary Clinton is a fixture in American politics and will be a constant storm on the horizon.  With our country’s never-ending jet stream of social, economic and political crosswinds, she will remain an omnipresent low pressure system drawing purpose and strength from inequity in America.

Yes, Hillary has been voted off the island. But don’t count her out.

She’ll be back….

Playing The Culture Card

 

Česky: West Germanic kingdoms (460AD)
Česky: West Germanic kingdoms (460AD) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

As I returned from visiting Europe this past summer, I was reminded of the cultural chasm that separates us.  Aside from political and foreign policy rifts which have gouged this divide, there has and always will be a separation between the US and Europe. To understand it and to effectively bridge it, one must acknowledge that it exists.

 

I recall attending a cultural sensitivity seminar conducted by a Dutch consultant.  She shared that the DNA of any culture is comprised of densely packed chromosomes of tradition, social class, its geography, history, priorities, values, way of life, weather, sports, music, religious composition, tendency toward tribalism, regionalism or nationalism and resources.  In Europe, a few cultural axioms always prove true:

 

1)    Smaller neighbors always resent larger neighbors

 

2)    Larger neighbors tend to patronize smaller neighbors

 

3)    What you see, is not necessarily what you get

 

4)    There is no culture of blame, focus is usually on the issue not the person

 

5)    The smaller the country, the longer the memory

 

In Holland, I was always fascinated by the Dutch and their attitude toward the Germans.  These countries are economically tied to the hip and there is a saying, “ if Germany gets a cold, the Dutch get pneumonia”.  However, those that live in Rotterdam will never forget their city being destroyed in WWII.  I recall a Dutch cab driver telling me that he always gave German tourists the wrong directions and he cannot wait for the men in Orange to beat the Germans in any national match.

 

To an average Dutchman, a German is fat, drives a Mercedes, nationalistic, arrogant, obsessed by details, inflexible, humorless, dig big holes in the sand on vacation and always arrive at 6am to stake out their area on the beach for the entire day.  They get up at 6:30 am and “ ja” always means “ja”.  Once they get a “no”, the Germans stop. The Germans arrive ten minutes early to meetings.  They are prepared. There are different definitions of quality.  For some in Europe, “ good is good enough”.  For the Germans, “ The best is just about enough”. Does this description sound familiar to you ? In WWII US soldiers commented that the one country whose citizens most resembled Americans in terms of work ethic, community stewardship, focus on initiative and directness were – -The Germans.

 

The Dutch are a trading nation where the Germans are an industrial nation. The Dutch speak in diminutives and constantly downplay their success.  “Oh, that little car.”  “It’s not much, that tiny house.” “ That is a nice dress you are wearing,” to which the response is always immediate, “ I bought it on sale “.  The Dutch do not show a lot of emotion.  When a Dutchman is upset, he/she has three phases of anger : “ I am surprised”, “ I am worried”, “ I am quietly furious “. The Dutch spent 80 years fighting Spain and have spent centuries fighting against the North Sea, and as a result they are by nature, stubborn, doubting Thomases that once convinced, loyally and effectively execute. After fighting together so long to hold back the sea, they are team players.  There is a deeply developed sense of consensus.  Decisions take a long time but commitment is also more sustained once the decision is determined.

 

Then there are the Belgians.  Belgium does not really exist as we know it – – it is in fact, two nations, Dutch Flanders and French Wallonia.  To a French Waloon, “oui” means yes in principal to be changed at any time in the future.  Where the Wallonians might be made aware of an obstacle, they will suggest that it be only be confronted when it presents itself.  The Flemish Belgians will insist that provisions be made now for the bridge that is 500 kilometers away. The French Belgians consider their neighbors the Dutch: arrogant, blunt, direct, stingy, assertive, always selling hot air, uneducated know-it-alls…Wait, isn’t that what the Dutch say about their neighbors the Germans?

 

Europe views the US as unaware of any other culture. We are viewed as arrogant and prone to shoot first and ask questions later.  We are seen as superficial, focused on quantity instead of quality, simplistic, naïve, prone to blame versus focus on issues, top down, poorly educated, dictatorial, mono lingual and short term focused.  Hmmm.  Seeing a pattern developing here ?  The US views Europe often as protracted decision makers, untidy, not result oriented, burdened with an unrealistic social system, confused over the difference between history and tradition, ambiguous, multi-lingual and passive/aggressive.

 

As we have seen in this continental food chain, the larger country in the end, always views the smaller one as passive aggressive and the smaller country views the larger as unilateral and arrogant.  It is important when trying to bridge these natural fault lines and cultural footfalls with humility and honesty.  In discussing expectations or intentions with someone from another culture, acknowledge your ignorance and think of the social opportunity as a small child.  The child must be nurtured and spoon fed.  Children adapt but we must recognize that culture is emotional and part of one’s identity.  To diminish the culture is to diminish the person.  To denigrate the person is to broaden the divide you ultimately will want to cross.

 

Whenever the culture card is played, acknowledge it and be direct about differences of opinion.  Those differences can be bridged.  The shifting loyalties and alliances that exist within Europe and the world are forever changing and it does not take much to move an entire continent into a direction where we are celebrating similarities instead of magnifying differences. As Thomas Freidman so aptly shares, the world is indeed flat.  However, to get from one end of the world to the other safely and intelligently, you need to understand how important the deck of culture cards is to your success.  We can either engage in an enlightened game of global understanding or end up playing “Fifty-Two Card Pick Up”.