Smile and Say “Cheese”

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“The fear you let build up in your mind is worse than the situation that actually exists….What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Dr Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese?

“Television! My grandbaby watches that Mexican show, Dora the Explorer.  That little gal, Dora, don’t like white people. You jus’ watch.  She speaks Mexican to other people and when they speak English back, she gives ‘em all kinds of attitude.”

I was trapped in 11F, wedged in by an angry 11D tea partier.  The vacant middle seat proved to be a worthless demilitarized zone for his infectious ideology.  I deeply regretted the moment that I asked him if he was “coming home” to Austin. He actually was probably on his way to Washington for the big rally.

Randall was not particularly concerned about who might overhear his bellicose attack on the White House, US immigration policy, Islam and the state of Congress.  The conversation rapidly segued from my small talk query of “is Texas home?” to his need to know if I was one of “those tree hugging, New York liberals trying to ruin America.”  He castrated the word, ” America” into a simple two syllable stone – “Mare-cuh” – dropping it with a determined thud, as if he was dumping the body of a suspected communist at my feet.

He seemed to be a hard working, god-fearing patriot who wanted no hand outs, only an equal opportunity.  He was also a Mt St Helens of resentment.  I was trying to digest his more jagged points of view with an open mind and at the same time, come to terms with the possibility that Dora the Explorer was a closet racist. I kept wondering “what channel is this guy watching on TV and what paper is he reading?” If there is any merit to what he is saying, I would need to fill my basement with three years worth of canned food and ammo and reread Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road. While he was clearly guiding me up a dangerous ideological river,  it was too tantalizing to not follow this Colonel Kurtz deeper into his tea party heart of darkness.

His fury was being dredged up from deep sediment of fear, frustration and disappointment.  The recession had started a lot sooner for Randall than others on this airplane. He had served in the military, worked for thirty years on oil rigs and in the energy sector and was watching his American Dream swept away like so many pieces of New Year’s Day confetti.  He had already decided who was to blame.

He offered up some creative and rather unconventional solutions for the problems he identified – many of which involved euthanizing certain politicians and religious groups. It was a bitter candor borne out of a real resentment over the changes occurring in this country.  Someone had moved his cheese and he was not happy about it.

In his best selling business and life management book,” Who Moved My Cheese”, Dr Spencer Johnson provided a wonderful allegory for the human responses to change.  Johnson shares how people tend to react differently to inevitable change – often wasting valuable time lamenting the interruption instead of taking action to adjust to it.

In the book, two mice and two mice-sized people are confronted with the reality that the things that sustain them, metaphorically reffered to as cheese – was running out.    Each navigates their own way through a life maze of choices, often stopping to read the handwriting on the wall, which sometimes provides direction and perspective.  Along the way, some become paralyzed with anger and fear, hoping that things will return to the way they were while others finally come to understand that ” the cheese will always be moved” and that ” the quicker you let go of the old cheese, the sooner you will enjoy new cheese.”  In teaching us this life lesson, Johnson shows us how acceptance of change is essential to living.

As I travel the USA, I am astounded by the distemper that is simmering across the American heartland.  Rising deficits, a sputtering economy, political division, cronyism and enormous uncertainty have created a legion of disenfranchised Americans who are losing hope that they might ever again be able to meet or exceed a decent standard of living. It seems these days everyone I meet is aggravated with someone else.  Anger and fear are familiar bedfellows and across the US, I see ever widening fault lines between the rich and the poor, public and private, employed and unemployed, left and right, north and south, Christian and Muslim, and young and old.

The far left dismisses the public’s apoplexy over mounting unemployment and economic stagnation as Joe the Plumber populism and Fox fear rhetoric.  Congress views our relentless deficit spending in the face of a staggering $ 12T of public debt as the only politically viable way out of our economic malaise.  (God forbid, someone tell the American people, “no hay mas queso!”).  The Democrats blame the GOP and Bush for moving the cheese and believe since the gang who couldn’t shoot straight had eight years to hide it, they should have at least the same amount of time to construct a New Deal cheese station.

When I periodically point to the disappointing fact that fewer than 10% of the administration – have actually worked in the private sector, I am met with a chorus of ” so-what’s” and angry catcalls for not blindly supporting the “yes we can” change agenda.  As I turn to my dyspeptic right leaning pals for ideas, I am met with equal distain for being so naive.  Life is like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Cutting taxes and shrinking government ensures the natural order of things. ( Where exactly is Sarah Palin on this food chain ?)

Time out ! I get it. I just find all the anger and vitriol so uninspiring.  I just want to get back to principles over personalities and values over valuations.

My parent’s generation is very worried about their cheese.   For these gray panthers who have worked their entire careers and were raised by self reliant, Depression-era parents, the coordinates of our current political course simply do not compute. This demographic is a deadly combination – – medicated, lots of time on their hands and finally able to use a personal computer.

The emails always arrive at night with the same subject line: “FWD: IMPORTANT, MUST READ” or “FWD: If this is true, we better all move to Canada.” I resist the temptation to read the alarmist propaganda as I have a hard enough time dealing with the very real dangers of a house of teenagers and my own frustrations over how one sustains a free market characterized by balanced regulation, fiscal conservatism and social responsibility.

Occasionally an email leaks through that provides a glimpse into just how radioactive and homicidal people have become:

“A guy gets on an elevator with a gun that only has two bullets.  On the same elevator is Nancy Pelosi, Idi Amin, Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin. W ho does he shoot?  Answer: He shoots Nancy Pelosi twice.”

And it’s not just the retired right that feels under siege. A recent Harris poll asked Americans questions about President Obama.  The answers were quite shocking:

  • 40 percent of Americans overall believe that Obama is a socialist ( aka cheese redistributionist)
  • 20 percent of the those polled shared that Obama is “doing many of the things that Hitler did”
  • 14 percent overall think the president may be the Anti-Christ

Based on this poll, I fully expect my favorite supermarket newspaper, The Weekly World News, to begin running photos of our President on holiday in Oman with Satan.  The President may even be able to finally answer some of our most nagging questions about the Prince of Darkness. Does Satan like toasted cheese sandwiches?  Does he prefer hot drinks?  What do fallen angels do for fun?

As America moves beyond denial and through this inevitable and dangerous period of anger, false prophets and fake cheese finders will rise out of the miasma of bad feeling. We will be encouraged to blame someone based on their political views, social stature, vocation, denomination, sexual orientation and/or ethnicity.

The Great Depression taught America that character is often found in these periods of travail.  Anger is eventually replaced by enlightened acceptance.  In time, broken dreams reseed to create new shoots of personal and collective growth. A generation raised in the 30s and 40s discovered its integrity and lost the soft palms of self interest.

Many of us may already be experiencing difficult periods in our lives – angry stages where we scour the crowd for the culprits whose arrogance, apathy or partisan incompetence contributed to the chain of events that destabilized our lives. Whether your preference is to wail at the White House, castigate Congress, attack Arizona or garrote Goldman, there seems to be no shortage of targets.  Yet in the end, we know that a polarized and fractious society has less of a chance of finding new cheese than a coordinated team that is working together.

All I know is that we have to work together to find new cheese.  It’s not likely to happen in Washington but it stands a better chance of happening closer to home. While our public officials argue over who drove the proverbial cheese train into the ditch, we need to make sure all the passengers are ok. Guys like Tea Party Randall seem to me a bit misguided but in the end, they want the same things we all want – – opportunity, security and hope.  Perhaps someday soon we will spend less time arguing about who cut, moved, stole, hedged, swapped or recklessly securitized the cheese, and get on with finding the next station together.

Personally, I could not think of a better person to recruit on to my team to help me look for new cheese than Dora The Explorer.

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