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December 23, 2009

This, Too

Where there is no vision, the people perish:
but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

- Proverbs 29:18

On the top shelf of the armoire in my home office lie six boxes neatly stacked in two orderly rows. They are an attractive, soothing shade of green. The sides that face forward have neat labels as yet unblemished by my hasty half printed, half cursive scrawl. They are waiting for a day when I have the time to neatly label them in cursive; to form graceful, elegant letters that please the eye and hint at a more thoughtful, deliberate life than the one I really live.

Inside the boxes are pictures; hundreds of family photographs formerly squirreled away in hiding places all over the house. They were stashed in half squished, disreputable looking shoe boxes with missing lids, hidden in drawers, tucked inside of letters (who writes letters anymore?) sent and received decades ago. I even found a cache buried deep in the recesses of my husband's uniform closet: pictures of our sons as small boys. Pictures of a doe eyed, suntanned, mostly barefoot young woman I barely recognize. "Brown as a berry", my Dad used to say when I was little. The memory, like so many memories, makes me smile. A few photos were nestled into piles of old military orders and receipts. One or two were casually tossed into a box containing ribbons, medals, and cold weather gear.

In the three months since my husband left for Afghanistan I've been retrieving pictures from all over the house, sorting them, and placing them in neat, green boxes on a shelf in my office. There were a few surprises.

shortall.jpgFor one thing, I don't recall my offspring ever looking that neat. I'm not a particularly tidy person. My memories of those years include a vague but constant worry that I wasn't quite keeping up appearances. I can't recall being particularly angst ridden about it, but the feeling was never shoved too far back in my consciousness either.

But clearly the boys did look neat and clean - at least some of the time. In nearly every photograph their hair is freshly cut and combed, with a neat part on the side. That's not too surprising; I cut their hair myself every two weeks. It was easier to remember how to even out a cowlick or coax each boy's locks into subservience to my maternal will if I didn't allow their hair to grow too long or too uneven. But it wasn't just the hair. In each photo their outfits are carefully coordinated. Quite a few photos show them in coat and tie, a snazzy set of suspenders or, (when they were very small) those old fashioned rompers and a pair of leather, hard soled English sandals.

That's when it hit me: it's not that I was particularly neat or my children particularly well groomed or dressed. You can see the same thing looking back at photos of the '50s and '60s in any public place. The men are dressed in suits, the women all wear stockings. Many have gloves and hats. Change happened gradually, but over the years it became harder and harder to find little boys' suits, leather shoes, the well tailored clothes we saved for months in order to buy and proudly sported at restaurants, airports, even baseball games. No one, nowadays, bronzes their baby's first set of Nike sneakers. They are nothing like the white leather baby shoes that required so much polishing to keep them free of the dreaded black smudges that earned disapproving looks from old ladies.

And few people comb their childrens' hair anymore. It's such a bother. Instead of crisp cottons that require ironing and special handling to look snappy we have easy care polyester blends; outfits that don't require a belt. Elastic waistbands. T-shirts instead of the collared polos and button down Oxford cloth shirts I tortured my boys with Monday-Friday for school. I can't remember the last time I saw a child in khakis and an Oxford cloth shirt. Clothes today never stand out; never look particularly good but then again they never manage to look completely dreadful either.

It's a wash and wear world we live in. Care free. Free of that sense of aspiring to something better; of striving to improve, outpace, to meet or exceed the expectations of our parents, peers, co-workers. Free of competition; free of the desire (much less the pressure) to excel. Mostly free too, of the gnawing fear of failure; the ever present sense that prosperity is not a guaranteed sinecure but a precarious tightrope between the shame of being destitute and dependent and the pride of achievement and affluence.

For there is no shame in being needy anymore. We have destigmatized failure. When we make poor choices it's never our fault. We were just unlucky. Prosperity is something we take for granted in a way our parents and grandparents, who came of age in a time before Social Security, 401Ks, Medicare/Medicaid and unemployment insurance were never able to. How dare the bank repossess "our" houses simply because we cannot afford to pay the mortgage note? Why isn't someone doing something to allow us to keep what's rightfully ours?

Uncertainty - the fear that our carefully constructed worlds could so easily collapse; that we were on the ascending path but could fall just as swiftly as we had risen; that in an instant everything we had might be swept away - is, I think, what lay behind what I saw in those old photos. To keep uncertainty at bay we dressed up, put our best feet forward, struggled to be better than our natures dictated. We did these things to assuage the knowledge that nothing in life is guaranteed: not health, not wealth, not happiness. Without a safety net, constant effort was required to keep the human race on the upward path from savagery and want to civilization and affluence and with every instinct in our being we continually reaffirmed and celebrated the importance of being successful. Because the opposite of success was failure, and failure was shameful. It could also be disastrous.

Prosperity and abundance were things we didn't take for granted the way we do now. It was all a question of expectations. We wanted wealth and security but didn't expect these things. After all, success in those days was still an aspiration. A hope, not a birthright.

I can't help wondering if the growing disconnect between decision and consequence; our bloated sense of entitlement and inflated expectation is not behind many of the things I've been reading lately: Gerard's sense of diminishment.

Retriever's disappointment?

Instapunk's despair and loss of faith?

Their essays reminded me of something I read long ago. An essay written by a dear friend about the danger of misplaced expectations:

Life's disappointments are as varied as the landscape- the juvenile creek of “They promised it would snow last night!” winds through the vain woods of “the Smiths didn’t send us a Christmas card” to join the great river of broken hearts on its way to the sea of ... um... metaphors. Irrespective of its personal magnitude, however, every disappointment exposes two basic human flaws; the first being the reliance on our own expectations (“I screwed up, I trusted you”), and the second being the inability to correctly anticipate the expectations of others (“You screwed up, you trusted me”). Note that in both cases the blame cast is bi-directional. (The corollary to this is the equally human phenomena of being pleased. Both require the surprise that comes from misplaced expectations.)

Little by little as we've grown more prosperous, more secure, our expectations have grown until what once would have been a minor setback now looks like an unmitigated disaster. We can't help viewing experience through the lens of our expectations. Looking back through those photos I see a rather pretty young woman: myself at 20, at 30, even at 40. But that perception, too, is a function of expectation for I can't recall ever feeling pretty at the time. I didn't ever feel ugly either. It's just that I wanted to be so much more, and so that face in the mirror - the one that now seems pretty to me - always fell short somehow.

Now, at 50, I look back with the knowledge that I have taken those first few steps along the downward path. It seems funny to me now, all those years of wishing, hoping, struggling to reach some far off goal. To improve myself. During the election I listened to Barack and Michelle Obama and I realized that there is a vast gulf between what they believe - their expectations - and mine. I grew up in a different America: one in which failure was always a possibility but in which there was also the promise of abundance beyond my wildest dreams. In many ways that is the world we live in now. Our homes, cars, electronic devices are newer, faster, cheaper, and more fully functional than anything I dreamed of back then.

What disturbed me about their words was the realization that they viewed struggling and uncertainty as the Enemy. Whereas I viewed those things as the means to an end; goads that made me uncomfortable but also provided the impetus to propel me from my present state into a far better existence. They made me dissatisfied but also gave me hope that tomorrow would be better than today.

I think Instapunk touched on an interesting thought in his essay. The God I grew up with was a demanding God. We were taught that man is sinful by nature and that only by constant struggle can we hope to transcend our lower selves. That was the essence and the meaning of life: constant struggle to overcome; to improve; to adapt and conquer. And that struggle - the source of our present prosperity and security - is precisely what many of us seek to eliminate.

Their God is a non-judgmental, multicultural God. He sets forth no immutable laws, draws no bright lines between Good and Evil. And to a large extent even conservatives have bought into this seductive trap. We don't want to be judgmental of others. But more importantly we don't really want to find ourselves wanting. We have forgotten the purpose of discomfort, of shame, of having to deal with the disapprobation of others.

In the world I grew up in, no government agency forced me to shine my children's shoes or comb their hair before going to the grocery store. It was the expectations of others - of society - that I voluntarily acceded to. I went along with these demands even though I often chafed at them, for I recognized the purpose behind these expectations. I knew that the world I grew up in was constantly vigilant against signs of decay, of backsliding, of the carelessness that could bring disaster on entire families and dash to pieces decades of careful, patient progress. We were mindful of the small signs of impending disaster; of the causal connections between decisions and consequences.

For there was no safety net below that high wire we perched upon. On one side lay disaster and on the other, paradise.

Now, we have grown comfortable in the certainty that we cannot fall too far. Someone - government - will catch us. And so we are sloppy in small ways. In a world with few inescapable consequences, we bridle at the thousand tiny course corrections, the constant nudging that kept most of us on the straight and narrow path. We yawn at things that used to cause us a healthy sense of alarm. The God of today is a tolerant, undemanding, comfortable God who thinks we're all special just as we are. Appeals to our better natures are deemed too confining, moralistic, outdated. I hear conservatives talk this way every day.

But somewhere deep down, I think we know better. I think we sense that we are glossing over the faint whiff of moral rot; that we cloak moral relativism in self righteous declarations of an illusory freedom that never existed. Oh, we were free to defy the strictures of society; of state and local governments. And we were free to live with the consequences.

For there were consequences, and they made us profoundly uncomfortable. But that was a world that understood consequences and for the most part, dealt with them head on.

Looking back through the accumulated memories of over 30 years was a strange experience. I watched an old movie the other night with my son and daughter in law: Grand Canyon. It's a hard movie to watch because every scene is pervaded by a sense of uncertainty and pending disaster: reminders of how fragile life and happiness can be. But I love that movie because it is also pervaded by a sense of possibility. Better than anything else I've seen, it captures an ancient truth.

We get so mired in the present. Our vision narrows down to the here and now: some minor calamity that has befallen us. But we forget the unforeseen possibilities - the unexpected good that comes from sorrow; the strange alchemy by which misfortune and discomfort open new doors or propel us down roads not taken. We lose sight of the fact that often it is those very struggles and setbacks that lead us on to bigger and better things; that we need darkness and despair and even shame just as much as we need security, love, acceptance.

Or at least we need these things if we mean to continue improving our lot; mean to leave the world a better place than we found it; mean to put a hedge between prosperity and looming disaster. We need - desperately - to be unhappy and uncomfortable at times. To feel lonely or bored. To be dissatisfied and angry.

The question is, what will we do with these feelings? What if the malaise that seems to have taken hold of America is not the disease itself but the cure for what ails us?

We have been asleep too long: lulled into complacency by affluence and the absence of pain. And the more comfortable our daily lives become, the more wealth we amass, the more we fear losing it all; fear that we no longer have the determination to rebuild from the ashes.

There is a scene from that movie I mentioned earlier. Two men sit on a curb in L.A. commiserating on the decline of the world they knew. "How did we get here?", they ask. "It's not supposed to be this way."

But there are no guarantees and never have been. If we can just lift our eyes from our incessant navel gazing, we see a dizzying panorama of decision and consequence, of mistakes and course corrections, of disasters followed by periods of renaissance and rebirth. In the eyes of time, as one of the men finally remarks, we don't even amount to a millisecond:

You ever been to the Grand Canyon? Its pretty, but thats not the thing of it. You can sit on the edge of that big ol' thing and those rocks... the cliffs and rocks are so old... it took so long for that thing to get like that... and it ain't done either! It happens right there while your watching it. Its happening right now as we are sitting here in this ugly town.

When you sit on the edge of that thing, you realize what a joke we people really are... what big heads we have thinking that what we do is gonna matter all that much. Thinking that our time here means diddly to those rocks. Just a split second we have been here, the whole lot of us. That's a piece of time too small to even get a name. Those rocks are laughing at me right now, me and my worries.

Yeah, its real humorous, that Grand Canyon. It's laughing at me right now. You know what I felt like? I felt like a gnat that lands on the ass of a cow chewing his cud on the side of the road that you drive by, doing 70 mph.

Take heart. We mourn for what we fear is lost beyond recall, never realizing that it was we who built it in the first place. It is only that we have been living in a beautiful cocoon, largely insulated from worry, want, and pain. But Obama is wrong: struggle and aspiration are not the enemy we should fear. If we eliminate them, we eliminate the very things that created our present way of life; the galling prods that impelled us to do great things. In many ways we are victims of our own success. The real enemy is not failure, but the disconnected, trance like existence of a nation that views sadness and discomfort as diseases; tries to numb the pain and medicate away discomfort leaving us with a safe, but joyless world.

Ask not for whom the alarm clock is buzzing. It buzzes for each of us. The world is no better or worse a place than it has ever been and human nature is unchanged, and unchangeable. That is the great danger - and the great hope - of our lives.

Posted by Cassandra at December 23, 2009 10:38 PM

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That's the thing about life; like the climate, it changes. Sometimes not for the better.

I find my spiritual convictions quite helpful in dealing with life...when many around me are worried, I am calm.

Here's the most important thing, IMO: Merry Christmas!!!

Posted by: camojack at December 24, 2009 11:40 AM

I am reminded of the delightful paradox uttered by some sage stoner a-way back in the 1970's: "The future is no longer what it used to be." And may it ever be so. For so long as I breathe, I shape the next moment.

Posted by: spd rdr at December 24, 2009 11:50 AM

I think maybe that's the value of believing in something larger than yourself: it lifts you up out of the here and now and reminds you that today's worries are transient things. When measured against eternity, they're rather insubstantial.

Or maybe it's all a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously (a perennial problem of mine).

Merry Christmas, Camo.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 24, 2009 11:52 AM

Even after all the great posts I've read from you, Cassandra, this is astonishing. Thank you for a wonderful Christmas present.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, Cassandra, and to everyone else here.

Posted by: Elise at December 24, 2009 12:10 PM

On the money M'lady...

"It's a wash and wear world we live in. Care free. Free of that sense of aspiring to something better; of striving to improve, outpace, to meet or exceed the expectations of our parents, peers, co-workers. Free of competition; free of the desire (much less the pressure) to excel. Mostly free too, of the gnawing fear of failure; the ever present sense that prosperity is not a guaranteed sinecure but a precarious tightrope between the shame of being destitute and dependent and the pride of achievement and affluence.
On the money.

M'lady, Merry Christmas to you, your tribe and to the Villains about the place... And to all those fighters who, while a breath remains, will rise again, no matter how far or hard the fall.

Posted by: bthun at December 24, 2009 12:24 PM

This is how I felt on the edge of the Grand Canyon...
Merry Christmas, Cassandra, and everyone on this blog!!

Posted by: olga at December 24, 2009 12:29 PM

You know, the squadron commander of the local Sons of the American Legion at the Post I go to requires his guys to come in coat & tie. Helps set the proper frame of mind, shows the proper respect. And he's early 20s.

Merry Christmas, y'all!

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at December 24, 2009 01:23 PM

*scuttles off to re-do the Family Photo...*

In defense of easy care clothing, with a larger family, it saved my sanity. Now that the Children are Older, grooming is essential; the skill has to be taught by precept and by example.

Posted by: Cricket at December 24, 2009 01:24 PM

Hey, we've gotten a lot more casual too :p

I can't think of the last time I had to iron a shirt!

Merry Christmas to you all. And mille grazie for making this (and every) season bright.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 24, 2009 02:12 PM

Your essay really lays out the desire, (need might be a better word), to be better than I am. To do more, to love more, to have more compassion, to be a better father and husband. You capture that small nagging doubt wonderfully.

Being very much a hard-core Christian, I am just now at 47 trying to deal with a couple of Bible verses that seem impossible.

Matthew 5:48 "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

1 Peter 1:16 because it is written, "YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY."

Posted by: Russ at December 24, 2009 02:14 PM

How in the world do you do that "writing" stuff? Amazed, and humbled by your words, we both wish you a great Christmas.

p.s. Welcome to the "short rows" group.

Posted by: 'Uigi at December 24, 2009 05:05 PM

I'm glad it wasn't too awful. I know I tend to go on way too long :)

Merry Christmas, guys. And thanks for putting up with me.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 24, 2009 05:44 PM

Great post Cassandra. Sure wish I had your gift. Merry Christmas to you and all your fans.

Posted by: Phil at December 24, 2009 05:47 PM

Wonderful post, Cassandra! We were just looking at old pictures of the kids and us when they were toddlers, and they said (embarrassingly) "Gee, Mom, you looked pretty then...and the house was SO CLEAN and tidy..." I replied that I had been home all the time then, but your post reminded me of some of the ways we have all got too casual about the really important things. Taken things for granted and felt entitled. When we should not have. We have actually talked quite a bit about your topic with our college aged kids. Of course they get sick of my exhortations and throw cushions at me and say "Yeah, yeah, Mom: with our shields or on them...we KNOW!" as they consider me a spartan mother.

Off to wrap the presents (slapdash mother smites lazy brow and does penance...)

Thanks for the link.

Merry Christmas, and thanks for such an inspiring post...

Posted by: retriever at December 24, 2009 07:27 PM

When I think of how I have struggled in my classes to work for my grades, I would not have had it any other way. I earned them. Just recently, I had the laptop, the Intermediate Accounting Tome and the calculator, along with my DE ledger pads on the extra table in the sewing room. When I needed a break, I assisted the Engineer with teaching or sewed.

While I have gotten financial aid (which will have to be repaid), I truly believe that being vested in your education spurs you on to better efforts; that you have something to show for your time and effort besides a degree; a willingness to take your efforts to the next level.

While the future looks a tad on the rough side, I will have something that no one handed to me; my education.

In the process, it has spilled over into other areas of my life. I see everything now with an idea to either improvement, or letting it be.

I used to be a rather indifferent seamstress. I am now an OC. The result? The clothes I mend and sew look better and fit better, and I am not ashamed of them.

While I was always a foodie (the food had to taste good and have variety), technique was something I taught myself over the years. The past two years my cooking has improved to where the Young Man and the CLUs are refusing to move out. They will even eat vegetarian entrees.

It goes back to getting out of it what you put into it. I do not honestly think that handouts are going to improve someone's lot in life unless they work for what they have.

Some things we will help the children with; as a parent, that is my duty. My obligation though, is to encourage them and support them in the persuit of excellence.

Great post, Cassandra.

Posted by: Cricket at December 25, 2009 02:41 AM

The admonition to be perfect is a process. It is analogous to bringing forth fruit meet for repentence. It is showing the Almighty that you are willing to study His gospel and live it as you learn to understand it and apply it to your life. When you think about a baby (I have had five), they are perfect, having no sin, but they are also a blank slate. While I miss my children as babies, I rejoice in their growth as children and adults. I can converse with them, share things and learn about them. They are so much more than what they were as infants. To God, we are so much more to Him as we work to become better. He rejoices in our growth and our understanding.

Posted by: Cricket at December 25, 2009 02:54 AM

I am just now at 47 trying to deal with a couple of Bible verses that seem impossible.

What Cricket said.

Both the striving for and the promise of what shall be are inherent in the verses.

Posted by: BillT at December 25, 2009 04:52 AM

You write "Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he." Fine; I am not religious, but that doesn't keep me from appreciating secular principles which make it into religious books like Proverbs.

"Clothes today never stand out; never look particularly good but then again they never manage to look completely dreadful either. It's a wash and wear world we live in. Care free. Free of that sense of aspiring to something better; of striving to improve, outpace, to meet or exceed the expectations of our parents, peers, co-workers. Free of competition; free of the desire (much less the pressure) to excel."

I have spent more than a decade of my life in three subcultures where people commonly get things done without particularly good grooming. My experiences leave me convinced that somewhere in your journey from the broad idea of the proverb, through good grooming, arriving at "free of competition; free of the desire (much less the pressure) to excel," you have lost your way.

(I'm not arguing against good grooming. I agree that striving for excellence is good, and I share your general dismay at how our culture has lost some positive kinds of striving to excel. And I freely concede that if you add some side conditions, good grooming can be a useful indicator of people who desire and strive to excel. But I think if you don't add some side conditions, good grooming is basically useless as such an indicator.)

I studied science as an undergraduate at Caltech, and as a graduate student at Cornell. At Caltech in the 1980s, especially, you'd've been appalled at the level of scruffiness in general, and at the level of scruffiness of particular individuals whose actual performance showed that they not only desired excellence, but achieved it.

I have met hundreds of people, mostly in the USA, who compete seriously at the strategy games of Chess and Go. There is quite a lot of striving there, with results that are particularly easy to measure and summarize (a single number giving relative position in recent tournaments) and are widely known (posted on the tournament wall, published on the web, and printed on conference namebadges). There is some good grooming, and there is some inferior grooming. There doesn't seem to be any strong positive correlation between excellence in grooming and excellence in performance.

For about two years I worked around the boundary between the old-line telecoms industry (switched-circuit telephony, with much of the big money flowing from exclusive monopolies granted by law to powerful companies with good lobbyists) and the newer technology (packet switching networks, mostly associated with younger rapidly growing companies much less dependent on legislative and regulatory favors). The old side was conspicuously better at grooming. The new side was conspicuously winning in most places except "the last mile" (i.e., the wires running directly to customers' homes and offices, where things change slowly, and where outcomes tend to be determined by permits and licenses rather than technical issues of costs, reliability, performance, and flexibility).

Posted by: William Newman at December 25, 2009 09:44 AM

Cassandra you have penned yet another gem. And as always with your gems, I see no way to top it....but I know you will.

As for the immediate preceeding commenter...grooming and such mundane matters as clean, wrinkle free clothes go deep. It is both a matter of personal pride and a general standard for all to meet.

I still send dress shirts out for starching & pressing, and even when not in an active duty status, I keep my hair well trimmed.

Part of my current disdain toward the "Army Combat Uniform" is that it CANNOT be ironed or stached, and as much as I did not appreciate shining jump boots, I cannot fully accept the new rough out tan boots. We are a wash and wear, little care Army. I think one could wear the current rag bag continuously until it rotted off of you and no one would say a word. Just indicative of the lowered standards.

Adults need to set and enforce standards. More than "no shirt, no shoes, no service", but clearly state that it takes more than the bare minimum to get by- not only in grooming and apparel, but in all that we do. Unfortunately we are in a "feel good" time with large bodied children in charge.

Posted by: kbob in Katy at December 25, 2009 04:40 PM

Ms. Cassandra, that's a good piece of writing there. God bless you, your Marine, and all your family. -lm

Posted by: luton at December 25, 2009 06:16 PM


I think you may have missed my point, perhaps because I didn't state it clearly.

The intent of this post was not to set up good grooming as the sine que non of character or morality. My point was more general: that the general decline in standards in this area is indicative of a more general phenomenon: the idea that competition/struggle (and the resulting discomfort they sometimes cause) is a problem to be solved so that no one will feel unhappy, inferior, or uncomfortable.

I am questioning not only whether people never feeling unhappy/inferior/insecure/uncomfortable is possible, but whether that is a desirable goal for society. I could just as easily have chosen some other indicator, but in this case as I was looking through old photos, the dress/grooming thing is what jumped out at me.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 26, 2009 09:32 AM

> Why isn't someone doing something to allow us to keep what's rightfully ours?

Oh, but Obama IS, Cass. The One is giving us ALL the right to a free house, don't you know?

U.S. Move to Cover Fannie, Freddie Losses Stirs Controversy

The Obama administration's decision to cover an unlimited amount of losses at the mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over the next three years stirred controversy over the holiday.

The Treasury announced Thursday it was removing the caps that limited the amount of available capital to the companies to $200 billion each.


Isn't your heart just warmed to its greatest depths that the Federal organization whose incompetence is at the heart of the mortgage meltdown, if not the prime mover in it, now has open access to your pocketbook?

Change is coming. It's going to be all that's left in your pockets, as a matter of fact.

Posted by: OBloodyhell at December 27, 2009 01:37 AM

The Treasury announced Thursday it was removing the caps that limited the amount of available capital to the companies to $200 billion each.

However, it *did* cap salaries of the Upper Echelon at $500,000 per annum.

Cuz, you know, *they* need to share our pain, despite having done such a sterling job at limiting Fannie 'n' Freddie's losses to an amount just slightly less than the GNP of the entire Northern Hemisphere...

Posted by: BillT at December 27, 2009 03:05 AM

China is now in the Northern Hemisphere?

Posted by: bt_yo-ho-ho_hun at December 27, 2009 11:39 AM

Belay that... I get a bit distracted when the talk turns to Gub'ment spending. Like reading and typing northern when I'm thinking western.

Ah what the heck, it's only a matter of time before we all have to hit that Big RESET button that Hill was hauling around.

Posted by: bt_yo-ho-ho_hun at December 27, 2009 11:43 AM

Like reading and typing northern when I'm thinking western.

Cain't fool *us* -- y'all been a-jawin' with Grim again, ain't-cha?

Posted by: BillT at December 28, 2009 12:09 AM

i'm your age; remember never feeling quite 'all that'; am surprised at old photos for the same reason. you could be talking about me.

my grown kids still remember (and sometimes quote me) "we might be poor and have old clothes, but by God, you AND your clothes will be bleached & ironed!"

to this day they utter shrieks of horror when they spy the crease i iron into my jeans - because that's so 5 minutes ago.

that crease means a lot to me.

Posted by: ShyAsrai at December 28, 2009 12:25 AM

"Cain't fool *us* -- y'all been a-jawin' with Grim again, ain't-cha?"
Ok, I'm busted...

And since I'm busted, I'll use the opportunity to paraphrase that good old fellow who, it is alleged, on the topic of excessive Gub'ment spending once quipped, a trillion here, a trillion there, pretty soon you're talking monopoly money.

Posted by: bt_singing-those-stagflatin-blues_hun at December 28, 2009 01:25 AM

Monopoly money is what we're gonna have to use to pay off the PRC. And if the Dems throw us even deeper into the hole, we're gonna have to start printing it on Charmin so it will have *some* use...

Posted by: BillT at December 28, 2009 02:48 AM


I certainly get your point about the "wash and wear world" being indicative of a more general decline. It's one which I myself made particular note of as early as 1994. Walking into a restaurant with a date, and a small child (8-10 years old at a guess) ran past and squeezed in the door I just opened for my date. I distinctly remember thinking about how rude that child was and wondering where his parents were. I know mine would have tanned my hide for such behavior.

However, I for one do not long for the days of spit shined boots, starched clothes, mandatory ironing just to be presentable for leaving the house, nor even hats and gloves. The tie has long been a bane of my existence, and I do not mourn the loss of its necessity in any manner. And I must disagree with kbob, in that the Army requirements for starched combat uniforms and shined combat boots were EVER a good idea. In fact, I distinctly remember being required to purchase new BDUs because starching damaged the anti-IR protection of the cloth, and I had to keep one pair of boots shined for garrison and another un-shined for field wear. Such requirements were intended to enforce an attention to detail, and that was indeed a noble goal, but it was the wrong uniform to enforce it upon. Garrison uniform always should have been Class B, not combat uniform.

This is already too long, but I need to relate the following tale from 1995. We were spinning up a new unit at Fort Gordon. We were taking over the old Signal Officer Basic School building, and every room in it had to be re-painted eggshell white (the old walls were the pumpkin and chocolate of the Signal Corps). Myself, another Specialist and one Sergeant were tasked with repainting every room in the building. Our Sgt Major decided that since there were going to be officers about the building (we were painting it while they were vacating it), the uniform of the day would be BDU's, so that we would present a "professional appearance". No overalls or civilian clothes for us! Except for the fact that "painting" and "uniforms" don't exactly mix.

After the first day, the Sergeant in charge of our detail pointed out to the Sgt Major that the three of us now had unserviceable BDUs and the unit was now on the hook to replace them, and to comply with his orders, we would need to wear another set of BDUs the next day (to present that "professional appearance" he so craved). That would then require another purchase to replace those, and so on.

The Sgt Major got his head out of his third point of contact after that and our uniform of the day was changed to civilian clothes. We never did get refunded for the BDUs. The point of this is, getting dressed up, spit & polish, and all manner of "dressing to impress" certainly did and does still have its place. But like all else, that place is not, nor should it be, everywhere.

The necktie comes to us from the clothing item known as the cravat. The cravat is nothing more than a colorful handkerchief worn around the neck. The purpose of that handkerchief was to keep the shirt free of stains during a meal. In other words, a tie is nothing more than a gussied up napkin. The fact that it's evolved into something that needs this is indicative of how stupid fashion can be. When in the future will men be required to cover their tie-napkin with a napkin to keep it stain free?

Posted by: MikeD at December 28, 2009 10:21 AM


Mike, I take your points but no one in their right mind thinks painters ought to wear anything but painting clothes. Whoever told you to do that (or thought that officers want to see people painting in clothes not designed for painting) is an idiot.

More often than not these days I end up not wanting to write anything at all because no matter how hard I try to be clear in what I am saying, somehow it gets twisted into something I never said and then I have to spend time explaining that, "No, that's not what I said" instead of talking about what I did say.

Any general rule can be taken to excess. I don't think I was defending excess, or stupidity, or rigid conformity, or the avoidance of risk in an essay where I specifically talked about how affluence has made us risk averse (and how that's a bad thing and the wrong course).

There is certainly such a thing as throwing out the baby with the bathwater. But I've yet to see anyone figure out how to bathe a baby without bathwater either.

Sorry - this isn't aimed at you. I'm just frustrated, that's all.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 28, 2009 10:39 AM

From Cdr. John Newlin of Vista CA commenting on the decade that was to Paul Krugmann of the NY Times:

And happy New Year to you too, Mr. Krugman.

I read your essay twice looking for two words that best describe the decade that you so impotently tried to name. They are "blood" and "treasure."

Nine years of foreign soil steeped in American blood. And there is no one that can even come close to accounting for the number of Iraqi and Afghan lives sacrificed for America's "crusade." You prattle on like the bean counter you are about deflated bubbles and the like while not even mentioning the tremendous human sacrifices made by America's military. Perhaps you do have a sense of the enormity of the fiscal costs associated with that sacrifice, but you do not address it.

Then there's the wasted treasure. Since 2001 the cost of the war in Iraq has been $712.6 billion and the cost of the Afghan war has been $235 billion. That's nearly one trillion dollars invested in the insanity of war. The rate of return in that investment is negative given the blood that was spilled in the making.

So what, Mr. Krugman, is the use of naming the decade past, given that it was awash in the blood of American heroes and the ashes of burnt treasure, both provided by the waning American middle class?

You can call it whatever you wish, Mr. Krugman. I choose to call it the Era of Insanity.

Posted by: Miguel at December 28, 2009 11:54 AM

" I've yet to see anyone figure out how to bathe a baby without bathwater either."

Heh, you've obviously forgotten about the cleaning power of litter of puppies when presented with an ice cream covered *waddler*.

Posted by: DL Sly at December 28, 2009 12:03 PM

As one who pressed her uniform shirts (no starch, I'm a wimp) even though they would wrinkle within a minute of buttoning, I read you 5 by 5.
I was also taught that dressing "nicely" (howsoever defined) showed respect, and that you have school clothes, play clothes and church clothes. To me, casual behavior, rather than showing how everyone is really equal, just demeans people. Showing respect to everyone no matter their rank and status is what lifts the lower and shows true equality and respect for others. Like what Aslan said about how being a "Son of Adam or Daughter of Eve" should make every king bow in humility and every beggar raise his head with pride.
Sorry if I'm scattered. 19 hours in airports and airplanes does that to me.

Posted by: LittleRed1 at December 28, 2009 05:43 PM

Thank you for understanding what I was trying to say. I think you said it perfectly.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 28, 2009 07:28 PM

What about a son or daughter of God?

If we are made in His image...

Just saying.

Posted by: Cricket at December 28, 2009 08:13 PM

Don't blame me, blame C. S. Lewis :) And yes, even more so, Cricket, even more so.

Posted by: LittleRed1 at December 29, 2009 01:39 PM

I knew what you meant and I think, like Cassie said, clothes are just a symptom of apathy; of not striving for excellence or betterment.

Posted by: Cricket at December 30, 2009 08:52 PM

...like Cassie said, clothes are just a symptom of apathy; of not striving for excellence or betterment.

Concur. When I take my clothes off, I'm definitely planning to strive for excellence...

Posted by: BillT at December 31, 2009 12:38 AM