Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Turn off your TV and live

Ask any service club, bowling league, church social committee, or Greek organization what their number one problem is, and chances are they'll all answer the same:


Declining numbers in organized activities is a serious crisis in areas as diverse as the civic square to the college campus. Fewer people are joining, and many groups face extinction is they don't increase their membership numbers.

My own Rotary club, and Rotary in general, has dealt with fewer members for years. In a weird twist of the phenomenon, the number of Rotary clubs is increasing, while the membership of each club is decreasing, by as much as 20 percent. Our breakfast club used to have as many as 45 members. Today, we can barely keep 30 coming to meetings.

Robert Putnam, in his book "Bowling Alone," helps to answer the "why" question, as well as the "how much." According to Putnam, the decline in inolvement in civic groups, politics, church attendence, family dinners, participatory sports clubs - in other words, everything that makes America what it is - is an epidemic that has been taking place since the 1960s. Group after group, study after study, survey after survey shows Americans participated in life as we know it in record numbers after World War II.

And then something happened. It all went away.

What's to blame? Putnam says it's several things: commuting, urban sprawl, women entering the work force, generational differences, and - probably most of all - television.

All this disengagement has come at a price. Studies show that people who are rich in "social capital" (those bonds that tie families, towns, neighborhoods, and groups together) live better, happier, healthier, safer lives. If you're a homebody, you're twice as likely to be depressed. On the other hand, if you're active in your community, you reduce your chances of having a serious medical issue.

A lot of this might seem like common sense. After all, if you're well connected in the community, or even if you have a big family, you increase your chances of getting a ride to the hospital if you need one.

But what Putnam shows that, to me, is so remarkable is why all this is going on. The "Greatest Generation" were a hearty, active bunch. Their kids? Less so. THEIR kids? Even less so, and so on. That's the generational difference (even though Putnam never says exactly why Baby Boomers are less active than their parents).

With the invention of TV and electronic entertainment, Americans are more likely to sit at home, alone, in front of a glowing box than they are to invite friends over, go to a city hall meeting, or attend a church social.

And because we're spending more time in our car, traveling to work and across town to the strip mall, we have less time to devote to the public good.

Putnam shows the steady decline in involvement since the '60s, despite all that's happened historically in the meantime, but I can't help wonder about 9/11's effect on the country. For instance, other things being equal, Putnam shows our generation is more likely to volunteer. Did 9/11 do anything to increase that further? And we all heard stories about how church attendence grew after the attacks, but how has it fared since then?

Also, Putnam can only hint at the Internet's involvement in our gradual disengagement. The Web was pretty new when he wrote "Bowling Alone," and - like TV - it may take awhile to study the long-term effects of AIM, eBay, and Amazon.com.

I've been reading a lot about these "The Sky is Falling" scenarios lately - the financial crisis, Peak Oil, global warming, the rise of polarized political voices - and it really makes me wonder what this country is going to look like when my kids are my age. If America is all about a participatory democracy, what happens when we stop participating?

The image of an America where everyone is locked inside their home, afraid to go out and play, cynical and suspicious of their neighbors is a frightening one. And all we can really do is do our little part to make sure we're active in the social sphere, whether it's family or church or work or whatever.

To sit in front of the TV is no way to live individually, let alone as an entire country.

As KMFDM would say - "Turn off your MTV and live."

[a big thanks to Cassandra for letting me borrow the book!]

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Last one to leave Jackson, turn out the lights

Ask anyone what they've heard about Jackson, MI, and the answer is the same.

The prison. The largest in the U.S. That's what we're known for.

Soa big surprise came this morning when we all learned that the prison is closing.

Almost 500 jobs lost. Poof. Just like that.

And it's not the only bad news to hit Jackson in the past year or so. Plant after plant, company after company, shutting its doors and hundreds of people left out in the cold.

Welcome to the Rust Belt, folks. Hope you like service jobs.

There used to be a time when Jackson was a bustling place, a kind of mini-Detroit as far as auto manufacturing went. Because we were nestled along the old Sauk Trail, where now sits the main highway between Motown and Chicago, I-94, we were in a prime spot to make all the parts that helped to make vehicles.

Starting in the '80s, however, with the closing of the big Goodyear plant (one of the founding companies of the place I work), the manufacturing base of the community has steadily declined. Today, our biggest employer is Foote Hospital.

The second used to be the prison.

My grandma keeps telling me that Jackson has been a dying town since the Progress Place movement ruined the downtown, and she may be right. While the downtown has seen a bit of a pickup, the constant closings of major industries is crippling growth. Where do we go from here?

Of course the prison closing is a symptom of the state's budget fiasco, which could be a symptom of the loss of manufacturing jobs, and so on, on down the line of blame. And we're certainly not the only community to face such woes; Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois towns have been showing signs of wear for years.

I've always felt there's nothing spectacular about Jackson - nothing that I could say "that's what keeps me here" - but it's a nice place to live, and I've called it home all my life. My family is here, a lot of my friends are here, and I've found a good job that I enjoy doing. Plus Jackson is close enough to other fun spots, like Ann Arbor, Detroit, Windsor, Kalamazoo, and even Chicago.

But Jackson, and Michigan as a whole, may be going the way of the dinosaur if this kind of job-loss continues. Who wants the only major employer in town to be a hospital? Or Meijer? Or a utility?

If anything, it'll be folks like me, and Suzanne, and Cassandra - if we do stick around - who will have to turn this place into somewhere worth living. Usually kids graduate high school and never look back (which makes me question my own wisdom, now that I think about it). That has to change.

As does Jackson's willingness to change, because it's some of the older folks around here, the ones who high-tail it to Florida every year, who are the most resistant.

So here's to Jackson: home of the coney, the place that almost got the University of Michigan, the Cascades, MIS, a still-functioning train station, and a serious jobs-and-optimism problem.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

On being too busy

"Do few things and do them well." - St. Francis

Busy people recognize busy-ness. In conversation, we can connect with our compatriots.

"I've got a meeting tonight, and I have to run and do some errands, but later if you want to we could..."

In between all that, a busy person will recognize his or her own situation. "Yeah," they might think, "I know how that goes."

But, like most of a busy person's relationships, that may be all we glean from the encounter. It may be that appointments and engagements takes the other person away, or perhaps your own busy-ness carries you off. For what can be learned of our friends and family if there's no time to learn it?

Thomas de Zengotita, in his book "Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live In It," likens this skimming to the feeling you get when a limb - arm, leg, foot, whichever - falls asleep. "Ever notice," he writes, "how, when your hand is numb, everything feels thin?"

Sure, anyone can relate to that. Zengotita says this can be read as a "guiding metaphor" for the "mediated adult" - being someone who is so "busy" being an adult, with all its activities and responsibilities, that life tends to feel a bit thin. Or maybe we don't feel it at all. We're so used to that thinness that we think life should feel this way.

Only when "the ultimately real descends upon us in the form of tragic accident" does that haze lift - sometimes, only briefly. "And then," Zengotita goes on, "we remark upon how things have been put in perspective."

Like a stone skimming a pond, we merely tread the surface. We tip-toe on only the tip of the iceberg. In both, we never truly get wet.

Unless disaster strikes.

I can certainly relate. I remember there were times, in college, when I would have an entire day's worth of activities and to-dos planned that only at the end of the day could I really sit down, relax, maybe get some homework done. Things haven't improved all that much. I'm still involved in many organizations, have friends in town and out to visit and socialize with, have hobbies to maintain, and somewhere in there I eat and sleep. Then get up and go to work. Over and over again.

Life is fleeting. It's fleeting because I'm so busy doing the flying.

Lately, though, I've been stepping back and taking a look at how I do things. Instead of running all over hell's half acre, I make a point of setting aside a few nights for relaxing, or doing things with friends, or just doing nothing at all. I'm selfish with my time. And why shouldn't I be? It's one of those things you can never get back, no matter how much you multitask.

Multitasking, in fact, can be held accountable for some of our busy-ness. Even on the ride home from work, you can call friends or family, set up your schedule for the rest of the night, maybe do a few errands why you're out and about. So busy. With cell phones, PDAs, etc., technology has its stake in this, too.

We probably never set life on cruise control as we do now. Now, we just let the engine of busy-dom jet along at an ever-faster pace. Meanwhile, our relationship with our actual lives begin to thin at the margins.

Ever notice how life seemed so much slower "back then?" Perhaps it was because there was less to do, but also because people didn't feel the compulsion to cram their day with the day-to-day. Long conversations, extended meals, walks and community events - these are what filled people's time. It was quality, not quantity.

Saint Francis understood this. His words tell us that a person's life can be truly fulfilled only when mastery of a few key ideas, skills, or accomplishments are realized. Today's world is filled with so many choices (think about the cereal aisle at the grocery store) that to land on and master any one thing become difficult. Why do a few things well when you can do all sorts of things half-assed?

But Tom Hodgkinson, in his book "How to be Idle," says that being busy robs us of the very things that make us human: thought and self reflection. How can we get to know ourselves, he argues, when we're too busy to stop and think?

He even quotes Oscar Wilde, from Wilde's essay "The Critic as Artist":

The contemplative life, the life that has for its aim not doing but being, and not being, merely, but becoming - this is what the critical spirit can give us.

In other words, a "to-do" list (which I swear by, I'll admit) keeps us from finding ourselves. It's all a distraction. Amidst so much to do, we have forgotten what matters. And - back to that "thinness" metaphor again - we eventually become superficial beings, instead of the realized versions of a potential self.

While playing video game football hardly helps me realize my potential self (accept, perhaps, when I can beat Don), it helps me settle, helps me use my brain, and helps me relax.

It's also one of the reasons I've found Buddhism so attractive lately. I don't have a religious bone in my body, but something about the practical aspects of mindfulness, and concentration, and just sitting and thinking - it's awfully hard to ignore the benefits. Instead of being so worried about planning, or regretting, or being anxious about things I can't control, I simply let them be. It's a fine art, and a talent, and I hope I can develop it more.

For some, however, being busy is all they know how to do. Running on all six cylinders is the usual - only on vacations or when they're asleep do they know the meaning of "down time." In the meantime, there is this drive to get things done. Perhaps, when the too-busy person looks back at their life, they will feel a sense of accomplishment.

But at what cost?

I think you can have it both ways. You can do lots of things - strike off those items on the to-do list, one by one - but still keep a sense of connectiveness to those you care about. It's about moderation. And (here's a multitasker's buzz-word) time management. Shucks, even a day spent on the couch, watching a movie, being lazy - it can be beneficial. Running on overdrive has to have its cost, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and certainly physically.

And when it does, what will all that running around be worth?

Thursday, February 1, 2007

When genius strikes

Every once in a while, a genius idea comes along and strikes, like a bolt of lightning, making the ozone in the air positively hum with creative energy.

That's what happened to me today.

About twice a year, we have an ATM promotion, whereby just using an ATM you could win $50. Get a winning ATM receipt (featured in a different ATM each day), you win $50. All you have to do is come to a branch and collect.

The hard part is stamping the ATM receipts, because you have to do it by hand and at certain intervals. That means you have to unwind the giant receipt roll (above), stamp the winning receipt, and roll the thing back up.

For all those ATM rolls.

Our delivery guy at work, Dick, is a pro, but it's usually an all-day job for him. That, and there's this problem:

That's right. Paper cuts. Slicing, bleeding, screaming paper cuts.

Well, Dick's gone for the month on vacation, which left the ATM roll-stamping up to me. After the first few rolls, I got pretty frustrated.

So I came up with a plan.

My original inspiration came to me in the bathroom, looking at the toilet roll. Roll. Spinning. Unwinding. It all clicked. So I thought I'd make my own ATM receipt roll dispenser.

It took me a few tries, but here's how I did it. First, place a pen on the desk (above).

Then, to weigh the pen down, I placed a blank ATM roll on top of the pen. But that wasn't heavy enough. The counter-weight of the spinning roll set the whole thing off.

So I stacked more on top of the pen (above). Four felt right.

From there it was simple - just slide the ATM roll onto the pen. The pen bent a little, but it's flexible, and I found it actually helped with flexibility and spinning ability.

The trick was to get the spinning receipt roll on the pen just right, so it didn't fall off, but was flush enough with my desk to keep it steady and rolling smoothly.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Eventually I got it just right, and I set up my workstation, opened up iTunes, and began working the afternoon away.

Needless to say, my coworkers were extremely jealous. They asked if they could help stamp ATM rolls, but I denied them - the poor saps.

"Get your own goddamn genius invention," I bellowed.

I was on a roll (pun intended). And hey, this could be the start of something beautiful. Thomas Edison got his start this way you know. Or at least through something similar, I'm sure.

There come moments in life when everything seems in focus, and edges of reality blur just a little bit.

Today held one of those moments.

I'm just glad I was there to light the dynamite.