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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Bic Generation

The Bic lighter at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Made in Japan used to mean the product was junk, until W. Edwards Deming brought his message of quality to Japanese manufacturers. We need another Deming--this time for China.

Made in China has become code for cheap--in the most negative connotation of the word:
  • Appliances with a useful life of three to five years
  • Napkins and tissues that shred in my hand
  • Plastic bottles too thin to grip
We live in a disposable culture, where dumping something when it breaks is cheaper than fixing it.

I call it the Bic Generation, derived from the pens and lighters that started us on the road away from a fix culture to a dump culture.

Zack Whittaker writing in ZDNet, called it the iGeneration, with the "i" representing both the types of mobile technologies being heralded by children and adolescents (iPhone, iPod, Wii, iTunes) plus the fact that these technologies are mostly "individualized" in the way they are used.

“The iGeneration don't care about products lasting,” Whittaker noted. “They just want something here and now, that will do the job and something they can dispose of without it hurting their wallets when that moment comes.”

The worry, though, is not just that every thing is disposable in today’s Bic Generation. This mentality sometimes extends to every one.

The University of Minnesota, for example, found that the divorce rate hasn't declined since 1980, as was thought. When the university’s researchers controlled for changes in the age composition of the married population, they discovered that the divorce rate actually rose by 40 percent.

In reporting the story, The Washington Post wrote: “The flipside of this finding is the relative rarity of divorce among younger Americans today. In the 1970s, a couple might get married at 25 and be divorced by 30. But today, that same couple would be more likely to simply live together for a few years and then head their separate ways when things go south.”

“When things go south.” It can apply to our children, too.

Last week the National Center on Family Homelessness found that the number of homeless children in the U.S. has surged to an all-time high--nearly 2.5 million children homeless at some point in 2013. That’s one child in every 30.

The blame? The center pointed to our high poverty rate, the lack of affordable housing and the impacts of pervasive domestic violence.

But I wonder how many of these young people were thrown out of the house because they were considered “broken”--gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or pregnant?

An independent film shot last year, titled The Disposable Generation, sought to capture the writer/director’s view that today “numbness is a virtue … an apathetic youth favors the modern American dream, which doesn’t necessarily involve being awake any more.”

There might be hope. A recent Twitter exchange that I saw went like this:

We’re the “everything is disposable” generation. We dont like it we replace it. If its broke we throw it out. If its too hard we quit on it

Not quite. Dnt like it? We make it better. Broke? Make it so it doesnt break again. Too hard? Make it easier

In my next blog, “A Light from Within

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thanksgiving at Hope Lodge

I am a counterfeit cancer patient. Not by choice, but by chance. And it's illuminated my idea of Thanksgiving.

As I’ve mentioned in some of my previous blog posts, my wife is a breast cancer survivor of 15 years. Each month, she and I visit Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan for a few days of appointments, during which time we are accommodated at Hope Lodge.

Hope Lodge is a truly wonderful endeavor of the American Cancer Society–and largely run by volunteers. The ACS maintains 31 of these free, hotel-like accommodations in cities across the nation for patients and their caregivers who must travel long distances from home when their best hope for effective treatment is in another city. Not having to worry about where to stay or how to pay for lodging enables patients to focus on getting well.

At New York City’s Hope Lodge, a significant portion of the patients are recovering from bone marrow transplants–a regimen typically lasting some 100 days, when extreme precautions must be taken to protect severely compromised immune systems.

Of course, these patients--both men and women--have lost all their hair. In addition, almost all the other patients at Hope Lodge are undergoing some measure of chemotherapy, which has stolen their hair as well.

My wife’s medication is hormonal. So she still has her thick crop of blonde hair. I, on the other hand, have a shaved head. When we meet people in the corridors or the lobby or the dining room, they invariably acknowledge us with the unvarying greeting of cancer survivors who have learned to take life one day at a time: “How is it going today?”

Except–when they ask this--they are looking at me, not my wife.

At first I thought this was funny, that they think I’m the one with cancer.

Not anymore. Especially not with Thanksgiving upon us next week. In fact, I cringe when I think of how little gratitude I offer heavenward that I am not the one bound up in the struggle against the scourge of cancer.

The bald men and women at Hope Lodge who are our new friends are thankful every day. In the dining room or the lounge, it’s not uncommon for them to join in applause for a fellow patient who is having a “good day,” or has announced some fragment of positive news about their progress.

What is most shocking to me is that so many of these are young people:
  • Tom, a bone marrow transplant patient, with four small children at home near Boston
  • Maria from upstate New York, anxious about properly caring for her thirty-something husband, just out of three days in ICU following his transplant
  • Chris, a Long Island metastatic breast cancer survivor herself, serving as caregiver for her husband, Michael, who is frightened about undergoing yet another facial surgery
These valiant people, and millions more who deal with cancer, are thankful for each day they prevail. For them, as it now is for me, every day is Thanksgiving Day.

To make a tax-deductible donation to Hope Lodge: 

In my next blog, "Bic Generation"

Saturday, November 15, 2014


I am standing as far east as I can and still be in America, gazing from Truro’s ocean beach across the Atlantic directly toward Spain.

It’s November, the month of transition from sultry summer to chill winter, from long days to long nights, from life to death. It’s the month of which essayist Joseph Addison, loyal subject of the restored Stuart monarchs, said: "The gloomy month of November, when the people of England hang and drown themselves."

And I am asking myself, “Can any place be new?”

In mid-Twentieth Century Paris, the Situationist movement attacked city planning as organized social isolation because it was concerned primarily with the smooth flow of automobile traffic.

Situationist Guy Debord called for research into the effects of urban and natural environments on emotions and behavior. He termed this area of inquiry “psychogeography.” 

It wasn’t long before his adherents adopted the practice of going on long, aimless walks--literally translated from the French derive as "driftings"--to experience the psychological states and thoughts generated during their ramblings.

In 2007 British journalist Will Self wrote Psychogeography, which has been called a “meditation on the vexed relationship between psyche and place.”

For Self, writing at a time when everything everywhere looks increasingly the same, walking is a way to see the world anew--often in striking ways.

Perhaps this is why his peregrinations took him beyond the cityscape, to the "Empty Quarters" outside urban boundaries and off paved paths. For him, these are the true frontiers, the last places left to discover and explore.

Which leads to my question, “Can any place be new?”

To try to find out, I’ve started to walk Cape Cod’s great Outer Beach from the old Coast Guard station in Eastham to Race Point Light at Provincetown. It’s the same route traveled by Henry David Thoreau in 1849.

This just might be the longest stretch of uninterrupted sand and surf in the world--25-miles. On my left are sheer dunes that spike up to 140 feet and on my right 3,000 miles of deep Atlantic Ocean. “There is no other landscape like it anywhere,” Robert Finch wrote in his introduction to the 1949 edition of Thoreau’s Cape Cod.

What do I hope to accomplish with this adventure? It has to be more than tramping across 25 miles of geography. Will I grow, change, gain some new wisdom? Maybe it will be something as simple as falling in love with the real Cape Cod after living here for almost 20 years–just as one falls in love with a mate in a different way after many years together, when the chemistry has calmed and one finds new affection for the reality–not just the appearance.

I know a book will emerge from this. I already have the working title: Beach Tramp. I won’t be writing so much about what I see as about what I feel. My hope is that the ideas and emotions that emerge during this long walk will be more engaging than the walk itself.

Perhaps there is another, more transcendent reason why I choose to do this in the autumn of my life, as days dwindle down. Henry Rollins, the hard-to-categorize punk legend, occasional actor, writer and broadcast host, said it for me: 

“The month of November makes me feel that life is passing more quickly. In an effort to slow it down, I try to fill the hours more meaningfully.”

In my next blog, “Thanksgiving at Hope Lodge”

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Laborers Are Few

Neighbors from Vieques recently visited us in Truro for a few days. To treat them to a real Cape Cod experience, we took them to – where else? -- Truro Vineyards. Together we helped harvest autumn’s crop of 2014 cabernet and pinot grapes.

Like my wife and I, they’re not accustomed to the sort of strenuous toil involved in stooping, plucking, filling and lugging.

Yes, there were our feeble attempts at humor: “No wonder Americans don’t want to do this kind of work.”

This stopped me cold. After all, didn’t we boycott table grapes in the Sixties to support Caesar Chavez in his fight to win social justice for migrant field workers? Didn’t we gain from him some understanding of the dignity of work?

I was reminded of the vocational training and apprenticeship programs being offered by big corporate names such as Siemens. Rooted in Germany’s long heritage of apprenticeships, these are noteworthy vocational alternatives for students who – instead of college -- want or need to begin earning a living and might enjoy the hands-on work of a high-technology manufacturing facility.

Siemens, for example, has an apprenticeship program that’s well over a century old. Following the German custom, it sponsors one of the largest school-to-career programs in America -- combining practical and classroom training in partnership with high schools, technical schools and community colleges.

When Siemens launched an apprenticeship program in Silicon Valley several years ago, I wrote a speech for then-CEO Dr. Heinrich von Pierer in which he said, “We hope to not only equip young people against poverty, social conflict and inequality, but also to enable them to prosper in a world of change. Because with the great change taking place in today’s high-technology environment, it is the learners who will inherit the future.”

Apprenticeship programs like the one Siemens pioneers are designed to invigorate development of a hands-on, high-tech workforce, thereby fueling America’s global competitiveness.

According to the Manufacturing Institute, the manufacturing base helps drive one in seven private-sector jobs in the U. S. and accounts for about 70% of private sector research and development.

Eric A. Spiegel is the president and CEO of Siemens USA and serves on the President’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership 2.0 Steering Committee.

“Manufacturing jobs have a branding problem,” he said after last month’s meeting of the committee. “There is an ongoing need to ensure young people understand that choosing a challenging career in advanced manufacturing is a pathway to a successful career.”

We've done a disservice to youth by suggesting that a college degree is the single path to success. The reality is eye-opening. A National Education Association study two years ago examined the U.S. labor force and students’ academic and career paths. It found:
  • Three of ten do not graduate from high school
  • Half of high school students do not go to college
  • Close to half of college students do not complete a Bachelor’s degree within six years
  • Three-fourths of our labor force do not have a Bachelor’s degree
  • Only one of four workers holds a high-skill job
In a recent US News & World Report story, James Stone III, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the University of Louisville, pointed out that middle-school students in Germany take tests and move on to either apprenticeships or university preparation.

“The system works extraordinarily well,” he says. “They have one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the industrialized world, and going through an apprenticeship in no way prevents one from moving on to college.”

No company can guarantee a person a lifetime job. But it can bestow employability skills for a lifetime.

In my next blog, “Psychogeography