Toad in the Hole

September 06, 2006

Labor Day Late

PSoTD asked me along with a host of others to post something about what Labor Day means to me. Here, late, as I was working on Labor Day.

Of course, it's ironic that I was working on Labor Day, as I regard that as a venial sin under most circumstances. Time was, most people here didn't. Medical workers, sure; utility and transit and such vital services' staffers too, and they got holiday pay. Farmers, because cows need milking no matter what day it is. I was working because I'm a freelancer with a really bad tendency to procrastinate.

Practically, Labor Day has become the weekend to stay home and off the roads. We hunker. This year we slept in, did a little yardwork, visited a nursery (which is what I was writing about), that sort of thing. I have an atavistic urge to buy clothing around this time of year, doubtless left over from school days. It's somewhat off-step here; the seasons change at a different pace and time than they did in Pennsylvania. (And this year I'm so not ready to give up the long days and warmth.)

The scary thing is that Labor Day is becoming a matter for nostalgia. See my second graf above; see various bits of prose from people talking about parades and unions and decent wages. See the recent history of manufacturing jobs moving overseas. See the corporatization of farming, for that matter -- and look at the labels in the food markets, see how much of what we eat is imported, if you want a real scare. Seems as though we're growing mostly corn syrup and GE soybeans and exporting... What do we export, anyway? More of the same, plus jobs, plus things that blow up.

When a city needs revenue, what does it look to? Another goddamn shopping mall. When the wonderful new information economy actually operates, what does it do? Sells sales information -- "contacts," peoples' phone numbers and email addresses and maybe what they're in the market for. More of us are selling things; ever fewer are growing them or making them. It's like a kula ring that's taken over the whole economy; it would be like the Eternal Garage Sale, except that the stuff being sold is likely to be too flimsy to survive long enough to be sold again. So where's it going?

Look to the nearest "landfill." That term itself is an obscenity. I have never in my life seen empty land. Neither have you, unless it's recently been occupied by a shopping mall. There is something just as flimsy, abstract in a way, not concrete, about an economy that rests on them.

Those retail jobs, except for the ones that are still unionized (grocery stores, e.g.) tend to pay little and require an insalubrious combination of indifference and ass-kissing. Oh, and the stores, like a lot of other places, tend to be understaffed. This is not good for morale, not good for the workers, not good for service, not good for the customers. How long was the last line in which you had to wait?

Now notice that the same dynamic is happening in hospitals, medical labs, clinics (such as survive), and such vital places. If they're tax-supported like firehouses or some ambulance companies, it gets even worse in cities as the tax base erodes -- you know, all those manufacturers that aren't there any more, and all their former workers who don't have those incomes any more. Add the recent tax relief to those poor overburdened folks in the higher income brackets... You see where this is going.

There's a process, a death of a thousand cuts, a gradual passive impoverishment that happens partly because human lives are relatively short and human memories are shorter. I spent part of this year wondering whether I was actually seeing and hearing fewer birds on my block than last year or ten years ago, or was it just my imagination. We keep only half-assed yard lists, but after a while trends do show up. This week I was wondering where the heck the bushtits had gone; they always form up a gang and patrol the yard at least twice a day, eating bugs, and they're audible even when they're in concealment. I could put a houseplant with bugs out on the porch railing for a few days to let the bushtits have a go at them. And I haven't noticed them at all lately, and I just noticed that I hadn't noticed. We both sit here working in the hours when they should be coming through, and not once this summer have we raised our heads and said, "Hey, there go the bushtits." They're nomadic, OK, but we've always been able to rely on them before.

The scrub jays, where have they been? Hard to miss that bunch. They're susceptible to West Nile virus; not seeing (hearing!) them is scary. No mockingbird in earshot this year or last. A black phoebe just showed up, part of the post-breeding dispersal, but for a few years we had a family of them raising kids somewhere close. We did have a robin -- but I think only one nest on the block -- and the hummingbirds, and... and... there must have been house sparrows somewhere; there always are. Mourning doves? No. The Nutall's woodpeckers have been sparse. Where's the possum, come to think of it? Didn't we used to have salamanders? Et cetera.

But most people don't notice this stuff. And of those that do, most don't remember that it was ever any other way.

Most people don't know that their immediate environment used to be much richer.

Similarly, most working-class (by which I mean people who work for a living, not as a hobby, and the people they list as their legal dependents) people don't know that their immediate class used to be much richer. Or if they know, they blame themselves, and don't notice that what happened to them -- to their incomes, their pride, their independence, their power -- has happened to millions like them. It's not just a generational matter, that young people can't afford houses like what their parents had at their age. Their parents, if they didn't buy early enough or work in the right jobs or just have the right luck, are looking at scary futures too.

The divide-and-conquer tactics worked well, didn't they. How many people do you know who call themselves "working class"? Never mind whether or how long and hard they work. Everyone's supposed to be middle-class (and to hate being middle-class) and hey, look at the interesting word that's dropped out there, the one that means something other than relative position.

And who remembers -- let alone thinks it's the way things ought to be -- that once, in living memory, the "working" class made things it could afford to buy, and could rely on a pension, and could bargain with real power to effect the outcome over things like pay and time off and working conditions. That a strike wasn't branded as traitorous -- or, if it was, the accusation got scorned away. That every job wasn't a thin and threatened lifeline, that things like medical insurance were to be expected (and expected to serve the people who were paying for it), that things were going to keep getting better?

Who remembers not being scared all the time?

Posted at September 6, 2006 04:42 AM


Thank you, Ron.

I remember. And I'm mostly not really scared now, just very very sad.

I have a sick old cat I'll use as a metaphor. I think he's dying, and I don't think there's anything to do but care for him and wait, and I think he knows this, too. And I am already grieving for him, even while I claw for his small, thin life with what feels like both a sudden onslaught and a gradual incursion of medicines and cooking and cleaning and restructuring -- and hoping, still hoping, no matter what.

It's how I feel about the world, too, the natural world, the honest world of give-and-take. I don't think there's any going back from where we are now, and with so many not listening for the missing birds let alone seeing the connections between them and us, I feel that all I can do is what I can do alone in my own little yard, grieving as I go, and hoping, still hoping, no matter what.

Posted by: Sara at September 6, 2006 06:11 PM

There's one difference, I think, as I keep considering all this, between the erosion of the natural world and the erosion of whatever system we thought we were living in. What we lose -- what we've already lost -- in the natural world, the dusky seaside sparrow, whatever's gone in our lifetimes, we can't replace that. We can't make a new one. We're not equipped.

Economic and social systems can be re-invented, refined, reinstated. But natural systems, places, life, can't. It's perfectly awful that we'll lose our human lives, lose the brightest possibilities of the lives we don't technically lose, lose happiness, while systems stumble around and maybe -- if we're lucky -- stagger toward the better. I feel so thrown way myself; it's hard to imagine how I'd feel if I were twenty now. But imagine your whole life thrown away, and its being just part of the life of your whole species... !

I don't think we've figured out how to think about this yet.

Posted by: Ron at September 8, 2006 05:57 AM

You know, I haven't made a career of thinking about this stuff, as you have, so it might be presumptuous of me to throw in my two cents' worth, but it's not like that would ever stop me. So I've got to say, I think we each need to think about it as very personally real.

I actually do see the planet just this way, life thrown away or willfully destroyed or simply forced to die through selfishness and shortsightedness, expediency and simple ignorance, each in turn, and I do see it as my life, as our life. Twisty often expresses her view that "the planet will be just fine," that it will reinvent itself after us, populate itself or not with new species, etc. And I see her point, but it is not a comforting one because I have loved my own life so much.

I'm a little bit younger than you, old enough to have participated in the punk movement that came around in the late '70s and early '80s -- though I started out from a very different, Southern California Republican place and wholly invested in and identified with that until my late teens, when I was forced to begin to see more. So I was late to join in, but we punklets of that time dressed outrageously as an expression of how sure we were that the world was out of our hands, that it was going to be destroyed by nuclear warfare before we ever got to see it. On the Beach and all that, totally out of our hands. So what did it matter if our hair was purple or our stockings were torn? And yeah, we were pissed off about it. We were also afraid to engage, because we knew we'd be cheated.

Skip ahead twenty-five years. The world has not yet been bombed lifeless. Meanwhile, I worked at Whole Foods until last Friday, when I quit. My former coworkers are largely in their teens and twenties, and most of them, like me at 16, have expectations rather than fears. They expect to have cars. They expect to marry, have children, own property. They expect to shop in nice stores. Whole Foods attracts more thinking and questioning staff than your average grocery store, fewer careerists I think, more people on their way to something else. Lots of them are more environmentally aware than your average young person, or learn to be on the job, sometimes (rarely) kicking and screaming, or sneering, all the way. But even they don't all see the connection between all of us driving to our jobs at a huge sprawling store in the middle of a suburb with only one hourly bus to get there from only one direction and the very things we claimed to be fighting with our focus on organically grown food and locally (but not usually organically) grown food. Or they don't see it clearly enough to change their own lives and do something else. Or they do see it, but material commitments -- raising families, paying rent, sending money home to other countries, saving for college, etc. -- prevent them from making other choices, and they feel fortunate to at least have a choice this good instead of something even worse. They could, after all, be driving to Wal-Mart. And some of them come from places like Chad and Sudan and think all this is really okay just the way it is.

So I would only suggest that when we think about these things, especially when we try to tell others about them who don't see them yet, we think about them person-by-person. I think that's all anyone who has the power to change it -- which would be all of us, if it can still be changed at all -- can hear or bear. And when we think and talk about it, we have to think and talk about solutions, and when we do that, we have to think and speak not just in terms of broad systems, but even more in terms of each household, then each family, then each neighborhood, town, county, etc. (What are you going to give "me" in exchange for "my" disposable diapers and canned cat food and the time "I" save using them? What can I do for a living in the middle of this suburb with no public transportation to any job? What will you give me for my time, my time, my time? My money, my privacy, my freedom, my family's safety, my happy Christmas, and my time?) We are talking about huge complexes of problems, but they happen one birth, one purchase, one mile, one sixpack, one small, putatively insignificant choice at a time.

Today I'm going to plant some organically cultivated mint and sage plants around my rented yard and fill the bird feeders. I'm going to watch my sunflowers, such as they are this year, bloom and die and leave the seeds for the tufted titmice and chickadees and squirrels who come for them every year. And I will not think about the end of them all, just hope they come back next year.

Posted by: Sara at September 8, 2006 05:48 PM

Well put. That one-at-a-time view is what I'm all about when I'm actually at work -- the trees column, the garden stuff I used to do for the Chron and Terrain. My nefarious scheme is to seduce people into falling in love with some vital thing, the trees on the street or the birds or whatever, so they'll be motivated to learn about them and defend them and eventually notice that they're all connected. And then I go out birding somewhere and see more of it being paved or wasted.

I don't think we're fast enough, though, and I foresee big losses before any improvement. It's all very Schindler's Listy.

And what bugs me is that it doesn't have to be this way. I'm not longing for some return to the '50s or crap like that; I was there the first time 'round. I damn well like the Internet, and Velcro, and lots of medical advances, and the return of good beer. But I don't think correlation equals causation in the oversimplified way I keep seeing it presented; we didn't have to give up having a decent relationship with a front-line doc and good hospital staffing to get great specialized medical care when we need it, just for example.

What I'm saying is that we're losing good things and that the national (?) attention span is so short that hardly anyone quite notices how impoverished we've become -- and that in this case, "impoverished" is a transitive verb.

And that we're being impoverished in similar ways vis-a-vis the natural world and our natural lives. And being told somehow that even noticing the good stuff is geeky, extraordinary, or a political distraction, when really it's our birthright.

Posted by: Ron at September 10, 2006 04:08 AM