Sunday, January 25, 2009

Root Beer, Please!

It was a “Southern Living” Christmas for us! Set against the luxurious ambiance of finely crafted, antique furniture, enhanced by impeccable decorator touches and several lifetimes of family love, the two-story, five bedroom home, recently inherited by my daughter-in-law, is situated on Main Street in Henderson, Texas. (To be more precise, the home is located on South Main Street, since, emanating from a perpendicular intersection on the downtown square, there are actually four Main Streets – South Main, North Main, East Main and West Main!) Given the inviting atmosphere of this well-maintained home (built in 1929; restored about 10 years ago) and since our family is now scattered in Los Angeles, California, Alexandria, Virginia and Athens, Greece, we decided to celebrate our first Christmas since both of our sons have married in “beautiful, downtown, Henderson, Texas.”

The two and a half hours from the nearest large airport and urban center provided blessed time to depressurize and un-wind, in anticipation of the slower pace of small-town life. Beyond the Wal-Mart store, Bob’s Barbeque and its prominence as the county seat of Rusk County, Henderson, Texas is famous as an “oil town,” a railroad center, the home of a syrup festival and certainly, enough warm hospitality to soothe the most cynical city-dweller.

By the time everyone in my family had arrived and we were making final plans for the “best Christmas ever,” (every year, it gets better!), my mate remembered some vital elements that she had forgotten, so I was dispatched to the grocery store. (Some things never change, whether in Henderson, Texas or Athens, Greece!) I found the Brookshire Brothers grocery store remarkably busy for this late in the pre-Christmas season. Apparently, others had likewise forgotten those “must have” ingredients for the upcoming feasts and fests!

Inside the store, checking-off the items which I had been sent to retrieve, I passed the soft drink section of this modern supermarket. I was prepared for a generous selection of beverages, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the reality that Rusk County is a “dry county” - alcoholic beverage strictly prohibited! But, I was totally unprepared for what I saw in the middle rows of the expansive cola collection.

Seven different brands of root beer! Not seven different versions of the same brand (regular, diet, caffeine, non-caffeinated, etc), but seven different brands! Hendersonians must love their root beer! Hendersonians must love their root beer choices!

I have lived in Houston, Texas - population 5 million; I have lived in Athens, Greece - population 5 million; I have lived in Tirana, Albania – population 1 million! I have been to a couple of goat-ropings and a few county fairs. But, I have never seen seven different brands of root beer – all for sale in one place! And, if you’ll pardon my effete snobbery, I never expected to find such root beer options in Henderson, Texas!

Well, I am reminded that small-town life is not what it used to be. Modern technology and communications, yea, aggressive contemporary marketing, have shrunk the size of our world, with the result that most among us live in many ways the same lives, whether the setting is Henderson, Texas or Los Angeles, California. Perhaps we should celebrate the freedom and liberty represented by this week’s worth of beverage choices.

I intend no disrespect toward root beer; I love nothing better than that decadent delight in a frosty mug – perhaps with some vanilla ice cream in the mix! Maybe it seems impertinent of me to question vaunted capitalism and the machinations of modern marketing. But, I dare to wonder out loud: with all of the problems facing humanity, how does it come to be that our world (or the world of Hendersonians, at least) needs seven different brands of root beer? I understand that “there’s no accounting for taste,” and, as our government officials are learning, I am certain that it is very difficult to control private enterprise.

But, think with me here: what would our world be like if the energy, ingenuity, infrastructure and pizzazz associated with getting seven brands of root beer to the shelves in Henderson, Texas could be tapped and channeled toward the solving of some of the great conundrums of modern life, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the intractable spread of AIDS, or the prevalence of diet-related diseases among the desperately poor on the planet? How might this old, broken-down cosmos be improved if we could tap the forces utilized to satisfy individual tastes or cater to eccentric whims and redirect them toward what Abraham Maslow taught us, years ago, were the more basic needs of humanity?

There is some reason for hope on this topic. Bono and others, with their “Red Campaign,” etc., are helping us to learn how to channel the often unrestrained forces of capitalism away from simple selfish satisfactions toward the resolution of truly global, humanitarian needs. These days, it is becoming more fashionable for major corporations and their captains to engage in benevolent work and the trend toward eco-friendly actions and corporate largesse seems to be on the up-tick.

We capitalists, especially, must learn how, without abandoning our work ethic and even our incentives toward profit, to make appropriate use of the levers of power available to us for the sake of the often overlooked “common good.” If there is a clear lesson arising from our current economic “melt-down,” it is certainly that self-interest cannot be the sole motivation for human activity.

The next time I have a root beer float, I’m going to sit back, take a “swig,” and ruminate on that!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Canned Humanity

How many of us were on-board that ordinary flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles? I didn’t have the luxury to count. All I know is that every seat and every inch of storage space was filled. Sacred, personal space easily became shared, contested space. That metal cylinder reminded me of my expanding waistline – snug and stretched, unexpectedly taxed! In this limited, confined territory, I was involuntarily moved closer to mankind!

That Lufthansa daily “milk run” could have just as easily been the Starship Enterprise, with our all-knowing captain, cross-cultural crew, the blinking, buzzing machinations of modern technology, occasional space-speak gibberish, an upper level window on the universe and the silent, almost ignored, “power station.” Stuffed into that stress-tested, aluminum tube, I hurtled with apparent ease through the upper reaches of my itinerary!

There were all types: bigger ones, smaller ones, lighter-skinned ones, darker-skinned ones; happier ones, sadder ones, distracted ones; those headed towards something, those running from something; the energetic and wide-eyed novices alongside the weary, shade-covered veterans; wealthier ones, poorer ones! We were connected, yet separate, alike, yet different!

My life-mate and traveling partner sat next to baby Michel – a little hand in a much larger one! I winced when I was reminded that the price for the privilege of bulkhead seating is always proximity to infants. But my mate, in her grace, saw opportunity in this serendipity. Michel cried out and his bedraggled mother fed him what we call “baby food.”

Sharing the journey forces some, sometimes to be somewhat humane; others, consistently refuse to rise beyond the lowest level of humanity! Most know that the journey is a means to an end, yet others view the costly venture as an end in itself!

We had left behind, in Athens, the dangerous and destructive rioting in the streets, as well as the centuries-old prejudices. How thin is the layer of civilization! As this autumn’s world-wide economic meltdown has unquestionably reminded us, we are, all of us, vulnerable to forces beyond our control. Routinely, we naively move through frightening and deadly atmospheres. A screen tells me that we are over Hudson Bay, headed toward Calgary and are traveling at speeds I cannot comprehend, 2345 miles to our destination and minus 54 degrees, just outside my window! A thin, aluminum sheeting and a layer of plexi-glass separate me from the frigid and foul environment through which I move with careless ease.

We consume precious resources because we can and because our adopted lifestyle demands it. We are connected by the Internet, yet, also alone in the cosmos, with our thoughts and fears, waiting for the red, “occupied” sign on the astronautical “porta potty” door to change to green! We are powerful, yet vulnerable! Just hours ago, I stepped on board a space-ship, yet I was forced by a stranger to abandon liquids, take off my shoes and have my laptop wiped and swiped! What powers we have! How impotent we are! On an earlier flight, we were forced to do a “go around” at Frankfort, because …, I know not, why.

On a screen, a cartoon-like, electronic view of the world gives me a glimpse, ostensibly, from above what is assumed to be our privileged perspective! We see where the sun begins and the darkness ends! Oh, the gift, to come from the darkness into the light! Will it be that way when we land? Will I walk upright on the earth, in the daylight, or in the dark? Freed from this artificially-enforced intimate connection with humanity, removed from this precious introspection, will my life reflect the conquering compassion of the Christmas season in its first incarnation or the capitulative competition of the Christmas season in its contemporary manifestation?

Sometimes I don’t want to unbuckle my seatbelt!