Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"The Messy Desk"

Sydney M. Williams

Essays from Essex
“The Messy Desk”
November 23, 2016

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition.”
                                                                        Kathleen D. Vohs
                                                                        Behavioral Scientist, University of Minnesota
                                                                        Study published August, 2013 in Psychological Science

I appreciate order, or, at least, a semblance of order, but it would hardly describe me. Growing up, I shared a room with three siblings. When one is confined to two drawers in a bureau and a top bunk, one learns to keep precious items close. The command, “Clean up your room!” was never given to me alone.

We are told that cleanliness is next to godliness. We are conditioned to believe that neatness and order are “good,” and that messiness is “bad.” “We are charmed by neatness,” wrote Ovid, in an observation that does not especially pertain to me. In the 1960s, minimalism became central to art, music and architecture. “Brown” furniture is now out of fashion. Today we see this trend in pets: Cock-a-poos and Double-doodles have replaced the mutts of my youth and the labs we once owned. The cat, distant toward man, is fond of neatness; whereas the dog, which gives unconditional love, will roll in whatever smells the foulest. So dog pets have become small, toy dogs, kept constantly groomed and supervised.

At home, I tend to accumulate the detritus that comes with one interested in books, newspapers, magazines and writing. Papers pile up. Last January Caroline and I moved to an apartment about one third the size of our former house. Now that I share a library/office with my wife, I find confinement confining – or, at least, challenging. I try to keep in mind advice given me years ago from a friend who worked at IBM: If you have a file on your desk you have not looked at for six months, throw it out; but, like most good advice generously proffered, it is usually (and ungraciously) ignored.

In my case, chaos lovingly reigns. Under the desk are a dozen folders – subjects of interest and on which I would like to write…someday. Additionally, there are reams of yellow-lined pads, manila folders and other litter. Book shelves are jammed, intermixed with rubber animals my parents produced in the 1950s and sold to school systems around the world. There are carved wooden figures, cast iron and porcelain figurines, and approximately 700 books – special books we brought with us. At least forty-two framed pictures and photographs adorn what wall space we have. When one moves from a large library to a small one, one never down-sizes appropriately.

On my built-in, glass topped desk sit many objects, some practical, but most curios that snuck in and stayed. Beneath the glass lie twenty-one pictures and photographs, one of which is a Polaroid of me and a friend, Duncan Kendall, taken about 1956 by Dr. Edwin Land who was then a summer resident of Peterborough, New Hampshire, where I grew up. Duncan and I look like the arrogant, young wise-guys we were. Another is of Caroline shortly before we met in late 1961. She looks happy, unaware that her life will change in the next few months.

Among the items on top of the desk are many commonly found: computer, pens, a container of paperclips, photographs – nine, in all – a lamp, telephone, books (sixteen at last count), and scribbled notes, some now illegible. There are knickknacks, which include three of my parents’ rubber animals, a snuff holder carved from a whale’s tooth, two cast iron, spring-loaded non-pc piggy banks, quarterly tax reminders, a pair of silver dice given to me forty-five years ago by a friend who had just begun work at International Silver, two metal plates from which my mother made Christmas cards, and at least a dozen other objects, some of which lie hidden behind and beneath news clippings, magazines and printed reports.

Above my desk, and below two rows of shelves, hang three small oil paintings, two photographs – one of me and my sister, taken in 1943 in East River, Connecticut, next to the ’38 Chevy that would return us to New Hampshire. The photo shows a goat peering out the backseat rear window – part of the baggage that will return with us. The other is a photograph of my parents in East River, each peering into the opposite ear of a giant snow head that only young sculptors could have created. There is a framed arrowhead I found at my maternal grandmother’s home in Tennessee. Everything is personal and it all has meaning.

A recent article in the Life & Arts section of “The Financial Times” (October 8/9, 2016), was titled “Say yes to the mess.” Tim Harford, the article’s author, begins and ends with stories of Benjamin Franklin who claimed order was necessary to be productive: “Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.” Yet, brilliant and exceptionally busy, Franklin was messy, but “in an orderly way.” There are people who believe that simply being busy ensures productivity. Not Franklin. As Mr. Harford writes, “Franklin was too busy inventing bifocals and catching lightning to get around to tidying up his life. If he had worked in a deli, you can bet he wouldn’t have been organizing sandwich orders. He would have been making sandwiches.”
A few years ago (September 22, 2013), The New York Times published an article about a series of studies conducted by Professor Kathleen Vohs (quoted at the start of this essay) and her staff at the University of Minnesota. It seemed to contradict the broken-windows theory that suggests disorder and neglect can encourage nonchalance, poor discipline and nihilism – that chaos begets chaos. One hundred and eighty-eight people were invited into either a clean or a messy room where they spent ten minutes doing some unrelated chore, like imagining new uses for ping-pong balls. When leaving, they were presented with one of two food items, and they were asked asked a few questions, like donating to charity. The study found that those with the cluttered desk were more creative in finding uses for ping-pong balls, but tended to be less charitable and less healthy in their food choices. Those in the tidy room, while less creative, were more likely to select the apple over the chocolate bar. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,” concluded Dr. Vohs. However, the study also found that those who are more organized typically ate better and lived longer. I take satisfaction, though, in knowing we live in a grey world, where there are always exceptions. Living amidst clutter, I try to stay active, eat healthily – not always successfully – and to be as charitable as I can. And I do believe in the broken-windows theory – that order begets order.

The study showed that we are influenced by our surroundings. But, intrinsically, we are either messy or neat. What not Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple) have straightened up the messy desk? Would Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau in the same movie) have trashed the neat desk? We create our surroundings. Either we use file drawers, or we pile papers on the floor.

Is my desk messy? Most people would say, of course. I do have a file cabinet and four drawers. In the latter lie important stuff, like a magnifying glass, flashlight, pens, some daguerreotypes of great and great-great grandparents, scissors, a stapler and, naturally, more rubber animals. But there is a difference between messy and disorganized. I usually can find what I need, and if it takes a little longer than it should, well I have enjoyed the nostalgic trip down memory lane. I take comfort in Albert Einstein’s famous quip: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?

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Monday, November 21, 2016

"Reconcilable Differences"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Reconcilable Differences”
November 21, 2016

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to
recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.”
                                                                                    Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
                                                                                    African-American, writer, feminist, activist

In the aftermath of the election, with protests led by violent and professional protesters and a cast member of “Hamilton” peremptorily lecturing the newly elected Vice President, it may seem unrealistic to suggest that differences we have are reconcilable. But I believe they are.

In the heat of a political campaign, urged on by extremists from both Parties and encouraged by a biased press, we forget that all Americans ultimately want the same things: We all want a society that is fair, civil and free; one in which success is determined by meritocracy, not based on one’s parents. We want the rule of law, and we want justice meted out by a jury of one’s peers. We want peace and prosperity. We want hope for the future, and security at home and abroad. These wants are an expected part of the American experience.

Nevertheless, it is common, at times like these, to confuse means with ends – to focus on where we are most different, rather than on what we all share. That could be seen Friday evening when Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr in the Broadway hip-hop musical “Hamilton,” felt the need to instruct Vice President-elect Michael Pence – a man who spent a dozen years in the House of Representatives and four as Governor of Indiana – on the meaning of democracy. Mr. Dixon is free to speak as he wishes; however, his remarks were disrespectful and unfair to audience members who disagreed, but were compelled to listen to his harangue. For those who voted for Clinton his words may have provided a momentary sense of schadenfreude, but for those who voted for Trump he came across as pompous and sanctimonious.

It is in how to achieve common objectives that we differ. At its most fundamental, Democrats place more faith in government, while Republicans rely more heavily on free-market capitalism. Democrats prefer redistribution over lower taxes; tighter, rather than looser, regulations. But Democrats understand the need for the private sector, and Republicans recognize that government is essential to education, commerce and civility. It is in emphasis where there is disagreement.

A major problem, for which there is no apparent answer, is that Presidential campaigns last a minimum of two years, and often longer. One cannot keep audiences engaged for so long unless one turns his or her opponent into a Medusa or a Minotaur – thus the hatred and vitriol that have become commonplace. Positions are exaggerated; disinformation flows like wine at a fiesta, and words and phrases are taken out of context. Today, almost all that we say, write and do is recorded – and can be (and is) used against us. While a wealth of information is available to all, we have become a nation fallen victim to Attention Deficit Disorder. We talk, text or blog. We don’t ponder or weigh issues. The press does not help. Its claim is to present a “fair and balanced” debate, but in reality media is more interested in selling ads and promoting favored political candidates. Presidential politics have become big business. According to Bloomberg, through the 19th of October the Clinton campaign had spent $898 million, while Trump’s had spent $430 million – most of that money with the media on ads. Soundbites proliferate; news reports and analysis are partisan. They are all noise, as repetitious as a long-haul freight train at night.

With all that money, we heard little of the policy prescriptions that separate the Parties. Left out of the cacophony were significant discussions of the means by which the American dream can best be realized. Instead, we learned about Hillary’s e-mail travails and her cover-up of Benghazi, and we learned that Donald Trump has said things in private that most people would not. It was trivial pursuit, not a campaign befitting the oldest democracy on earth, the wealthiest country on the planet – a polyglot nation of 330 million people.

In their striving for victory, each side demeaned the other. Republicans were said to be mean-spirited, with little or no regard for women, minorities, gays or transgenders – a Party of “deplorables.” Democrats were seen as out of touch with reality, with little thought given to the consequences of their generous, but unrealizable promises – a Party of coastal elitists. In the election, Republicans focused on Middle-America’s “forgotten” men and women. Democrats divided the electorate under the guise of promoting diversity. In reaching out to myriad minorities, they ignored vast chunks of Americans. Republicans, with their focus on working-class whites, allowed themselves to be characterized as sexist, racist and xenophobic.

It is the admission of what we share that is missing – what the white, high school-educated worker, the Christian evangelist, the inner-city African-American, and the female gay activist have in common: A country dedicated to principles laid out in the Bill of Rights and in FDR’s “Four Freedoms.” Our differences are obvious, and have been magnified by proponents of identity politics. But, with respect and tolerance, faith and understanding, they are reconcilable. We should never, as Ms. Lorde implied in the rubric above, let differences make us strangers. Despite advocates, moral relativism serves to divide us. It focuses on what tears us apart, not on what unites us – family, community, patriotism, freedom and Thanksgiving!

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Monday, November 14, 2016

"What Progressives Got Wrong"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“What Progressives Got Wrong”
November 14, 2016

“Trump’s Victory Challenges the Global Liberal Order”
                                                                                    Headline, “Financial Times”
                                                                                    November 10, 2016

Methinks the FT got it backward. The headline should have read: “Trump’s Victory May Restore the Global Liberal Order.” Because the “global liberal order” has eroded. Slowly, insidiously but certainly, individual liberties have diminished, as the state has assumed increasing responsibilities and as more people have become dependent on it. The inference is that the FT would have been pleased to have seen a continuation of the Obama policies of greater government involvement in the economy, and a concomitant decline in freedom – usurped by regulatory agencies, Executive Orders and political correctness. The headline reflects the failure of elites to understand why they lost. This decline in liberty is sad, for it was in Britain that modern liberalism first appeared – Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill – all men from whose message we have strayed.

While classical liberalism is fundamental to our success as a nation, economies have undergone a seismic shift. Technology, communication and globalization have fundamentally changed the way goods and services are produced, delivered and consumed. For a large number of Americans, certainty has been replaced with uncertainty, optimism by pessimism, hope by fear. Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” has done enough damage to the economy without making it worse with putative regulations.  While progressives concern themselves with issues like protecting students from uncomfortable speech, transgender bathrooms and an elusive and amorphous desire for equality, millions of Americans are focused on surviving. It is not only roofs to protect them and food to sustain them that are needed, it is the sense of dignity and self-sufficiency that comes from work. It is not that the foci of progressives are unimportant, but that their priorities pale in comparison to the more fundamental need of people – jobs.

How ironic it was, after the election, that schools across the country felt a need to comfort children supposedly traumatized by the election of Donald Trump! How unsurprising it was that political correctness reared its hypocritical head on the nation’s campuses. On Wednesday morning, for example, the director of the Intercultural Engagement Center at Virginia Tech e-mailed the following: “Good morning students, colleagues, friends. Many in our community, and many among us, are waking up with fear, anxiety, concern, questions, and confusion among other emotions.” The University of Michigan provided Play-Doh and crayons to students too upset to attend class. Yale made exams and class attendance optional. Cornell offered a campus-wide “cry-in.” We are raising a generation of spoiled brats. One hundred and thirty-two million Americans voted in a democratically-held election. Are we incapable of accepting the results? Schools and colleges could (and should) have used the opportunity to celebrate the fact that the American people voted, not as they were told to by the media or governmental elites, not as pollsters suggested, and not as teachers and administrators preferred, but as they saw fit. Even the columnist David Brooks, normally a voice of reason, referred to this “horrific election result.” Trump has faults, but he is not Beelzebub. The words and the actions of these whiners show contempt for the American voter.

Despite unemployment declining by half over the past eight years, workforce participation has reached forty-year lows. There is no question as to the value and necessity of welfare, which the federal government amply provides, but regulations and tax policies have stymied job creation. Progressives prefer coddling to discipline, moral relativism to proven, age-old values. They believe the state, in the form of Washington bureaucrats, know better than the individual, family members and those in communities and neighborhoods. They have ignored the importance of self-respect and dignity that comes through work. A decline in the cohesiveness of communities, deteriorating family formations, and an increase in drug and alcohol abuse are, in part, a result of a lack of work. Dignity’s nemesis is idleness, an unintended (and unrecognized) consequence of social welfare. And idleness leads to a lack of self-respect. I don’t pretend to know the right balance, only that the current system is working in ways opposite to what was intended. Keep in mind, the only demographic in the U.S. where mortality rates have increased is in middle-aged, white people. Suicide, drug overdoses and Cirrhosis are the principal causes. A lack of purpose in life is a primary cause. Over the past fifty years, according to Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Men Without Work, the percentage of working-aged men outside the workforce has increased from 10% to 22%, with millions more underemployed.

Progressives condemn Trump’s vulgarity, but surround themselves with entertainers like Beyonce, J-Zee, Miley Cyrus and the Kardashians, hoping to appeal to their millions of Twitter followers, but ignoring the fact these media Stars live lives alien to the average person – in gated communities, immune from scary inner-city streets, failing schools and apart from the despair of poverty-stricken rural America. While Trump’s words about women and minorities were widely, and rightly, condemned, there was little criticism about the crude words and phrases embedded in the lyrics of those who get a pass because of their progressive leanings. I hope the election was a condemnation of this culture, and that it foretold a restoration of respect for businesses like Hobby Lobby and institutions like the Little Sisters of the Poor, and for the work done by Charter Schools to provide choice to inner-city minority students. I would like to think it will encourage those like Amy Schumer, Whoopi Goldberg and Jon Stewart to fulfil their promises to emigrate.

Corruption and self-dealing, as was made clear in the exposure of the Clinton Foundation, underlie sanctimonious Washington elites. The Augean Stables, if not cleansed, will become filthier – a swamp that needs “draining,” is the way Donald Trump put it. It was not investigative reporters from traditional news sources that uncovered this hotbed of cronyism; it was WikiLeaks. This election showed the power and ubiquity of the internet. We will not return to a time when all Americans tuned in to a Walter Cronkite. We will never again get our news from only three television sources. The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post have lost one third of their subscribers over the past two decades. The Huffington Post and Breitbart, individually, have more readers than those three newspapers combined.

People must believe they have a chance, in a future that appears bleak. They must feel they can flourish in a world they cannot grasp. Progressives let them down. Post-election reports in mainstream newspapers and magazines like The Economist suggest they still don’t understand what happened. Mea culpas and soul searching are not part of their curricula vitae. Instead, they continue a Walter Mitty-like existence – day dreaming, while listening only to themselves, believing what they want to believe.

For President Trump to prevail, he must be optimistic; he must give people hope. He must be principled, but willing to compromise; respectful of his opponents, but steadfast in his ideas; tough with enemies and steady with allies. His job will not be easy, but he can succeed. Let us hope he does.

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