Friday, July 26, 2019

7 Cakes in 7 Days

More than five decades ago, my parents discovered a place in the Bartonsville, Pennsylvania area which offered housekeeping cottages, and a pool, surrounded by woods.  Those first few years, we rented one of the smaller cabins, jamming three generations of family members into a two bedroom cottage.  We did not visit every year, in the beginning, but as our enjoyment of the area grew, other family members visited us, planting the seeds for what was to develop.

Over the years, our visits expanded to multiple weeks, in bigger cabins, and included various cousins, aunts, and uncles.  During those years, many new friendships were also born with families with multiple generations like ours.  While in many ways, our family was unique in that my parents had six children over the course of 22 years, we were not unique in seeking a place to go each summer to relax, play with other kids, and just be together.

Back then, there were very few places to purchase food, or take a meal out, which meant that my mother began squirreling away the paper and dry goods we would need for weeks in anticipation of the trip.  Then, in the early morning hours of the day of our departure, my dad would spend a considerable amount of time lashing the boxes and suitcases to the top of our station wagon.  When he finally finished we jumped into the car for the endless trip up 611, the highways of today not having been carved into the land yet.

My participation was brief, being the oldest, and being a young man who sought enjoyment outside the family unit, but my younger brothers and sister, spent the vast majority of their childhood summers looking forward to the 1, then 2, and even 3 weeks at the Poconos. 

As time passed, and I became a father, my wife and I began to bring our kids to visit my parents at this retreat, sometimes spending the week, sometimes only a weekend.  The bug soon infected my children who found pleasure in visiting with their cousins and spending time with their grandparents and various aunts and uncle.  Over time, they came to feel what my younger siblings felt, but which had eluded me as a teenager.  Eventually, a week at the Poconos also became a yearly rite for us as well.

In the meantime, we slowly took over the string of cottages which compose Countryside Cottages, expanding our usage to roughly half of the cabins while establishing a hold on the same week(s) every year so that we were vacationing with the same people in those cabins not occupied by us.  We had expanded our reach beyond blood lines to include members of other families who had continued their yearly trek, many of which had also begun in those years spanning the 70's and 80's.

Through the years, we drank endless quantities of alcoholic beverages by the pool, discussed the events of the day in voices that often became raised or excited, played games in and around the pool, and ate countless meals together, sometimes at the pool, sometimes in a huge gathering at one of the cabins, and sometimes in smaller groups at the local diners and restaurants.  Then at night, despite, or perhaps because of the arguments which may have punctuated the daytime, we gathered at one of the cabins to slaughter some more brain cells, play all sorts of card, board, and verbal games, laugh, remember, and create the memories we would recount the following years. 

This past year, which just ended today, included all 6 siblings, my dear mother, one aunt, 4 spouses of the 5 boys, 10 grandchildren, including the spouse and fiance of 2 of those, our cousin and her husband, various one day visitors, and even one ex-wife who came to participate in a baby shower for the wife of her son.  Conspicuous in his absence, as he has been for the past 7 years, was my dad who passed in 2012, but as many people have commented, my middle brother looks more and more like him every year, reminding us of the patriarch of this event.

And the cakes?

Well, as is typical of my mother, she makes sure that she recognizes each of her family members, as they reach certain milestones of their lives.  This year featured an 80th birthday cake, a 60th birthday cake, an engagement cake, the aforementioned baby shower cake plus an accompanying cheesecake, a 50th birthday cake, and in no small feat, a surprise 85th birthday cake for my mom, who handled it with her typical aplomb by saying it wasn't necessary, and then helping to serve each and every person a slice of what was the best chocolate cake of the week.

There was a time when I worried that when the day came and my mother no longer graced us with her presence, that this family event may break down, as we all know that mom is the glue that holds us all together.  But, happily, my youngest brother and his family have embraced this area, making upwards of 10 visits a year.  In addition, the young adults of the family who have not begun families, continue to share in the family joy, and the younger children of the six siblings have internalized their parents love of the Poconos, so I no longer worry about the longevity of the event.

There is much talk of the disintegration of the family unit.  We scatter to the wind to find love, jobs, happiness, often limiting contact with our siblings and parents to weddings, and funerals.  We too easily excuse why we can't see our relatives, using the pressures of our hectic lives, and the wedges that continued absence from one another creates as reasons.  Even our extended family, despite this wonderful yearly get together, includes people whom I could pass on the street tomorrow and not recognize. 

In the end, it takes effort and usually just one incredible person to make it their purpose to see a family stay in touch.  For us, my mother is that person, someone who organized so many family events that I would not be able to calculate the number.  But more importantly, someone who impressed on all those who know her, especially her direct family, the importance of family. 

So often we bemoan the lack of heroes in our time.  When you find yourself uttering such thoughts, think about the person in your family who has done the most to keep you in touch and in contact.  That is your hero.  And, should there not be one, take on the mantle yourself so that someday a niece or grandchild will be able to recount the story of your family's togetherness as reflected in your own particular version of our yearly vacation in the Poconos.   



Monday, July 15, 2019

Winning At All Costs

One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.  A quote from Iris Murdoch

I have mentioned before that we tend to consider the times of our lives, the years between our birth and death, but most specifically those years when we are most conscious of the significance of events which surround us, as the most important years in history.  Our egos insist on it.  I imagine there has been a  multitude of conversations about the historical nature of "today", whether those various debates occurred among Greeks unaware they lived at the beginning of the years we know as AD, peasants of the 9th century, tradesman of the 16th century, or World War 2 veterans who escaped death in Europe or the Pacific. 

One might even argue that anyone born in the first 2 decades of the 20th century, and who survived for most of that century, was witness to the most diverse and dramatic changes which have occurred in human history.  Should similarly seismic advances in technology, communication and travel occur in the next 70 years, how unrecognizable everyday life will be for those who walk the planet in 2095 as compared to today.

What draws me to Lapham's Quarterly, is that the topics explored, as often reflect the similarity of perception over the ages as the differences, despite the profound alterations of how life is conducted via technology, etc.

I began thinking about this post intent on discussing how winning at all costs seems to have infected the thinking of our culture, but perhaps that in itself is just another reflection of how we believe we live in the most (fill in the blank) time in history.

If continuous small treats can produce a happy life, then perhaps winning at all costs is one method of accomplishing that result, as long as we always look forward to the next "win" and not reflect on the cost of any particular win, such as winning by cheating.  As flawed humans, we have all cheated at times, perhaps to gain a better grade, a better job, a better sexual experience.  For some, this kind of shortcut to happiness eventually reveals itself as a mirage, producing less satisfying results over time.  For those who never learn this lesson, more intense experiences are required, sometimes producing the kind of addictive behavior which we see manifested in our opioid crisis, our polarized politics, our seemingly endless dissatisfaction with what we have which leads us to crave things we don't need. 

I have often heard people deride "participation" trophies as an indicator that we are getting soft, that we need constant reassurance and reward.  If only winning matters, then trophies for 2nd, 3rd, even last, seem ridiculous.  But what if competing, improving your skills, learning to function as a member of a team, and understanding that cooperation is the best formula for success is what playing is all about?  Then perhaps participation trophies aren't rewarding mediocrity, but are rewarding and recognizing the importance of the intangible lessons of team activities.  After all, the vast majority of our children who join local teams, will never be paid professionals, but will all (hopefully) contribute to society as parents, employees, coworkers, and perhaps even fellow volunteers, if they have truly learned the lessons of teamwork.

I have not read any of Iris Murdoch's works.  I know she was a British novelist and philosopher, born in Ireland, educated in England.  (Oddly, and I did not know this until I researched her a bit), Murdoch was influenced by Simone Weil, someone whose works I have commented upon in past posts.  I would like to think that Murdoch would not have recommended constant winning as a source of continuous small treats, but might have touted a rearrangement of one's perception of the definition of small treats.

When I was hitchhiking in my youth, I used food as a source of small treats/rewards, setting my goal for each day's travels, then eating a small meal once I had arrived at that location.  I still use food as a small treat, sometimes even a simple egg sandwich on the way to work.  Of course, the best small treats are those that do not require money. 

The silvery look of the tree branches after the first overnight snow.

The sun dipping just over the horizon, especially over water, and the colors of the sky which it leaves behind.

A lonely white cloud in an endless sky of blue.

A puppy bounding to the door when you arrive home.

The look of virtually any young child when you smile or wave at them.

A walk on a tree lined path, and the feeling of sun on your face when you emerge from its shade, then the coolness of the shade when you return to its protection from the glaring heat of the day.

Singing in the car, at full throat, as you drive, and seeing others do the same, especially when they stop in mid-song when they notice you hear them.

Winning at all costs is not just about the basketball player who looks to the sky every time he is called for a foul, but complains bitterly after every shot, claiming he has been fouled.  It is not just about aligning your self with the politician who will make sure your bank account grows, even though that growth hurts those not in agreement, or who look, worship, or love differently from you.  And it is not just about seeking dirt on your political opponent from foreign agents. 

Winning at all costs is a mindset that subordinates everything else to achieve a result, regardless of consequences to anyone who might stand in your way, or become a victim as a result of your success.

And, with its cousin, "winning isn't everything, it is the only thing", they combine to create a society in which the strong are allowed to take advantage of the weak, the powerful are allowed to pervert the rule of law, and the advantaged are allowed to take even more from the less advantaged, even while they equate their fortune as divinely blessed while those with less must be less deserving, even less loved by the Creator.

And then there are those who claim victory even when they have lost, so tenuous is their grip on their self worth and self esteem. 

My advice.  Seek small treats, especially those that do not require money, and lose every once in a while, graciously. 


Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The (Lost) Lessons of Scrooge

As I was reading more of the summer edition of Lapham's entitled Happiness, the thought of Scrooge from A Christmas Carol entered my mind, followed later by the concept of Christmas in July.  I imagine the various articles in Happiness which express the perceptions of chasing and achieving happiness throughout history, inspired me to think disdainfully at the American tradition of equating the acquisition of money and material possessions with happiness. 

I decided to Google Christmas in July and found some disturbing references to the Hallmark company in association with slow summer retail sales.  Yes, there was a more innocent and even altruistic, origin story, but the popularity of the tradition is securely rooted in the advertising industry, and the need for endless consumerism.

Unlike the hidden agenda of those who create our need for the new and improved, at least Scrooge is honest in his dislike of charity in general, and Christmas in specific.  His yardstick of what matters is clear, and anything that does not contribute to the advancement of his business and the fruits of his unwavering desire to accumulate money for its own sake, is hum bug.  Disliking Scrooge for his poorly developed priorities, often passes through to feeling sorry for him, especially when we see his unbridled joy when he discovers what is really important in life. 

Scrooge may represent the worst in us when we place possessions above people, but he also represents the idea that no matter how far down the path of materialism we might drift, there is a way back.

This does not seem to be the case for those who make conscious decisions to deceive the public for personal gain, whether that gain increases their purse or influence.  Is there a special place in hell for the wealthy individual who steals from the elderly by pretending to be a young relative in need of some money?  I would expect that most of us would condemn such a strategy, but when we don't generally ask how the rich became rich, when we don't seek a mechanism for evaluating wealth attained through hard work or stealth, or worse, then we condone all forms of wealth accumulation which are legal but immoral, or illegal but hidden from view by measures which great wealth can employ, or just plain horrific.

Today I received one of my 401K statements, the first half of the year now passed.  It is doing well, which should make me happy.  And, if I were to say that I was not happy, that would be disingenuous.  Hypocrisy is so easy to see in others but can hide behind many areas of our own lives. Surging retirement accounts, a record breaking DOW Jones average, and low unemployment are the main arguments for the success of the current Administration.  Being economically comfortable is by no means a small thing, as those who have suffered through past economic hardships will attest. 

Scrooge did not seem a happy person despite his wealth.  The scene in the restaurant where he declined a second piece of bread (I think), as it would add to the cost of his meal, demonstrates that he did not understand that money is a tool, not an ends.  Stories of rich people who have it all yet live unhappy lives are replete in our entertainment based media outlets.  Scores of studies have determined that happiness does increase with economic gain, but only to the level of what we might call upper middle class, incomes in the $80-120,000 range.  After that diminishing returns.

Happiness is full of excerpts and articles which tell us over and over again that accumulating wealth does not lead to contentment.  Yet, we buy lottery tickets in proportion to the size of the jackpot.  We excuse the immoral behavior of our leaders as long as our 401K is doing well.  We support the elimination of regulations that protect our air and water as long as there are job opportunities.  We deny the science of climate change because it might cause us to sacrifice a bit of comfort for the future of our species.     

They call them economic cycles because they include boom and bust.  We are experiencing a boom of historic length, 7 years under Obama, 3 under Trump.  We allowed our national debt to explode when the economy imploded in 2008, yet are ignoring the basic economic premise that we should reduce our debt in good times.  We tear up every year when Scrooge visits his nephew, sends the big turkey to the Cratchit's, and becomes the best man ever in the good old town.

The good news is that, like Scrooge, there is time to reject the soullessness of overt consumerism and rampant materialism, and realize that the business of people is the most important business of all.  Whether that realization will only occur from a visit from the ghosts of Christmas or the next economic downturn, or whether we can prioritize money and possessions somewhat lower than it is currently through a cultural shift in attitude about what is real and what is fantasy, is the question.