Archive for December, 2009

The Best Sledding Hill in the World – A Holiday Wish

December 23, 2009

As I fretted last night about our upcoming trip to see the relatives, my possible lack of preparation (meaning gifts), and then, invariably. about the whole meaning of our wildly commercialized holiday season, I decided to take advantage of our recent winter storm here on the east coast, and headed to our local sledding hill.

It was the best idea I’ve had in weeks.

My wife and I didn’t realize it when we were buying our home in suburban Washington, D.C., but one of the major perks of this particular location is the middle school a few blocks down the road, and in particular the hill on its north side. The D.C. area is not known for snow, and even less so as our climate changes, but when we are lucky enough to get it, the middle school is transformed into one of the best sledding hills in the world.

The hill stretches a good 150 yards wide. Neatly bisected by a single line of stairs, the western half of the hill is a series of large earthen terraces, made to provide seating for the games in the soccer field beyond, while the eastern half is a long, smooth slope. On a good day after a snowfall, you will find literally hundreds of local residents sledding here. Even at midnight on a weeknight you will still find a couple dozen folks, usually teenagers, hitting the slope.

Conditions were excellent last night, dangerously so for a man of my age and injury history. The two feet of snow that had fallen a few days ago had been packed hard by a innumerable sled runs, and as a result of daily melting and refreezing, the surface was icy slick. All those runs had also created a series of mogels, or small hills on the side of the long slope, not unlike ripples of sand left by waves on the beach; each of them offered the inattentive or foolhardy a chance to go flying through the air.

Like my lunatic godson who wants to learn the skeleton, and who was recently seen going headfirst on his skateboard down a local street (he had to promise his mom he wouldn’t put the video on Facebook), I decided to go headfirst myself, as it seemed to offer at least a small margin (or was it an illusion?) of steering control as I raced down the hill. The night was crystal clear and not too cold, and as I lay at the bottom of the hill, laughing and catching my breath, I gazed upon a panorama of twinkling stars.

But the best thing about a good sled hill is the people, and as noted above you are never alone even if you come by yourself. It occurred to me that being on the sled hill is not unlike being in a community garden: everyone is happy, friendly, and wanting to share the experience. It wasn’t long before I was asking one of the teenagers if I could borrow their (obviously superior) sled, and it didn’t take long after that for a couple of them to convince me that the best way to go was with the two of them piled on top of me. We made it halfway down before spilling off the sides, yelping and shrieking as we did. They then tried to convince me to go over the jump some of them had built. I told them how much my chiropractor cost.

Run after run, and standing in groups at the top, it was wonderful to listen to the teenagers that evening. In other circumstances, these could well be what we older folks would call sullen or cynical youth. But on that sled hill they laugh and cavort like, well, like kids. For that matter so do the young adults. So do I.

There was nothing particularly Norman Rockwell about this tableau. Plenty of cell phones and Blackberries were in evidence, and plastic sleds had largely replaced the trusty Flexible Flyer. It was just a group of people having some simple fun.

And also, probably as a direct result, a profoundly good time. With no money, with little or no equipment (some sled on pieces of cardboard), people of all ages come together to enjoy themselves in nature, and for a time, it becomes as peaceful and as joyous as any scene of a bygone America Rockwell ever painted. It is such moments that can transform us, and it certainly transformed my surly demeanor. It reminded me of the powerful joy that can come from being with our fellow beings – and of what these holidays should be about. It was a wonderful blessing, and a great way to start my trip.

May we all be revitalized by similar blessings in the year ahead. With my best wishes for your holiday season, and the new year, Gordon

Giving the Gift of Love

December 9, 2009

[The following commentary is featured in the December issue of the Silver Spring/Takoma Park Voice.]

The day after Thanksgiving saw a repetition of the strange ritual with which Americans celebrate the beginning of the holiday season: millions of us rush out to start buying things. Many even stand in line for stores opening as early as 3am, crashing through the entrance the second the doors are unlocked. At least no one was trampled to death this year.

As a youngster I had a much more benign view of the holiday season.  Of course I loved the presents, I even loved purchasing them for others with my limited allowance. I loved the twinkle of the lights, the smell of the trees, the wrapping paper, and the music.

But as a child, even a more-or-less secular one, what really moved me was the feeling of universal good will – the idea that during this one time of year, at least, we were actively encouraged to set aside our grievances and demonstrate our love for the people around us. The gifts represented that love.

Those gifts have taken on a different cast over the years. In addition to the increasing importance of their monetary value, they’ve also moved from being purely personal gestures to becoming an economic necessity. Last year and this one, especially, we are bombarded with messages that our national economy hinges to a large degree on how much we Americans spend between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. (“Black Friday” is so named because it’s the time many retailers start making their profit for the year, or go into the black.)

And for the second Christmas in a row, that outlook is not very good.

It wasn’t always like this. While it’s estimated that consumer spending currently accounts for about  70% of the U.S. economy, it wasn’t until shortly after World War II that consumerism became our national ritual and identity, and the engine of our economy.

This development was not an accident. Our government pushed increased consumption as the way to keep the economy perpetually growing and corporations happy. (And it still does – witness former President Bush’s advice after 9/11 that we all go shopping.) Industrial designers created the concepts of planned and perceived obsolescence, whereby we are convinced or compelled to regularly replace perfectly good stuff because it’s not as fast or big or cool-looking as the newer version, or because they’ve stopped making replacement parts for the older models. Advertising did their part by constantly telling us that we couldn’t be happy, or properly show our love for others, without buying more of everything.

So it has gone for the past half century. But there are some big, big problems with this economic model, and we are now bumping up against them. The ever accelerating rate of global resource depletion is one of them, and Americans are especially to blame: we comprise 5% of the world’s population, yet consume 30% of the world’s resources. (And it’s not just oil, but also forests, metals, clean water… you name it.)

Products that are cheap enough for us to buy but still make a healthy profit for the corporations can also take a terrible toll of social injustice, whether it’s prison labor making our Christmas ornaments in China, sweat shops producing our apparel in Mexico (and so many other countries), or the thousands of Congolese children who drop out of school to mine coltan, a mineral used in the production of cell phones, DVDs, video games and computers – and one which has helped finance ongoing war in Africa.

And where does all this stuff go when we throw it away, which we must do in order to keep buying new stuff?  Where is “away,” exactly? Plastic, which comprises so much of what we buy (as well as the bags we put it in), is a perfect case in point. Originally designed to last forever, which it pretty much does, plastic has nonetheless become the quintessential “disposable” material, and much of what we discard ends up in the oceans. Researchers estimate that the “Great Garbage Patch,” collected by currents in the northern Pacific Ocean, is twice the size of Texas and growing – and it’s only one of five on the planet.  Worse still, our personal trash and pollution pales in comparison to the amount put out by industries producing our consumer goods.

(For an excellent synopsis of these issues, watch “The Story of Stuff” by local activist Annie Leonard.)

The point of all this is not to feel bad about the holidays, but to think about the consequences of what we buy – to buy from local stores, not chains, to buy items produced with clean energy, and without unjust or downright criminal labor practices.

And ultimately, to buy less. We need to realize that our spending during the holidays will not jump start the economy out of recession because the problem runs much deeper than that.  The economic model of consumerism – of making more so we can consume more so we can make more so we can consume more – is not sustainable, not for human beings and not for the planet we live on. In fact, it’s largely responsible for our current economic situation, and asking an increasingly jobless, debt-ridden population to supercharge their consumerism for the holidays will only drive us further into debt while creating few if any lasting jobs.

Of course reversing our economic paradigm of the past 60 years will not be easy.  Americans still love to shop, and public policies still favor building new homes over refurbishing existing ones, and building new roads for more cars over mass transit. But the tide is slowly turning toward sustainability and clean energy, toward stewardship and thrift.

We can give these positive trends a boost during the holidays by buying consciously, buying less, and remembering that the gifts we buy are only representations of the love, which is what we all really want for the holidays. And you don’t need to buy something in a mall to give someone your love.

Your Nobel Peace Prize at Work

December 3, 2009

So now it’s official. President Obama is going to escalate the war in Afghanistan. (Or as some are calling it, Vietghanistan.)

Given the rapid increase of U.S. troops in that nation (remember, Obama already sent more troops there this past spring), and the creeping withdrawal of troops from Iraq, our nation will now have more troops in those two countries combined than at any time during the Bush Administration. Yee ha.

Ironically, President Obama chose to announce this war escalation only a week before going to Norway to pick up his Peace Prize. One has to wonder if the Nobel Committee is having second thoughts.

This war escalation is, however, just one of a number of military, intelligence and foreign policy decisions in which the change promised by Barack Obama has turned out to be more of the same, following the terrible policies of his predecessor.

As has been noted previously in this space, President Obama is continuing the Bush policy of renditions (terrorism suspects being shipped to secret locations overseas for “interrogation”), as well as the Bush policy of indefinite detention without charges (it will just happen at Bagram Prison in Afghanistan now, instead of Guantanamo Bay).  And here is another you might have missed in the lead up to the Thanksgiving holiday last week: it was announced that President Obama will also, like President Bush, refuse to sign the International Treaty to Ban Landmines.

This baffling, appalling decision puts us at odds with most countries in the civilized world, including all our NATO allies. And it is yet another indication that on a number of crucial issues, the Pentagon seems to be calling the shots.

To watch (or read) Amy Goodman’s interview with Stephen Goose of Human Rights Watch on Obama’s landmine decision, click here. (The video opens with a State Department spokesman who is delightfully confused, and embarrassingly unable to explain this decision.)

And for Jon Stewart’s mighty funny take on Obama’s new war strategy, including his channeling of George Bush and the speeches we would have all preferred to see, click here.

Keep your chin up!