Saturday, February 07, 2009

In search of our better natures

The other day I was labeled a “pompous ass” in a cross-posting tête-à-tête with a fellow blogger. My crime—calling attention to a spelling mistake he made while offering a critique of a best-selling author. I'll accept the charge.

His response that I should “lighten up” has been a refrain that I’ve heard throughout my life. My tendency to see things as they should be, versus how they are often accepted, has been a burden I’ve carried with me for as long as I can remember. The desire for people, organizations, and even governments, to respond in ways that reveal their better natures has been a theme I’ve pursued, not to be a killjoy, but because I think that anything we engage in is worth an honest effort, and a striving to be better.

For much of my life, the irony of my tendency towards criticism in others was an inability to respond to critique in my own life. As a result, while much of what I brought to the attention of bosses at work, family members, coworkers, and even so-called religious authorities was honest in its revelation of mistakes and their obvious misdeeds, the inability to “remove the log from my own eye” often diminished the force of my appraisal, or exposition. It also probably contributed to others disliking me, or at least thinking I was a “pompous ass.”

Part of the reinvention that’s become my life the past decade has been a much more honest self-appraisal, as well as a tendency to tone down, or take more time reflecting, before launching a missive about the shortcomings of others. Occasionally, however, I can’t help myself and my snarky side gets the better of me.

It is my opinion that Americans (I speak of America, rather than the world, because that’s the geography that I know experientially, which is what I know best) struggle with self-reflection, particularly if that mode is introduced via the critique of others, regardless of how constructively, or how gentle the spirit with which it is offered. The past eight years, Americans have been able to look into a national mirror, as our own president has modeled that inability to admit mistakes, reconsider actions, and learn from his imperfections.

We’re at an interesting juncture as a nation. The sins that have been magnified, and have had a deadly affect upon us, physically and psychically—greed and pride—have visited an economic calamity on many Americans. There are few, in fact that haven’t been affected in some way from the crisis that is rooted in a belief that things were going to continue to get better and better, in every way.

Nowhere is that point driven home more powerfully than in Florida. George Packer, in this week’s New Yorker, has an article, aptly titled, “The Ponzi State,” because the state’s entire building boom, and development feeding frenzy, was built upon a growth machine that was entirely propped up—not by higher education or high-paying professional jobs (or even the production of goods)—but by an unsustainable model of real estate, and sunshine; basically the selling of Florida. As one of Packer’s subjects, David Reed, an investment fund manager said, “Our growth is all about population growth. When you take that away, what have you got?”

It’s interesting how Florida epitomizes the politics and economics of the past eight years so accurately. A state where low tax rates have been elevated to holy writ (Packer points out that Florida is only one of nine states in the U.S. without a state income tax). For the purposes of balance, I will point out that California, with the nation’s highest income tax is also experiencing economic difficulties of a somewhat different nature. In addition to no state income tax, former governor, Jeb Bush, gutted the taxes levied on corporations, and financial transactions, through exemptions and loopholes. As a consequence, the state is swimming in red ink now that the bottom has fallen out of the real estate market.

I remember in March of 2003, sitting at a ball field in Homestead, Florida, watching our son’s (it is Mr. EDY that I owe my New Yorker subscription to--nice when our children know us well enough to select perfect gifts) college baseball team during his freshman year, and seeing clouds of dust off in the distance. Later, after the game was over, curious about the dust plumes, my wife and I rode out the access road, cutting through the middle of what had been a swamp teaming with god knows what just five years before, and found not one, or two new subdivisions, but literally, 20 new housing complexes, with signs advertising homes from $99,000 to $200,000, all with exotic names, sitting on swampland that was being filled in by the dump truck load, with houses going up the next day. I’m sure the values of these homes doubled, or even tripled over the next few years.

The following two springs, Mary and I boarded a jet and left winter behind for 10 days, when we became spring training baseball gypsies following our son, and the Wheaton baseball squad, while domiciled on Clearwater Beach. When we weren’t at ballgames, we drove the surrounding area, in and around neighboring Hillsborough County, one of the counties that Packer writes extensively about. Since the tournament that Wheaton was playing in was the Tampa Bay Invitational, some of our games were played in downtown Tampa, at the University of Tampa.

One couldn’t help but be amazed at the high rises dotting the downtown skyline of Tampa. Coming from the north, and having spent time in an ancient (in American terms) like Boston, and even Chicago, Tampa had the feel of having risen overnight. Gleaming glass and steel was everywhere. There was this palpable feeling of vigor and I imagined this is what pioneers might have experienced when they made their way west, 150 years prior. I recall having discussions with my better half about possibly leaving our cold winters, and sluggish economy behind, and join the millions flocking to Florida each year, in search of gold. Packer’s article drove home the point that we were wise, or maybe our own lack of the financial means to up and leave Maine probably worked in our favor.

Personal growth requires the ability to face up to one’s faults, and find ways to transcend them. Sometimes that requires admitting that the same way of doing things has never worked, so change becomes the requirement. Not many people enjoy coming face to face with their shortcomings. I don’t know any other way to grow as a human being, however, than to embrace change, and self-improvement.

I wonder if by extension, a national plan of self-improvement might also be possible.

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