PILGRIM’S PROGRESS?

Some thoughts on Thanksgiving by Suzanne Sparrow Watson

I have spent much of my time the past few months writing the history of our family.  My research has taken me to places that I never expected to go. For example, the Napa State Hospital for the Insane where our great-grandfather was housed in 1900.  But that aside, most of our relatives were fine, upstanding people. In fact, a few weeks ago I discovered that we are related to 5 of the seventeen families that came over on the Mayflower. 

I’ve been reading a lot about our relatives, the Pilgrims, and have been reminded of facts I’m sure I learned in school but had long forgotten.  The journey was 66 days long and quite perilous during the latter half of it.  When they landed in Plymouth in November of 1620 there was no reprieve from the cramped confines of the ship.  Most of the passengers had to live on board while the first housing structures were built. The quarters were small to begin with and were not enhanced by two months at sea with no bathing or washing of clothes.  In fact, one of the first things the men did when they landed was to cut down juniper trees to bring on board in an attempt to improve the odor.  Those close quarters and the brutal New England winters caused much illness and disease.  Half of the original passengers died that first winter.  When spring arrived, the remaining crew members eagerly set sail and returned to England.  But the Pilgrims stayed on in Plymouth and continued to build their village.  By the next year, in November of 1621, they celebrated their first bountiful harvest with the native population and that meal has come to symbolize Thanksgiving.

So armed with all of this new knowledge I decided to really celebrate Thanksgiving this year.  My first stop was Target where I went in search of some kitschy decorations – a wreath, a turkey candle, maybe even a Pilgrim hat.  No such luck.  Thanksgiving was relegated to an end post on one aisle.  I was lucky to find an accordion turkey and a paper tablecloth.  Apparently that is the extent to which Target wishes to celebrate the day.  It was the same scenario in store after store.  Somehow we have turned into a society that goes directly from Halloween (a money-making holiday) to Christmas (another money-making holiday).

I think the people who struggled so greatly to establish the first colony in this country deserve a bit more respect.  Would it really be so bad if we focused a bit more on gratitude and a little less on greed?  We could start with Congress and then move on to the Target merchandising department.

Happy Thanksgiving!

HOLLOW HALLOWEEN

An opinion…by Suzanne Watson

I read the other day that Americans will spend $6.9 billion on Halloween this year, more than any other holiday except Christmas.  The head of the National Retail Association says that Halloween is now a “season”.  I guess I should have known that, what with all the paraphernalia that is evident everywhere from the grocery store to Ace Hardware.  But when did this happen?  When did Halloween turn into something that – like Christmas – the retailers have taken over and completely exploited?

At the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney, it seems like Halloween has gotten much too complicated.  When I was a kid Halloween was simple.  Costumes were cobbled together from things found around the house – a sheet with holes in it for a ghost or towels pinned around the neck for a Superman cape.  If one was really lucky you had a grandparent with a glass eye so you could borrow their patch for a pirate costume.  The occasional kid bought a plastic mask at the five and dime but that was thought to be phony and close to cheating.  The fun of Halloween was using our imagination to come up with the cleverest costume.  We proudly marched in our school parades and vied for the prize for best costume.   Yep – they gave out one award.  We didn’t get a ribbon just for participating.

On Halloween night, we were let loose in the neighborhoods near us with a battle plan that would have done justice to an Army general.  We plotted out which houses to avoid – those that gave out hard candy or fruit – and which to hit first.  The lady around the corner was always our starting point because she made delicious popcorn balls.  Then we progressed to the homes that dished out candied apples, divinity, brownies, and fudge.  We never gave a thought about eating food that had been prepared by someone we didn’t really know.  It was all home-made, lovingly wrapped up in waxed paper or aluminum foil, and it was scrumptious.

These days Halloween has turned into an extravaganza – or in the words of the retailers – a “season”.  At my local Target the part of the store that hasn’t already been turned into a Christmas wonderland is dedicated to over-the-top Halloween displays.  And our Hallmark store is a complete freak show.   There are strings of lights to put on the house, special Halloween gift bags and toys, a Pin the Tail on the Cat game and aisle after aisle of decorations and party favors.

According to the article, adults are increasingly participating in this holiday that was once the domain of children.  I suppose we should have seen this coming.  People are in need of an escape these days and what better way to suppress your anger about your 401K than to dress up like one of the Angry Birds?  Still, it seems like this should be a holiday for children, not another excuse for mom and dad to dress up like fools (we still have New Year’s Eve for that).

But the real change is that so many kids no longer trick-or-treat.  Now the trend is to have home parties.    I know that there are more risks today and that the world is full of scary people, but I still find it sad that kids miss the fun of going house to house.  Because no matter how great the favors are from Target, it can’t be as much fun as plotting routes, knocking on strangers’ doors and being rewarded with popcorn balls.

Selfishly, I miss seeing the kids come around each year.  I miss asking them about their costumes and providing the appropriate response when they twirl in their princess dress or growl in their werewolf mask.  I still buy Snickers bars each Halloween in hopes that someone will come by, but inevitably they end up in my freezer.  Eventually my husband and I eat them and I end up doing extra time at the gym.  Halloween – and my metabolism – are both different these days.

THE SCARIEST HALLOWEEN IN YEARS

A commentary by Bob Sparrow

It’s that time of year, a time for scary things.  Here are some things that are scaring the shit out of me this Halloween.

  • Our government  Never have we been so polarized.  We see our government not trying to do what’s right for the American people, but making sure the other party doesn’t get credit for doing what’s right for the American people.  If you want to start an argument, just take a right or left position on a subject and you will very quickly see a ‘house divided’.  Our government is broken and no one seems to care, much less know how to fix it.
  • Politicians (Obviously I’m not done with our government yet!)  Today’s
    politicians from both parties are first, self-serving, then party-serving and rarely, if ever, think about 1) serving the people in their constituency, and 2) doing what is best for the country.  Our Social Security program is not good enough for them; our health care system is not good enough for them.  Get them on the same programs as the rest of us, get them term limits and get them out!  They are the problem they’re pretending to fix.
  • Our position on illegal aliens  What don’t people get about the word ‘illegal’?  We have always been a nation of laws, except when it comes to this issue.  It is now considered to be prejudicial and politically incorrect (another scary thing) to try to up-hold the law regarding this problem, because it is primarily directed at the Hispanic community.  Bull shit!  Illegal is illegal.  We have good immigration laws, it’s scary that we don’t enforce them.
  • The dumbing down of America.  Perhaps it’s because modern technology has exposed more, but wow, are we stupid!  People don’t read anymore, they get their news, thoughts and cultural enlightenment from reality TV and celebrity
    tweets.  It’s scary how important what Lindsay Lohan and Kim Kardashian are doing.  Our commitment to education is best demonstrated by the ever-widening
    gap between what we pay our professional athletes and what we pay our teachers.
  • Retirement.  It’s turned me into a sedentary curmudgeon.

 What’s scaring you this Halloween? 

Use our ‘Comments’ section to let us know.

“Is Stephanie Alright?” – A 9/11 Experience

Sunday, September 11, 2011                                                                        By Bob Sparrow

     I was awakened by a phone call at around 6:20 a.m. on September 11, 2001.  It was my mother-in-law from Minnesota; she asked, “Is Stephanie alright?”  I said something like, “I guess so, why?”  She said, “Turn on the TV, there’s been a bombing in New York.”  My heart sank.  My daughter, Stephanie was living in New York for the past several years; she had recently graduated from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and was pursuing a Broadway career.

     After turning on the TV and trying to comprehend what was happening, I immediately tried to call Stephanie on her cell phone.  Of course, there was no cell phone service available in New York at that time.  I called her apartment several times and finally got through and was able to talk with her roommate.  She told me that Stephanie had gone into Manhattan that morning for an acting class, but assured me not to worry, that the class was in ‘mid-town’, not ‘down town’ where the bombing had taken place.  I wasn’t assured.  All kinds of scenarios raced through my head placing Stephanie ‘down town’.  As it turned out, she was indeed on a subway to her class in Greenwich Village, which is ‘down town’!

    I continued to call Stephanie’s cell phone even though I realized there was little to no hope of getting through – I just had to do something!  I called her roommate about every 20-30 minutes to ask if she’d heard from her.  She had not.  I was experiencing this American tragedy in a very personal way.  While I was shocked at what I was hearing and watching on television, my overriding concerns were not about who did this to us and why, but rather where is my daughter and is she alright?

     Five agonizingly long hours pass; at 11:30 our phone finally rings.  At that time we didn’t have ‘Caller ID’, so we didn’t know if it was Stephanie or someone calling us to tell us some news we didn’t want to hear.  When that familiar, though audibly shaken, voice came on the phone and said, “Hi Dad, I’m OK”, I cried and found something to be happy about on that tragic day.  She later related her experience to me.  She was on a subway heading to Greenwich Village that morning, but the subway stopped prior to getting there and she was stuck underground for about a half an hour before it came to a station and she got out.  She came up from the subway and saw people standing in the middle of the street staring at the towers of the World Trade Center which were engulfed in smoke.  Soon after she joined them she saw the first (north) tower collapse.  She hurried over to where her acting class was meeting and ended up sitting with the class for several hours, listening to the news and trying to figure out what was going on.  She then decided to try to get home.  She was fortunate enough to find a cab that would take her only as far as mid-town, where she got out and went to Houston’s, the restaurant where she worked, looking for a familiar face, but found that it was closed.  An eerie feeling pervaded mid-town, but it had not turned to panic.  She was determined to get back to her apartment in Queens, but with no public transportation operating, she joined the throngs of people walking out of Manhattan across the Queensboro Bridge.  On her way home she saw thousands of people already queuing up to give blood.

     She was understandably shaken by her proximity to this horrific event, and when she came home to California for Christmas three months later, she decided to stay.  She has returned to New York several times over the last ten years and enjoys all that the ‘Big Apple’ has to offer, but will never forget that day ten years ago when she witnessed history.

SMALL MOMENTS – A 9/11 TRIBUTE

Saturday, September 10, 2011

by Suzanne Watson

Her message was my wake-up call.  She inspired me and changed my life forever.  And I never met her.

Melissa Harrington Hughes died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  She didn’t work there; she was on a business trip for her San Francisco-based technology firm. She was an extremely accomplished 31 year old, who had traveled the world and had recently married her sweetheart, Sean Hughes.

Many people remember her, and him, for the harrowing telephone message that she left him minutes after the building was struck by the plane.  In that message, she said, “Sean, it’s me. I just wanted to let you know I love you and I am stuck in this building in New York. A plane hit or a bomb went off – we don’t know, but there’s a lot of smoke and I just wanted you to know I loved you.”

The first time I heard Melissa’s voicemail, Sean was being interviewed by Chris Jansing on MSNBC.  Ms. Jansing completely broke down upon hearing it.  Clearly, Melissa’s final words resonated with a lot of people.  The internet site dedicated to Melissa filled with posts from people who were touched by her story.  I was among them. Somehow, with all of the tragedy of that day, her story stuck with me above all of the others.  But why?

Partly, I think in some ways I could relate to her.  I was working for a large financial institution at the time and had spent all of my life, and most of my career, working in San Francisco.  One of my positions required that I visit our businesses in New York in the Trade Center, so I had also taken business trips to the towers.

When the buildings collapsed I thought about all of the people that worked for my company.  We lost three employees that day, but I didn’t know any of them.  She was the one that stood out for me.  Her beautiful wedding picture taken up in Napa, close to where I grew up, became seared in my brain as it was shown repeatedly over the next several days.  But it was more than the pictures; it was her message.

In her voice I could sense so many of her emotions: fear, panic, bewilderment.  But mostly, in her final minutes on earth, she wanted Sean to know that she loved him.  I thought about her, and all of the people that died that day, who went off to work as they normally did.  Kissing a spouse or child good-bye, grabbing a cup of coffee, making plans for the weekend.  And none of them came home.  Plans and hopes and dreams were gone in an instant.  Sean Hughes said that he and Melissa were excited about their future and talked about all the things that newlyweds do: moving to a new home, getting a dog, having children.

Her final words to Sean started me thinking about my own life.  My husband had taken early retirement in 1996.  He wanted to travel, spend time with our new grandson, and enjoy time with friends.  I had wanted to continue working.  But I kept thinking about Melissa’s message.  What if that had been me?  Is that how I would want my life to end, without ever having enjoyed what my husband and I had worked so hard to build?

The weeks following September 11 were frightening and incredibly busy for me.  My division of the company had locations throughout the United States and for weeks after the twin towers fell we received bomb threats in major cities. I had an office on the top floor of our Los Angeles headquarters and I jumped every time I  heard a plane or helicopter go by.  After a month or so, I began to feel like this would all pass and that life would get back to “normal”.   But then I thought about Melissa.  Life doesn’t get scripted.  Although the odds of me being killed in a terrorist attack might be low, there were still no guarantees that I could escape a car accident or a terminal illness.

So in the first week of November, when all of the initial frenzy had died down, I told my boss that I wanted to resign.  We negotiated that I would stay until March 1, which I did.  I have never regretted that decision and would not trade all of the memories and experiences I’ve had since then for any amount of compensation I gave up.

Judith Viorst once wrote that it is the small moments in life that make it rich.   Melissa made me realize that I needed to grab the small moments while I could; that sitting with my husband every morning, sipping coffee and watching the news, is a gift.

So to Melissa Harrington Hughes: thank you.  Someday I hope to get back to the new trade center memorial where I can touch the steel engraving of your name.  And in the hollows of those letters, we will finally be connected.

I’M LABORING OVER UNIONS

Note: On holidays, and other occasions as they strike us, we will divert from our normal rhyme and post opinion pieces.  Think of it as our two cents.

Monday, September 5th

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York.  For those of you who have never heard of it, 146 women either died in the fire or jumped to their deaths because they had no means of escape when the fire started.  You see, the managers had locked all of the stairwells and exits so the women were trapped in their workroom.  This incident, appalling even in the day of railroad barons and cigar-smoking tycoons, helped spawn the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, or ILGWU, as it is known.  If ever a situation warranted a union, this was it.

In 1932 my father graduated from high school and, because of the Depression, felt grateful to land his dream job – working for a newspaper.  The price of admission?  Joining the International Typographical Union.  He did so reluctantly, as he was not a big believer in unions, but a job was a job in those days and he could ill afford to turn it down.  Over the next 40 years, even when he was a newspaper owner and thus considered “management”, he paid his ITU dues.   When he decided to retire in the early 70’s he contacted the ITU to claim his retirement pension, only to be told that the pension funds had been “poorly invested”.  It didn’t take a genius to interpret their actions – the ITU had stolen my dad’s pension.   After all his years of contributions, his monthly annuity was a meager $75.

Fortunately, beginning in the mid-70’s federal and state employment laws began to emerge to protect workers.  Regulations were passed regarding everything from the minimum wage and pension reform to gender and race discrimination and equal access for those with disabilities.  The EEOC developed into a powerful and influential government agency. To some extent, labor unions were at the heart of getting these baseline entitlements passed and as a result, the workplace became a much fairer, albeit legal, environment.

At the same time, most American companies were defining their culture and values which invariably covered how employees were to be viewed and treated within the organization.  Were there still some rogue managers who treated people poorly?  Absolutely.  But now there were clear-cut procedures for employees to follow within their own company to seek resolution.  For those companies that practiced unfair or abusive treatment, employees could seek assistance in another venue – the American justice system.  And the EEOC assured protection from any sort of retaliation for doing just that.

So what is the role of unions today?  To gain better wage and benefit packages?  If so, one might say that they have overshot their target.  Companies with unionized workers state that union contracts have caused the price of products to skyrocket and have resulted in them becoming uncompetitive.  Auto manufacturers, once the bread and butter of the U.S. economy, cite that the union compensation packages result in an increased cost of $1500 per car.  In many of our traditional industries, we are seeing massive layoffs due to the complete closure of manufacturing plants and an increase in the number of companies moving jobs offshore.

If their role is to provide job security, they haven’t been terribly effective.  The fact of the matter is they can do nothing to stop corporations from moving factories and call centers to other countries.  This is partially due to a U.S. tax code that effectively rewards companies to move jobs offshore.  And partly we are now in a world where we have to compete with other countries that target some of our time-honored manufacturing bases.  That is globalization, whether we like it or not.  For those of us who have been stuck in a circular conversation with someone working in a call center in India, I acknowledge that it isn’t always a pleasant reality.  But it IS reality.

In the final analysis, unions have failed to recognize that the U.S. economy has changed and the skills needed for today’s workplace along with it.  The jobs that have been shipped overseas are most likely not coming back.  There ARE jobs available in the U.S., but they require a different skill set than in the past.  Are unions ready, willing and able to re-train their members so they can better assimilate into this new work environment?  Or have unions outlived their usefulness?

Finally, for those of you old enough to remember, the ILGWU used to have a catchy commercial on TV requesting us to “look for the union label”.  If you’ve never seen that label, it’s because all of our clothes are now made offshore.

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