Big Box Ethics

Caveat Emptor: Buyer Beware.

Responsible consumers are supposed to always make sure they got the true deal. That’s why I watch Star Market cashiers with a keen eye: markdown prices taped to the peanut butter or dry bean shelf rarely correlate with the register amounts; whereas I rest easy at grocery Nirvana: tasty morsels, Hawaiian shirts, consistent pricing, and hipster geniality all align at Trader Joe’s.

The bigger the box store, the more carefully I keep an eye on the tab. But at my most frequent haunt, Home Depot, sloppy errors more often occur in my favor. Which leaves me to ponder: what is my ethical responsibility to call out mistakes made by the orange clad serfs of a faceless corporation?

 

A recent example of Home Depot oversight is a doozy.

I’m overhauling the dark, dank basement of my rental apartments; space I own yet rarely enter. My initial idea—clean out and hang new lights—quickly morphed into removing a dilapidated plaster ceiling, repointing the foundation, insulating the floor plenum, ditto the heating ducts, constructing workshop shelves, adding service receptacles, and installing counters next to the washer and dryer. Oh yeah, I also replaced the lights.

I decided to staple house wrap to the underside of the joists to create a clean ceiling plane and keep the insulation in place, all on the cheap.

A major trip to Home Depot requires several hours. Finding a rolling cart, finding the merchandise, finding a salesperson, getting stuff unloaded from up high, scribing a special order or two, and then checking out: it’s remarkably difficult amidst the gaggle of aproned guys whose bestest skill is avoiding eye contact. I loiter patiently until eventually they wait on me.

The store has everything I need this round, except for the house wrap, which I order. Thirty coils of batt insulation will require three round trips between home and Home Depot. The manager waves the first load through; half an hour later, the second; then, the third. I shake my sheath of papers toward him, “Do we need to check anything off?” “No, I’ve got ya.”

A week later I am e-notified that Home Depot has my house wrap. I return to the store. The display has several rolls of Tyvek (165 feet for $63.00) but none of the generic Everbuilt brand I ordered (100 feet for $28.00). I track down a sales guy, show him my paperwork, he walks me to the display, points to the Tyvek, and says, “Take these.”

What is my ethical responsibility here? Do I tell this guy that I ordered the shorter, cheaper house wrap, or just take four rolls he offers? Expedience governs. Although I would be happy with the $100 worth of house wrap I ordered, I exit the store with $250 of product instead. I don’t feel good about it, but neither am I responsible to monitor Home Depot’s own orders.

The following week, I get another email from Home Depot, announcing that my entire order is ready for pick-up: the insulation, the house wrap, the lumber, everything; $2800 worth of material. Apparently the manager never checked anything off during three round trips of loading goods, and so I am invited to pick it all again, gratis. I am tempted: free is a very good price.

Another week goes by. I get a personal phone call entreating me to pick up my order. When I tell the sales guy I have already taken all my merchandise, he is perplexed. What perplexes me: how does Home Depot stay in business?

 

 

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Statutes of Limitations

Does criminal behavior carry an expiration date?

I recently wrote, in regards to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, “I have reservations about how we apply 2018 standards to 1980’s adolescent behavior.” A reader who objected to that statement (“…young men in the 80’s knew when they were crossing the line…the white male privilege was unbounded. Every woman…has a story…about being assaulted or bullied or coerced or manipulated sexually…”) inadvertently proved my point. I am not condoning the behavior, nor denying its criminality. I am simply stating it was common at that time and rarely held consequences for the perpetrators.

Since then, some laws may have changed, but social standards have changed even more. Although the past week has illustrated that we are far from parity with regards to sexual dynamics, we are trending in that direction. Regardless what guys got away with in the past, I’d like to think that today harassment is not tolerated, that assault is prosecuted.

But what is our responsibility to address the past? Three imperfectly aligned forces are at play: law; social custom; and moral truth.

Our legal system prescribes statues of limitations that restrict how far back one can reach to bring charges against another. There’s merit to this idea; people’s memories are fallible, evidence fades, evildoers reform. But there are also problems. The statue of limitations often expires before victims most traumatized by sexual crimes of power can gather the strength to accuse.

 

Societal norms usually evolve ahead of the law. There was a time when it was okay, in certain societies, to burn accused witches, chop off heads at public executions, define women as property, lynch Black men, gas Jews, taunt homosexuals, spank children. Although these actions may still occur, they are no longer socially acceptable.

Moral truths offer the most steadfast barometers of our species. When transgressed, they supersede mere statutes. Nazi war criminals were extradited, tried, and convicted decades after their atrocities; their crimes so horrific they eclipsed legal time limits. More recently is the movement to remove the statue of limitations in cases of sexual abuse by priests. Advocates argue that since the victims were young and the Catholic Church devoted so much time and money to covering up the crimes, time limits should be set aside.

People in power determine the laws, and how those laws get applied. When the power dynamic shifts, either abruptly—as in the case of Nazi Germany—or gradually—as in the ascendance of women’s rights—behavior that was once tolerated becomes unacceptable, illegal, even punishable. Yet we have no consistent way to punish the perpetrators or alleviate the victims. Admitting guilt and asking forgiveness is a logical starting point, although in our era of deny, deny, deny; even that is difficult to obtain. Reparations are an option; I’ve heard cogent arguments from African-Americans advocating that means to redress slavery. But making the grandson of the slave owner pay the grandchild of the slave flies in the face of the Biblical admonition that “the son shall not suffer the iniquity of the father” (Ezekiel 18:19-20). But perhaps it should … since the father’s sin established the social and economic advantages that the son enjoys.

The legal statute of limitations to try Brett Kavanaugh in a court of law for his accused harassment is long passed. Instead, he has been tried in the court of public opinion where, because he aspired to a position of exalted authority, behavior that was ‘common’ despite being illegal should not be overlooked. Was this fair? I think so. Supreme Court justices make judgment over us all: they are exempt from any statute of limitations. We can demand of them a higher standard.

But the court of public opinion cannot convey clear verdicts, and its results satisfy no one. Brett Kavanaugh has been damaged, a bit. Some will consider his punishment insufficient, others will portray him as the victim.

Because 1980’s society dismissed harassment and assault as ‘boys being boys’, especially among privileged white boys, and 2018 society confirms that the most effective response to any past allegation is denial, Justice Kavanaugh will never receive a conclusive judgment, his accusers will never receive even an apology, and society will never shape a unified story of these events.

I am certain that, even in 1980, the boys in question knew this behavior was wrong. But they also knew they could get away with it, well past the statute of limitations, all the way to the Supreme Court. It is too late to convict them of their crimes. But in elevating Brett Kavanaugh, Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, and others missed a key opportunity to set a higher standard; one that the highest court in our land deserves.

 

 

 

 

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A Chink in the Wall of Deny, Deny, Deny

Democracy creates strange bedfellows. This morning our precarious system of justice got a one-week reprieve thanks to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a soft-spoken, earnest professional woman; two strident protestors who blocked a US Senator in an elevator; and a lame duck Mormon with five children and a shred of conscience. Their actions motivated a one-week delay in the once-speeding Brett Kavanagh Supreme Court approval train.

As the #METOO movement has unfolded, one pattern has held true: men who apologize are pilloried (bye-bye: Al Franken); men who deny remain in power (still here: Donald Trump). But this morning despite Kavanaugh’s testimony, loud and angry as any white man who, methinks protesteth too much, we have hit the pause button. We’re going to try to dig a bit deeper than the usual he-said, she-said.

Life was so much simpler when our nation began. White men got to vote. White women didn’t. At least they got counted as 100% human. Slaves were a mere 3/5 of a person. The world’s self-proclaimed ‘most noble’ government has always been rigged, but at least back then the calculus was clear.

Now—in theory—women vote, slaves are free, and #BlackLivesMatter, but more than two centuries into our democratic experiment, white men still yield outsize influence. So much, in fact, that as long as they repeat a mantra of deny, deny, deny they hold on to power, regardless how many allegations pile up against them.

Perhaps, the FBI probe will demonstrate nothing. Kavanaugh will be appointed to the Supreme Court, and all that Dr. Blasey Ford and the elevator doorstops and a recalcitrant Mormon will have achieved is a short delay. That result would not alter the direction of the highest court in our land; merely tarnish its conceit to represent all. Still, delaying the ‘business as usual’ of the white guy juggernaut is a victory in and of itself, and the week delay will leech through other veins of our septic politics: to elections, protests, and greater civic engagement by people who have been shunted aside.

Possibly, and more likely every day, Kavanaugh will step down; or our President, quick to turn on anyone he considers a loser, will withdraw the nomination. In that event, the chink in the wall of deny, deny, deny, will be big enough to undermine the foundation of the white guys in charge.

I am a white guy. I have reservations about how we apply 2018 standards to 1980’s adolescent behavior. I dislike the politicizing of our Supreme Court, though from Robert Bork to FDR both parties have dirty hands. I disdain the haphazard, accelerated process Mitch McConnell has pursed to appoint Brett Kavanaugh, especially in light of his obstruction to Merrick Garland.

 

Still, these reservations evaporate in the face of Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony versus Judge Kavanaugh’s. Two perfect exemplars of the fundamental conflict in our nation. Regardless of your politics, in our hearts, we all know who spoke with the highest authority. A calm and responsible woman with nothing to gain called to question an angry white man with everything to lose. Amen to that.

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Let’s Put on a Show!

Three years after I began my bicycle odyssey throughout America, the voices of the folks I met took center stage at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at the first public staged reading of my new play, How Will We Live Tomorrow? The stories, the songs, the voices made for an enjoyable, and thought provoking evening—as well as another round of revision and polish.

How Will We Live Tomorrow? is now available for workshops, readings, or full performances across the country. Watch this three- minute You Tube trailer of our recent reading. Pass it on to anyone you know in theater. Let’s put on a show!

How Will We Live Tomorrow? Trailer

 

 

 

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Different Flow for Different Ages

I love disco. 125 beats per minute, seamlessly melding from one song to the next. The DJ stirring the crowd into a frenzy, soothing us down to take a break and sip our 7&7, then whipping us right back up again. Dance floor nights in the go-go 70’s are among my favorite memories. Memories rekindled at Napoleon Club’s Josephine Room in the 90’s, and The Donkey Show throughout the twenty-teens, the only place left for a middle-aged man to spin and twirl and still be home by ten.

By my mid-century mark, as my dancing waned and my running gave out completely, yoga became my preferred form of movement. Hot, Hatha, Iyengar, Vinyasa, all good. Yoga revitalized my creaky body and, in time, my restive mind. It even triggered this blog, named for one of my favorite poses.

I still practice yoga, several times a week, but rarely write about it anymore. Not because I’ve figured it all out. Rather, because the niche it serves in my life doesn’t trigger the tensions inherent in the awkward pose. Until it does.

I eschew all things fancy, including boutique yoga. I take classes at my gym, the same place I lift weights and swim. ‘Gym yoga’ is different from studio yoga: more exercise-y, less meditative. None of which matters to me. I lay my mat out in a corner and follow the sequence the teacher announces, more or less. Since I breathe slow and deliberately; I am never in sync with others. Sometimes I achieve meditation; sometimes I just move my body. I’m not slavish to the instructor’s prompts, yet I like going to class; I almost never do yoga at home.

 

By and large teachers of ‘gym yoga’ talk too much. They give too many directions, offer confusing options, and use too many metaphors, as if afraid of the silent sound of simple breathing. Many unspool creative sequences; some possess deep yoga understanding, but they all err on running active classes.

‘Randy’ is a profound practitioner, with inventive poses that build in logical sequence to a clear theme. Yet her class almost never induces the hyperconsciousness that defines meditation. Randy talks at length about matching breath to movement. But she doesn’t actually teach it. She says the words, ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’ without the timing that actually corresponds to mindful breath. She’s easily distracted by a given student, and then altogether abandons the flow of the class.

I have figured this out, and I work around it. I fill in her gaps by moving in my own methodical way. But sequencing myself requires conscious effort. And conscious effort blunts flow. And flow is what elevates yoga over mere exercise.

Sometimes we learn things by their absence. Since I rarely plateau in Randy’s class, I have been thinking about the elusive nature of flow; how similar conditions induce flow in some but not others, or induce flow sometimes but not other times. Releasing our minds is difficult. We have to be in a secure place. We have to transcend external stimuli. We have to be able to access the noise inside our heads, in order to sort it through. Yoga rooms are ripe for mediation. So are private sanctuaries. So is bicycling across the plains.

 

Then I realized: discos are also great places for meditation. True, they’re noisy, but the noise is a predictable, steady beat. The insistent pound penetrates our heads and puts us in touch with our internal thoughts. Eventually, the noise drives thoughts away. Discos induce flow, for sure. The euphoria I achieved by ‘Night Fever’ is the youthful equivalent of the centeredness I now find in satisfying yoga classes. One is not better than the other; only better suited to different times of our lives.

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Why are We Here?

Today, I ask my readers a question. “Why are we here?” As a guy who takes Plato’s advice that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’ to an extreme that only privileged folk with time on their hands can unspool, I think about this often. Probably too much. Yet, in truth, I have no answer.

 

I think there is something bigger than us, call it god if you like. But I don’t think it demands our adoration and certainly don’t think it has the human characteristics most religions ascribe to their creators. Gods who resemble us are nothing more than a narcissistic failure of imagination.

Why are we here? inevitably leads to circular reasoning. We are here to procreate. Check. We are here to care for each other. Check. We are here to care for the other creatures of the earth. Check. All great notions to keep us purposefully busy; to weave a net of connection. They help us direct the process of living, but don’t explain the foundational reason for us to exist in the first place.

Was Sally Bowles right: are we just here to have a good time? Did Schweitzer nail it with selfless service? Do monks, men of moderate emotion, have insider knowledge? If so, then why do I feel so much all the time? Good, bad, hot, cold, hungry, full, anxious, content, I get so tired of feeling, always feeling.

Science is exquisite at enumerating ‘what’ and describing ‘how.’ That’s why I believe in science. That’s also why I believe science is insufficient. ‘What’ and ‘how’ can explain but they cannot illuminate. We are creatures driven by ‘why.’ And as far as I can tell, our ‘why’ remains elusive.

 

If you know why we are here, please fill me in.

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Oligarchy 101

How often do we read an article or website and fly through words without really knowing their meaning? Very often. It’s a lot of work to know the exact definition of every word and assess how accurately it’s used in a particular setting. But every now and then, a word pops out at me and I realize—hey—I don’t really know what this means. So, I take the time to ferret it out.

Oligarchy. It’s a Russian thing, no? So it must be bad. Google defines ‘oligarchy’ as, “a small group of people having control of a country or institution.” The Silicon Valley elite includes no implied judgment in its phrasing. Merriam Webster, however, raises alarm: “a government in which a small group exercises control, especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.” Doesn’t that describe Russia to a T!

Searching for one definition inevitably leads to others. Call it the oligarchy variations. Aristocracy (government by noble heredity) is out of favor in a world swirling in egalitarian-speak. Kleptocracy (those in power exploit and steal) is always bad. Plutocracy (government by the wealthy) stings our populist sensibilities. Technocracy (government of technical experts) is appealing in this mechanized age, until one considers Travis Kalanick and Mark Zuckerberg’s recent incompetence. Perhaps a meritocracy (government based on ability) is the way to go, though who establishes merits’ measure? Self-appointed experts, to be sure.

We can ascribe a different slant to these descriptors, but any variation of government by the few leaves a bitter, elitist aftertaste. Unfortunately, words that describe single rule are even more repugnant: absolute monarch, autocrat, dictator, despot, tyrant.

Our spin-savvy age is tuned to terms with a distinct democratic-leaning, especially when applied to ourselves. A republic is a state in which the people and their elected representatives hold supreme power. That would be us, except perhaps for the corporate perks ensured by Citizens United. A democracy is a system of government by the whole population. Surely that’s us, except maybe for discriminatory voting restrictions.

Then there are the various ‘isms. Capitalism is about private ownership; socialism is about shared ownership; communism is about central ownership. What about fascism? Extolling the virtue of the nation-state over the individual, often along racial grounds, has no place in these United States. Except maybe at a rally in Charlottesville.

Examples that reflect every one of these terms for organizing society exist right here in the US of A, often to misleading ends. Undocumented workers, with few protections, are the collateral damage of pure capitalism. North Dakota electric cooperatives are a beloved form of pure socialism in a deep red state. There’s a vast difference between a dictionary definitions and how words are applied in practice.

I could fly to Russia to encounter oligarchy in practice. Or, I can simply take Amtrak to D.C. to witness “a government in which a small group exercises control, especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.”

 

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