HARD TIMES ARE GOOD IF YOU LIVE THROUGH THEM – Marilyn Armstrong

Easy times, good times are not always the best times, at least not for creating a better world. When the world is running smoothly and turning sweetly on its axis, we are not building solutions to important cultural issues. Problems force solutions. Difficulties change society.

In the earliest years of what would later be called “The Renaissance,” the death of 25-million people resolved into a serious push to make the world a better place. Which is why I was sitting here thinking about the 1400s.

Not everybody thinks about the 1400s, but I do. Not only was it the time of the black death, it was a time when bands of terrorists roamed through Europe killing anyone they met. Inflation made money worthless. There was little of what we call “central government.” No congress, no government to address. Also, no roads, bridges, or books. And a whole lot of dying going on.

You know how Dickens said at the beginning of “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or something to that effect? This was the worst of times.

Beginning in the early part of the 1300s with the importation of the Bubonic Plague-carrying rats, Europe became a horror show. Unless you lived in Warsaw which for some reason was spared.

The bubonic plague hit the continent in the 1340s, arriving on ships from (probably) Constantinople. The Black Death swept Europe like a hot blade cutting through butter.

Beginning in 1346 and through 1353, the number of deaths is unparalleled in human history. Ultimately, the Black Death killed more than 25 million people in Europe. Remember too that the world was much smaller. 25-million people were the largest part of the human race.

More than half the population of Europe died in the plague and in some towns, it was 100%. In other words, everybody died. The forest grew back over lands that had been sown. Murderous gangs that had formerly been remnants of disbanded armies roamed throughout the continent. When most of the peasants died, everyone starved. No one remained to grow new crops.

A burst of invention occurred. The peasantry, always been the least valuable members of European society, suddenly achieved importance. So few people remained who were able to grow crops, it was not unusual for peasants to go from castle to castle to see where they could get the best deal for their labor.

The middle class grew too, while more than half the nobility disappeared. Between death by plague and war, and the abject poverty the Crusades produced throughout Europe, many families slid from the bottom of nobility to the center of poverty. By the 1600s, many former nobles were tilling their own lands.

The Wars of the Roses consumed England. The printing press arrived. Europeans took to movable type with enthusiasm. The press was created sometime between 1400 and 1455. Movable type swept the scribes away.

I’m sure someone was telling everyone that this whole “printing thing” would never last. It was probably someone running a school for scribes.

The 1400s saw the invention of:

      • The golf ball (1400) Hey, for some folks this is a big deal
      • The piano/spinet (1400)
      • The trigger/matchlock (1411) The handgun arrived in 1364. Before the trigger, it was ignited with an ember or another form of portable fire.
      • Oil painting (1420) The paint was invented long before this in China, but oil painting techniques (Rembrandt, et al) were 15th-century.
      • Hoisting gear (1421)
      • Spectacles/eyeglasses (1450) Possibly earlier.
      • Printing Press (1450-55) Johannes Gutenberg
      • Engravings (dry) (1465)
      • Muzzle-loaded rifle (1475)
      • Parachute (1485) Leonardo Da Vinci
      • The copyright (1486)
      • Bell chimes (1487)
      • The map globe (1492) This is also when Leonardo was pondering flight because he had a parachute, so you ought to be able to fly, right?
      • Whiskey (1494)

Sometime during this period, the moldboard plow was invented, turning agriculture on its ear. Deep plowing allowed real farming in areas that had previously been non-tillable.

Historians are still arguing exactly when the moldboard plow was invented, but it was sometime between 1350 and 1475. There was no official “inventor,” so it’s hard to set the date. It was more of a development by farmers until finally, someone got it right.

This might not sound like a lot to you, but the invention of the printing press was a bigger deal than the mobile phone or the computer or, for that matter, electricity and diesel power. It overturned the world. Made knowledge available to the many rather than the élite few.

Back when eyeglasses were really expensive, though they aren’t exactly cheap now!

Everybody drank whiskey.

The point is that times were really bad in the 1300s, only nominally better in the 1400s, yet by the 1500s, the world began to flower.
These terrible old days gave the world a kick in the butt and triggered the arrival of central governments. It elevated both the peasants and the middle classes. It advanced banking, industry, and art. Towns expanded and grew into cities. The building industry changed and expanded. Bridges were redesigned to enable better roads and better roads made it easier for people to take goods to market.

Everything changed, including religion because this also was the birth of Protestantism, though it was not called that until later.

Hard times create a new world. Our two world wars were what pushed Europe into modern socialism and the caring world that they now (or used to) embrace. I think a lot of people have forgotten that before the first world war, it wasn’t the post-war caring, sharing Europe. It was a bunch of rich nobles doing whatever they felt like to anything and anyone.

The world doesn’t advance when times are easy. When all is well, we get lazy. Comfort doesn’t force change.


I want to believe the current awfulness of our world will force us into great creative change and will ultimately improve this world. I don’t know if it is true because I don’t think I’ll live to see the future.

All I can do is hope for the best.

THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY by JAMES ZERNDT – Marilyn Armstrong

“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”

Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.

“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to headphones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.

“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.

KoreanWordForButterfly

There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.

It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed through lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices.  And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.

The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover, and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s the wrong in her life to have a baby and probably the worst possible place she could be.

She is far from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first-person narrators, both South Korean.  Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.

All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy, and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end, the pain is personal and remarkably similar for each.

There are no simple, happy answers.

It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me,  it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.

It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.

The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paperback and Kindle.

WOMENS’ ROLES IN JAPAN – CHANGE AND STAGNATION – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Many things have changed in Japan since WWII but many things have also stayed the same. This dichotomy is creating unwanted trends and having far reaching consequences for the entire country.

Certain cultural expectations have remained static over time. Employees are still expected to devote most of their waking hours to their company. Working past 10 PM is the norm and men are often expected to take clients out for drinks after work. Rigorous targets must be met in order to get raises and promotions. This culture of overwork even has a name – “death from overwork.” It’s been argued that this demanding work environment leads to inefficiency and low productivity yet it still has a tight hold on Japanese work culture.

Another social phenomenon that has not changed is that women are still expected to care for the home, children and elderly relatives. They are also still given onerous tasks that they must fulfill to adequately perform their roles in the home. Cooking, for example, is a major job for Japanese women. They must prepare numerous, small dishes for their families every day AND the school lunches that they must prepare for their children have to be works of art!

Dishwashers are not as common as in the U.S and neither are dryers capable of doing large loads. So most women have to hang wet clothes on clotheslines outside, which dramatically increases the amount of time needed to do a family’s laundry.

But this is just the beginning. American women would be horrified at the volume of paperwork women have to do, every day, for their children’s schools and day-cares.

That’s right. Pre-schools demand meticulous and voluminous daily journals documenting their children’s temperatures, what they eat, their moods, conversations, sleeping hours and playtime activities. The elementary schools and after school tutoring classes, ubiquitous for older children, also require that a parent corrects and approves every page of their child’s homework. Women are thus swamped with household and bureaucratic tasks at home, which affects their ability to work outside the home.

Japanese elementary school class

Here comes the change part – now close to 70% of women 15-64 have jobs. Nevertheless, the heavy burden of domestic tasks holds women back from advancing in their careers. They can’t put in the crushing hours men do when they are on the promotion track. As a result, almost half of all working women only work part-time and often the other half are on temporary contracts. This creates a huge pay gap between men and women and also a shortage of women in management-level jobs.

Only 1% of the female workforce is in management. Yet women who work more than 49 hours a week typically also put in close to 25 hours of housework a week. Men typically average less than 5 hours a week, even when their wives work too. Thus Japanese men do less housework and childcare than men in any other of the world’s wealthiest nations.

This rigidity of gender roles at home has ramifications in the economy and society. Japan’s economic status in the world has stagnated and China has overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. The Prime Minister of Japan has pledged to return the economy to steady growth, which means countering the severe labor shortage due to a declining as well as a rapidly-aging population. To increase the workforce and energize the economy, the Prime Minister’s goal is to elevate and increase women’s participation in the workforce. This initiative is called “womenomics.”

The problem is that for women to increase their impact on the workplace, everyone has to reduce the bruising hours expected at work so the women can begin to catch up to the men. In addition, the rigid and excessive demands on a woman’s time at home have to be reduced – and/or these tasks must be shared more equally by the husbands. But that would require a major change in social norms and entrenched gender roles, which is not likely to happen quickly.

However, social change is happening in Japan, just not in the way the government wants or society needs. The biggest trend in Japanese society today is the tremendous surge of women choosing not to marry at all! More and more women are rejecting the life of domestic drudgery that comes with marriage and parenthood and the concomitant drag on their career advancement.

The Japanese are exhausted most of the time

This is a problem because Japan is also suffering from a decline in population that politicians are frantically trying to reverse. The birth rate is the lowest it’s been since 1899 when record-keeping began. The economy can’t continue to grow if the workforce continues to shrink.

The statistics on women staying single are dramatic. In the mid-1990s, only 1 in 20 women in Japan had never been married by the age of 50. By 2015, 1 in 7 remained unmarried. In women ages 35-39, 10% were unmarried 20 years ago and now 25% are staying single. The number of couples getting married is at its lowest level since WWII.

There is some good news for the business world. A growing number of new businesses have sprung up to cater to this large market of single women. Single Karaoke Bars have women-only zones, restaurants market to solo diners, travel companies book tours for single women and photo studios offer photoshoots where women put on wedding dresses and pose for solo bridal pictures. There are even solo wedding ceremonies for women committing to their independence and their single, career-oriented lives.

Women no longer need husbands to ensure their economic security because if they stay single and avoid the cultural demands on wives and mothers, they can put in the hours to get ahead at work. They can also have the freedom to pursue hobbies, travel and cultivate large circles of friends. Many see this lifestyle as more rewarding than being stuck in the quicksand of the socially mandated gender role of wife and mother.

Until these domestic roles are redefined, Japan will see more and more women opting out of the domestic rat race. And the population will continue to decline along with the economy. I’m not sure how the government can mandate the kind of social change they need, but they may have to try. It should be interesting to watch how this social experiment works out.

THE LEISURE SUIT: THE LOST JOY OF POLYESTER – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Leisure Suits

Back in the 1970s, some clown decided that men were overdressed and need stretchy, comfortable clothing. And thus they invented the polyester leisure suit and to his immense embarrassment, Garry had one. I never saw it, but I know he bought it because he said so and what man would lie about a thing like that? He wore it to work, but I never saw it.

Maybe that is just a well.

Except Garry is such a clothes horse, he rarely admits it.

Leisure suits came in slightly stretchy polyester (throw in the wash, hang it and wear it) fabric. Light blue was very popular and some were truly indescribable.

I owned some clothing that was more than a little embarrassing, but I can honestly say I didn’t buy it. My mother made it for me. It was exceptionally well-made clothing, elegant clothing, but when I wore it I looked like I came from another planet. It didn’t improve my fragile popularity in high school, though it had a certain something by the time I got into college.

I never owned a leisure suit because, for me, a leisure suit means a pair of yoga pants and a sweatshirt. That’s what I’m wearing now. It’s what I wear. Most importantly, it’s virtually immune to dog hair.

PRIVILEGE AND ALCOHOL ABUSE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Since Brett Kavanagh, the Supreme Court nominee, now Justice, has been in the news, so have discussions about excessive drinking among teenagers. Apparently, there are studies that show that rich, privileged teenagers are more likely to abuse alcohol. An article in the Washington Post on September 28, by Suniya S. Luthar, is subtitled “Affluence is a risk factor for dangerous behavior.”

Brett Kavanagh

Psychological research seems to support the premise that excessive drinking is more common with affluent teens, like Brett Kavanagh, who went to an élite boarding school in the 1980’s. In fact, students in high-achieving, élite schools are at higher risk for drug abuse, anxiety, and depression as well as casual sexual activity.

Substance abuse in high school is not an isolated phenomenon. It is linked to serious drug and alcohol abuse in later life. This is clearly not only a teenage problem.

The studies show that the key risk factor for these wealthy kids is not money. It’s the extreme pressure they feel to succeed, to be the best and to live up to very high standards of accomplishment. This extreme pressure to excel produces high levels of stress and anxiety.

Another factor in this toxic situation is the attitude of the parents. The parents seem to be more lenient when it comes to transgressions by their kids vis-à-vis drugs and alcohol. They are willing to pay for high-priced lawyers to get their kids out of any legal trouble. However, these same parents would come down hard on their kids if they indulged in behavior such as truancy, academic slacking or inappropriate social behavior to adults.

The article warns that “When adults are sanguine about drunkenness and associated reprehensible behaviors among kids, there are potentially serious consequences for … an entire generation of young people as they form their own values about what is decent, what is excusable and what will simply not be tolerated despite the power and prestige of their parents.”

I don’t believe that all of this is inevitable. But I am biased. I grew up affluent in New York City and went to a high achievement oriented high school in the 1960’s. My school was not residential so we had a different culture and social matrix than a residential boarding school. Dorm life can be a strong influence on kids. I succumbed to the academic pressure and suffered from both anxiety and depression. But neither I, nor anyone else in my class of 120, drank heavily or regularly. (Drugs were not yet readily available so they were not an issue.)

Unreal dormitory life

My school was 95% Jewish, and at the time, the stereotype of Jews not drinking much was basically true. My parents never drank. Not even wine at dinner. They only served alcohol at dinner parties. So my experience may have been atypical. The fact remains that teenagers under pressure don’t inevitably turn to alcohol or drugs.

I have a friend whose son now goes to a prestigious, rigorously academic, coed, residential prep school in Connecticut. There is plenty of tolerance and support for homosexuality, gender fluidity, and gender switching. But not for blackout drinking or drug abuse.

The students (at least in my friend’s experience) are serious students into healthy living. His friends are multi-ethnic and multi-cultural and racial and there are many kids from underprivileged backgrounds. This melting pot may explain the straight, clean lifestyles.

It’s not all rich, white males, like at Brett Kavanaugh’s single-sex school. The peer pressure there to drink excessively and misbehave may have partially been a cultural phenomenon.

We need to get parents to be vigilant about their privileged children’s drinking and drug habits in high school. If we can’t reach the kids directly, maybe we can reach the parents who tolerate and finance their children’s excesses.

HARD TIMES ARE GOOD FOR YOUR SOUL, IF YOU LIVE THROUGH THEM – Marilyn Armstrong

Easy times, good times are not always the best times, at least not for creating a better world. When the world is running smoothly and turning sweetly on its axis, we are not building solutions to important cultural issues. Problems force solutions. Difficulties change society.

In the earliest years of what would later be called “The Renaissance,” the death of 25-million people resolved into a serious push to make the world a better place. Which is why I was sitting here thinking about the 1400s.

Not everybody thinks about the 1400s, but I do. Not only was it the time of the black death, it was a time when bands of terrorists roamed through Europe killing anyone they met. Inflation made money worthless. There was little of what we call “central government.” No congress, no government to address. Also, no roads, bridges, or books. And a whole lot of dying going on.

You know how Dickens said at the beginning of “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or something to that effect? This was the worst of times.

Beginning in the early part of the 1300s with the importation of the Bubonic Plague-carrying rats, Europe became a horror show. Unless you lived in Warsaw which for some reason was spared.

The bubonic plague hit the continent in the 1340s, arriving on ships from (probably) Constantinople. The Black Death swept Europe like a hot blade cutting through butter.

Beginning in 1346 and through 1353, the number of deaths is unparalleled in human history. Ultimately, the Black Death killed more than 25 million people in Europe. Remember too that the world was much smaller. 25-million people were the largest part of the human race.

More than half the population of Europe died in the plague and in some towns, it was 100%. In other words, everybody died. The forest grew back over lands that had been sown. Murderous gangs that had formerly been remnants of disbanded armies roamed throughout the continent. When most of the peasants died, everyone starved. No one remained to grow new crops.

A burst of invention occurred. The peasantry, always been the least valuable members of European society, suddenly achieved importance. So few people remained who were able to grow crops, it was not unusual for peasants to go from castle to castle to see where they could get the best deal for their labor.

The middle class grew too, while more than half the nobility disappeared. Between death by plague and war, and the abject poverty the Crusades produced throughout Europe, many families slid from the bottom of nobility to the center of poverty. By the 1600s, many former nobles were tilling their own lands.

The Wars of the Roses consumed England. The printing press arrived. Europeans took to movable type with enthusiasm. The press was created sometime between 1400 and 1455. Movable type swept the scribes away.

I’m sure someone was telling everyone that this whole “printing thing” would never last. It was probably someone running a school for scribes.

The 1400s saw the invention of:

The golf ball (1400)
The piano/spinet (1400)
The trigger/matchlock (1411) The handgun arrived in 1364. Before the trigger, it was ignited with an ember or another form of portable fire.
Oil painting (1420) The paint was invented long before this in China, but oil painting techniques (Rembrandt, et al) were 15th-century.
Hoisting gear (1421)
Spectacles/eyeglasses (1450) Possibly earlier.
Printing Press (1450-55) Johannes Gutenberg
Engravings (dry) (1465)
Muzzle-loaded rifle (1475)
Parachute (1485) Leonardo Da Vinci
The copyright (1486)
Bell chimes (1487)
The map globe (1492) This is also when Leonardo was pondering flight because he had a parachute, so you ought to be able to fly, right?
Whiskey (1494)

Sometime during this period, the moldboard plow was invented, turning agriculture on its ear. Deep plowing allowed real farming in areas that had previously been non-tillable. Historians are still arguing exactly when the moldboard plow was invented, but it was sometime between 1350 and 1475. Because there was no official “inventor,” it’s hard to set the date. It was more of a development by farmers until finally, someone got it right.

This might not sound like a lot to you, but the invention of the printing press was a bigger deal than the mobile phone or the computer or, for that matter, electricity and diesel power. It overturned the world. Made knowledge available to the many rather than the élite few.

Back when eyeglasses were really expensive

Everybody drank the whiskey.

The point is that times were really bad in the 1300s and only nominally better in the 1400s, yet by the 1500s, the world began to flower.

These terrible old days gave the world a kick in the butt and triggered the arrival of central governments. It elevated both peasants and the middle classes. It advanced banking, industry, and art. Towns grew. The building industry changed and expanded. Bridges were redesigned to enable better roads and better roads made it easier for people to take goods to market.

Everything changed, including religion because this also was the birth of Protestantism, though it was not called that until later.

Hard times create a new world. Our two world wars were what pushed Europe into modern socialism and the caring world that they now (or used to) embrace. I think a lot of people have forgotten that before the first world war, it wasn’t the post-war caring, sharing Europe. It was a bunch of rich nobles doing whatever they felt like to anything and anyone.

The world doesn’t advance when times are easy. When all is well, we get lazy. Comfort doesn’t force change.

I’d want to believe that the current awfulness is going to push us into a creative change which will ultimately improve our world. I don’t know that it will be true because I don’t think I’ll live to see the outcome of this world into the next, but I’d like to think that’s how it will go.

LIVING FOREIGN, BEING FOREIGN

The lack of sympathy for foreign-born immigrants in this country might have something to do with how few people in the U.S. ever lived in a different country. If you have never had to learn new customs, different cultural values, and another language, you probably don’t realize how complicated it can be.

With the best will in the world, not everyone learns a new language easily. Moreover, many customs are so ‘built in” to the way we interact with others, it can be hard to “unlearn” them. 

Smiling at strangers, for example, is very American. We do it automatically unless we are alarmed or frightened. In some other countries — Israel was one — a woman smiling casually at an unfamiliar man is considered a “come on.” Learning to not smile automatically is difficult. It’s a physical habit learned when we are very young.

I was also surprisingly bad at learning Hebrew. In almost a decade, I never became fluent. My son, on the other hand, was fluent in a few months. He had always been able to out-talk me in English, but a few months in Israel and he could out-talk me in two languages at the same time.

Israel was, overall, welcoming to newcomers. America, not so much. That makes everything harder for someone new to the country. Considering most non-Native people in the U.S. are immigrants or the children or grandchildren of immigrants — being nice shouldn’t be all that difficult. Remember your past. Remember your grandparents. Be civil and perhaps even a bit generous.

If you were never an immigrant, someone in your ancestry probably was. Being kind to those who come here from elsewhere should not be all a trial. Give it a try.

Hating foreigners is like hating yourself.