Saturday, September 15, 2018

A Visit to the American Cemetery in Normandy – Pilgrimage All Americans Should Undertake

I recently visited the American Cemetery in Normandy, France, and as I stood in the middle of a field of white crosses and Stars of David spread out under an American flag flapping in the wind, the enormity of the loss of lives that began during the D-Day invasion – June 4, 1944 – overwhelmed me. I always knew that thousands of soldiers died, but being surrounded by their graves provided an astonishingly powerful perspective.
Anyone who remembers the emotional opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan will recall the reaction of the aging veteran who walks onto that field and is shaken by the sight of so many graves. As I turned perhaps the same corner and saw the stark white monuments, I started taking tenuous steps forward and felt as if I were holding my deceased father’s hand for comfort and support, just as I did when I was a little boy.
Long ago my father visited the grave of one of his friends – his next-door neighbor – after the war, and took a picture to send home to his friend’s mother. Dad stayed in France until 1946, utilizing his fluent French to work with the forestry service to recover undetonated bombs. He never imagined that the makeshift cemeteries that he saw at that time would become this magnificent tribute to those fellow soldiers who gave their lives.
In part my visit to the cemetery was for Dad, but I also realized how much it was for me. I was fortunate that my father came home, but so many did not, and I wanted to pay my respects to them – to all of them – for my father and for me. Because of those brave souls, the Allied Forces triumphed over an unimaginable evil and saved the world.
The 172.3-acre cemetery overlooks the beaches where the Allied Forces came ashore that fateful day. It would be easy to look across those white sands to the beautiful blue water of the English Channel and forget why I was there; the view was so alluring, but turning around and seeing those graves spanning off in all directions helps to keep things in focus.
Earlier that day I started my pilgrimage on the sands of Omaha Beach, where so many perished that day not only as they stepped off the landing craft but even as they were still on board it. My father was not in the first wave of landings, but as I stood there I wondered what he was thinking as he came off the craft into the chilly water and saw so many of his fellow soldiers dead on the beach and in the surf.
Now children ran in and out of the small waves as I studied the shining war memorial on the beach. Les Braves, created by French sculptor Anilore Banon, depicts three elements: The Wings of Hope, the Rise of Freedom, and the Wings of Fraternity. It is stark and visually interesting, its stainless-steel glistening in the sunshine, and its purpose is to honor “the brave” who came ashore that day to bring freedom back to a continent crushed under the weight of Nazi oppression.
I stood there and closed my eyes, hearing the wind and the children’s laughter, and it seemed that was more than appropriate because those lost on this beach were fighting so that children had something to laugh about and could enjoy life as children should be able to do.
I turned and walked up to the second monument above the beach, my wife and kids following me quietly. This monument commemorates the Allied Forces landing on this shore to liberate Europe. I said a prayer for the dead and felt as if our coming here meant something to those lost. The actual act of visitation is a way of honoring them for their sacrifices for us.
Then we got back in our car and drove to the American Cemetery which is about five minutes away from Omaha Beach. Just walking from the car to the entrance of the visitor’s center gave me a feeling of awe and gratitude. The visitor’s center is a modern facility – opened on June 6, 2007 – that provides exhibitions of related military material and artifacts and displays pictures of some of the 9,386 soldiers killed in the Normandy invasion.
On the lower level there is a theatre and visitors have an opportunity to view films that focus on the D-Day invasion and the soldiers involved in it. The one we watched included the reading of letters home from soldiers who are buried here, and it is virtually impossible not to shed tears as you hear their stories and see their young faces. My children were in awe that the these “men” – many of them 18 – were only a little bit older than they are and were in such a dangerous situation.
Upon leaving the visitor’s center there is a long pathway with the Channel and the sandy beaches visible below. Birds flew above the path and some chirped happily in the trees. It is an idyllic setting that somehow tricked my mind momentarily until the sea of white tombstones came into view, reminding me of why I was there.
The bright white crosses and Stars of David against the meticulously kept green grass provides a stunning sight, and as an American flag rippled in the wind coming off the water, I felt deep gratitude to the men interred beneath my feet but also to France and its people for this sacred place on its soil.
There is also a beautiful chapel in the center of the grounds where we stopped and said a prayer for the dead. A walk down the Central Mall took us to the Memorial and Wall of the Missing – with 1,557 names listed  a stark reminder that there were those lost whose bodies were never recovered after the invasion.
Our visit to the cemetery was emotional, moving, and extremely memorable. My kids will not soon forget the things they saw here, nor will they take for granted their freedom to live life the way that we do. It is a lesson in humility and the nature of sacrifice – so many people pressing forward into a fierce battle so that their loved ones and others could be free.  
Later that day we returned to our hotel in the Bayeux, a lovely little French town not far from the cemetery. That evening we walked the streets, did some shopping, and enjoyed the marvelous cuisine. My daughter remarked that it reminded her of the village from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. There was an air of impossibility in thinking that such a peaceful place had once been scarred by war.  
That night as we all got ready to go to bed, I thought about my Dad and felt he knew we had come there and had paid our respects and was happy that we did. In his later years he had expressed a wish to go back to France but it never happened. I had come to Normandy for him and for me but most of all for my children, because D-Day and the war are long over and many of the men who fought here either died in combat or passed away later on, but their story goes on and we owe it to them to be sure that it is always told.
My children will tell Papa’s story to their children one day and no doubt go back to Normandy with them. All Americans should make it a point to visit the American Cemetery in Normandy at least one time in their lives to show gratitude and pay respects to those lost in the invasion. Because of them we live the lives we live – free to search the Internet, go to school, watch any TV channel we wish, travel wherever we want to go, and think for ourselves. When we see an American flag flying outside our children’s schools, we should remember those soldiers resting in that field in France and thank them because a different flag might be there if they had not done what they did.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Enduring Myth of Endless Summers

As I turned the calendar page to September yesterday, I made a little joke about how it was my favorite month, and my kids reacted predictably with groans of horror and consternation. I told them I was only kidding, but they sulked off to corners of the house to brood as their “free” time period – I count 77 days which is a nice chunk of freedom – is almost over.

When I went upstairs into my son’s room, I noticed that he had turned his Charlie Brown calendar to September. This month features Snoopy, Woodstock, and friends with the caption “Happiness is a new adventure.” I wouldn’t expect Charles M. Schulz to rub salt in my kid’s wounds, but my son had already circled the first day of school in red crayon and gave it an unhappy face.  So much for school being a new adventure I guess.

Ah, how bold my kids were back in the middle of June when their school doors closed and they were unleashed to what at the time seemed an endless summer. School clothes were thrown in heaps and out came shorts and tees and flip-flops. They were hanging loose because it was summer time and the living was easy.

That was then but this is now as they say – their sad faces staring at the word September on the calendar no doubt with images of books, an apple for teacher, and the words Back to School dancing in their heads. Reality – cold, ugly, sadistic as it may be – had hit them like a sucker punch.

Of course, I too bought into the myth of endless summers when I was a kid. I was old enough to enjoy The Beach Boys’ classic album Endless Summer when it debuted, listening to all their great songs like “Surfer Girl,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Catch a Wave,” “I Get Around” and so many more that could be considered anthems for summer. The album seemed to make the listener think that life was not only a beach but that summer could go on forever.

On the morning of the last day of school, I’d crank up Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and savor every line, most especially the one about school being out forever. Later that day I’d run home with my mind racing as I thought about what I would do first – or even think about doing nothing at all. That was so enticing and exciting – a notion that nothing needed to get done or be handed in or studied.

When I think back on my summers as a kid, I can recall sitting on the porch in the early mornings reading some great books. I didn’t need an airplane to get away someplace when I had stories that could take me all over the globe or even into outer space or under the sea or to the center of the earth. I treasured those mornings with the wind blowing through the windows and my dog resting against my feet.

The rest of my summer days were filled with the swimming, playing baseball, hanging out with my friends, watching Mets games, and my favorite thing – doing nothing at all. I liked sitting on the beach and just watching the waves, the sun and blue sky above, the seagulls swooping toward the water, and the boats way out near the horizon. I can still feel those moments, so peaceful and precious now, and the best thing was it was before cell phones and laptops and the only thing that connected me to the world was a small radio tuned to my favorite rock station.

Like most myths, endless summer has some basis in truth – we yearn for it and it comes; we hope it never ends, yet we know it always will. Alas, my endless summers always faded. My Mom would turn the calendar page just as I do now, and she would circle the box for the first day of school. I guess I thought it was cruel, but she would draw a smiling face there – unlike my son’s sad one. Actually, Mom loved having us home but also was realistic about things as we were not. I wanted to put off third grade forever, but those thoughts quickly faded as I walked through those school doors so sheepishly – the same ones I had dashed out of so happily months before.

Each school year I can understand how my kids feel because I went through it too. There is still a desire in me now to drag out the summer as long as possible – but now it is because they are home and can be with me the way they cannot be during the school year.

Later in the day as we sat down for lunch yesterday, I reminded my kids of the great summer they had this year. We took a wonderful trip to Europe, and before and after that we had days of going to the pool and beach, attending a great Fourth of July party with fireworks, seeing some of the biggest summer movies, and doing what is still one of my favorite things – simply nothing at all.

One of my best memories this summer was laying on our lounges next to the pool letting the day slip away. My son and I just stared up at the clouds and watched them float slowly by. One was a dragon, another a lion, and so on. 

Then along came a long thin cloud and my son said, “Doesn’t that look like a pencil, Dad?”

I didn’t mention that perhaps that foreshadowed going back to school, but instead I said, “You know what? I think it looks like a snake.”

He studied it and said, “Yeah, it is a snake,” and then his endless summer continued unabated.

This Tuesday the endless summer myth shatters once again, its shards falling silently into the stuff of memories. We will recall all that we did but, as the hectic schedules of work, school, and after school activities commence, it will be easy to forget that happy time as we become subsumed with being on the clock again.

After I go back to work, I will stop myself at some point in time each week and think about our summer. This year I will smile as I picture us walking through Disneyland Paris with my kids’ faces beaming under Mini and Mickey ears. I will remember the scorching heat as we waited on a long line to meet Darth Vader – the Sith Lord from Star Wars who does not give autographs. I will think about sitting in Notre Dame and seeing the kids stare up at the vaulted ceiling in awe. I will remember the reverence they showed at the American Cemetery in Normandy, and the joy as they ate their gelato in the quaint town of Bayeu. I will remember our time on the beach in Cascais, Portugal, and the cool nights walking through Lisbon as if it were a dream. I will think about our watching the Fourth of July fireworks display, going to the beach, swimming in the pool, and watching great flicks. Most of all, I will remember being on that lounge by the pool with my son using our imaginations to make clouds whatever we wanted them to be.

In this way our summer will be endless in our memories, and there is always next summer to dream about. For now, I’m going to listen to “Surfin' Safari” and recall those summers of long ago that still play out in my mind as if they were only yesterday, making them endless summers indeed!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Movie Review: ‘Christopher Robin’ – This “Pooh” Tale’s the Antidote to Growing Up

Christopher Robin, Disney’s new Winnie-the-Pooh reboot, is designed for both adults and kids, providing a cautionary tale for grown-ups and a call to enjoy childhood for all its worth for the children. Director Marc Foster, along with writers Alex Ross Perry and Tom McCarthy, have crafted a film that is faithful to A.A. Milne’s wonderful characters and yet revises them in a clever and entertaining manner that is delightful.
There have been other movies such as Polar Express and Toy Story 3 that have explored the fraying connections between childhood and adulthood, that sad region when dreams start to expire and reality smacks us in the face. It is a most solemn realization that the wonder and imagination that once filled us as kids slowly evaporates, almost to the point that we can no longer recall how we managed to have so much joy from playing.
Foster’s Christopher Robin wisely does not explore the life of the real child, whose father created the most beloved characters of Winnie, Tigger, Piglet, Eyeore, and the rest based on the boy’s stuffed toys. The real-life Christopher’s story includes boarding school and serving during World War II, but afterwards veers off in a direction that would make for a much darker film.
We first see a young Christopher (Orton O’Brien) getting set to attend boarding school. Pooh (Jim Cummings) and the gang are having a party for the boy, and it features a typical round of silliness from the characters, with exquisite CGI making each one seem like realistically stuffed yet magically animated toys. I don’t think it has ever been made more obvious the Pooh and company are toys that come to life.
Once Pooh and Christopher go off together to say true a goodbye to one another, the sad unmistakable feeling of separation hovers over their conversation, and the truth of a parting that is possibly permanent is even suggested by Pooh, who asks if Christopher will forget him. Christopher scoffs at the notion and says, “Silly old bear” in a way that feels more final than it is meant to be.
We then get a flash forward with a cool turning of book pages to indicate Christopher’s move to boarding school, the death of his father, his meeting future wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), his service during the war, and so on. It is a slick device to bring us up to the present moment in the storyline (which is set in 1950s London) when the now adult Christopher (a terrific Ewan MacGregor) is the efficiency manager of a luggage company and has allowed his work to negatively affect his relationship with Evelyn and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichel).
During what is insinuated as yet another hard day at the office, Christopher is told that he must work the weekend and find a creative way to save money; otherwise, jobs will be lost and people will suffer. Although Christopher has plans to take his wife and daughter away for the weekend – to the very cottage where the gateway to The Hundred Acre Wood happens to be – he accepts that he must work in order to try to save the people in his department.
This is the first of a series of complications for our protagonist, as his wife and sweet daughter do not accept that Christopher cannot go off for the weekend. When he attempts to explain the situation to Madeline, she tries to understand and asks her father to read a book to her before bed. Christopher thoughtlessly picks up an encyclopedia and begins reading to her to prepare her for her own trip to boarding school, while she disappointedly hides Treasure Island under her pillow.
Once Evelyn and Madeline are off in the car to the cottage, Christopher tackles the task at hand and generates a plan after hours of work. On his way home he sneaks into a park to avoid an annoying neighbor, and here he encounters his childhood friend. Somehow Pooh has traveled from The Hundred Acre Wood through a tree into that London park.
Pooh encounters London with child-like fascination, while Christopher is overcome with emotion and awe that his old toy Pooh was not a long-ago figment of his imagination. MacGregor seamlessly interacts with Pooh and the rest of the gang, and the comic timing he once displayed playing Obi-Wan Kenobi is at the forefront here, and his flair for comedy is one of the highlights of the film.
Of course, MacGregor plays the titular character, but this is still a “Pooh” story, and all the beloved characters get a chance to shine, and brightly at that. Tigger (also voiced by Cummings), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), Roo (Sara Sheen), and Owl (Toby Jones) are all there and are a joy for parents and kids alike, but the most outstanding character is Eyeore (Brad Garrett makes every line a comic gem), the ever-depressed donkey who will make you burst out laughing.
Pooh somehow drags Christopher back to The Hundred Acre Wood in a quest to find his friends. For some reason they are all missing. The Hundred Acre Wood also seems sinister, shrouded in an eerie fog that makes one fear heffalumps or woozles will be hiding behind every tree. Besides being an effective visual, it also indicates the state of Christopher’s mind, clouded up after all these years and making him unable to appreciate life as he once did.
The rest is spoiler territory, and it would be unfair to ruin the fun of experiencing the film. The big questions to be answered are where are Winnie’s friends? Can Christopher help him find them? Will Christopher’s plan save the jobs of the people in his department? And, most importantly, can Christopher repair his relationship with Eveyln and Madeline before it’s too late?
The film makes one thing clearly understood – growing up sucks, but we don’t have to allow that to happen, even though the world seems to be saying “Grow up!” from the moment we are born. As Pooh and company work their magic upon Christopher and the audience, it is difficult not to want to be a kid again.
As someone who grew up loving Winnie-the-Pooh books and then having children who loved them too, Christopher Robin strikes all the right chords, with Pooh and his friends reminding us of what is important in life. I recommend that if you have children that you go see the film with them; the discussions you will have afterwards will make you glad that you did.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Broadway’s 'Pretty Woman: The Musical' – Seems Inappropriate in the #metoo/Time’s Up Era

If you are of a certain age and remember going to see Pretty Woman with the luminous Julia Roberts and falling in love with her like I did, you may have silly notions that a new Broadway musical based on the film would be a good thing; however, 1990 is a long time ago and a good deal has happened since then that makes the idea of a play featuring a prostitute who falls in love with a billionaire (who happens to be her client) more than a bit incongruous considering the current events of the past two years.

Pretty Woman: The Musical stars Samantha Barks in the role that made Roberts famous. I am not sure how faithful the play will be to the Gary Marshall film (based on the reviews I've read it seems that it will be), but the story is that Vivian Ward is a prostitute who meets super rich Edward Lewis (Andy Karl in the play, Richard Gere in the film) and snags an extended job as his sexual partner and companion. It all seemed so simple when I first saw the movie, and the film succeeds due to the chemistry between Roberts and Gere, but now thinking about it there is a salient truth – Lewis pays Vivian for sex and companionship. Since he is paying her she is technically an employee, and Lewis uses that dynamic to take advantage of Vivian physically and emotionally. 

I recall the film being compared to a Cinderella story – as far as I remember Cinderella had to clean, cook, and serve her evil stepmother Lady Tremaine and her stepsisters as an unpaid housekeeper. When she does meet Prince Charming no money exchange occurs, though she does leave a glass slipper behind for him which will be the clue to help him find her.

Other comparisons have been made to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady (two films starring the incredibly wonderful Audrey Hepburn), but even if you make some connections to the love story in the former and the makeover of Eliza Doolittle in the latter, there is nothing at the heart of those films as ugly as prostitution. Yes, Holly is an “escort” to wealthy men, a New York socialite hoping to snag a rich older man to be her husband, but it is implicitly understood that Holly is more in charge than the men whom she is entertaining.

The problem with Pretty Woman – that Vivian is a hooker and it is a dangerous profession – has always been there, but we drank the critics’ Kool-Aid and went with the notion that this is romance and we were okay with that because in the end Lewis does fall in love with her, brings her flowers on the fire escape, and stares up at her like an older Romeo looking at his Juliet on the cast iron balcony. Audiences bought it then but aren't they too wise to buy it now?

In this era of #metoo and Time’s Up, where women have been sharing their horror stories of men abusing them and sexually harassing or attacking them inside and outside of the workplace, it surprises me that anyone on Broadway thought it was a good idea to develop this musical in the first place. Can you picture the meeting where someone said, “Let’s put on a musical version of Pretty Woman.” What were they thinking?

I know there will be those people who look at the film and the play and evaluate things differently. They will say that Vivian is in the power position, that she chooses her clients and is in charge of her body. No one can tell her what to do or not to do. There will even be others who say prostitution should be legal anyway (as it is in some foreign countries) and what is the big deal?

The problem is that prostitution is a dangerous business; female prostitutes are subject to drug abuse (about 70% use drugs), physical and emotional abuse from customers, obvious health risks, and death (they have a 40% higher death rate than other women). Pretty Woman the movie (and I suspect the play as well) glosses over these glaring problems in favor of making it a comedy and a love story.

So why is this play on Broadway? The answer is obvious – the bottom line is what matters. Judging from generally positive to glowing reviews the play is receiving and the recognition factor of the title and association with warm memories of the film for many people, Pretty Woman: The Musical is probably a lock to be Broadway’s next huge hit. Whatever puts people in those expensive seats, right? The show will also no doubt rack up a slew of Tony Award nominations next year.

I do not plan on seeing the play because it feels inappropriate at this time, and I am certain other people will feel the same way. Unless the show handles Vivian’s back story and highlights the extremely negative effects of being a sex worker, there is no reason to see this play through rose colored glasses that hide the pernicious truth at its core.

In the end the box office will tell the tale, and I have a feeling that Pretty Woman: The Musical will be a huge success. As for me, I’d rather go see Beautiful – a story about a powerful and independent woman named Carole King who was ahead of her time. Now that is a show for this and every other era.    

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Gear Wars – May the Shorts Be with You!

Gear Wars – May the Shorts Be with You!

As a general rule, I wear shorts from the earliest days of spring until the frost is on the pumpkin. This means I can enjoy about an eight to nine-month period of going out in comfort. There is nothing better than going out and feeling an extra spring in my step because I am wearing shorts. Shorts are the best gear for basically everything – walking, running, playing sports, traveling, attending ballgames, and going out to eat.

Unfortunately, I cannot wear shorts to work – most of us cannot – and there is nothing more unbearable than wearing pants on a hot day. There are also those special occasions where shorts will not make the cut. I am going to a beach wedding later this summer, and how I wish that I could get away with shorts and an Hawaiian shirt, but decorum does not allow for that.

If you did not know it, there are objections to people – particularly men – wearing shorts. Writer Fran Lebowitz says, “Men in shorts are disgusting.” It turns out she is not the only one. Apparently, there are a number of other women who have similar feelings.

I have experienced several negative situations about my wearing shorts – incredulously even from a complete stranger. One time I took my son into a children’s clothing store and a shopper who was an older woman looked me up and down and with a sneer asked, “Do I have to see your legs?”

Believe it or not I said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” Later in the day I thought about this incident and became angered at myself for apologizing. Every person should have a right to self-expression, and an important part of that is the clothing that one wears.

What my shorts say about me is that I am in summer mode as much as possible. I like wearing shorts because I connect them to free time, and shorts allow me to have comfort when I want and need it. Of course, I’m not going to wear shorts to the opera at Lincoln Center or a concert at Carnegie Hall, but I certainly wish that I could get away with it.

I do realize that there are some strong feelings about shorts and even a somewhat established etiquette about wearing them. These so-called rules are a bit of a bummer, yet I try to observe them, but feel they stem from a gear wars mentality – why is what someone else is wearing something to fight about? The problem is finely tailored suits are all about rules, while shorts are all about breaking them.

Cargo shorts are my favorites because of what most other guys will agree is their best feature – pockets, lots of pockets! I really do not wish to walk around with my things in a bag and prefer not carrying a backpack. Cargo shorts allow me to put all my stuff in the pockets and walk about with my hands free. The best part is that they have a tech pocket that’s just perfect for my phone.

I know a few people in my family who are not so crazy about my cargo shorts. While I still wear them and withstand their comments, one thing I did take into account was my pair of camouflage shorts. I did like them but they hated them with a passion, so they now languish in the bottom drawer and function as my painting – indoors only – shorts.

Of course, what would summer be without the most essential shorts of all – swim trunks. I love putting them on and heading out to the pool or beach. Absolutely nothing feels like freedom better than that.

I support anyone wearing shorts, and this summer I have seen as many women wearing shorts as men. I don’t know why every man, woman, and child is not wearing them during these scorching hot days.

Everyone should be able to wear shorts everywhere they go, and my great idea that I will send to Invent Help is the Shorts Suit – I’m aware that someone has probably already thought of this, but a guy can dream about spreading the word about shorts freedom and making a little money too. Either way, men and women could go into the office being as comfortable as if they were sitting on a beach and sipping a margarita.  

Come on, America, let’s end these gear wars now. It’s time to throw away your pants and slip on a pair of shorts. Celebrate summer and your freedom from walking around with hot legs. Who cares if people don’t like it when we wear shorts?

It’s summer and the hottest days are yet to come, so go out there in a pair of shorts and enjoy every minute of it.

Oh, and may the shorts be with you!

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Americans Need to Take Their Vacation Days

When Americans celebrated the Fourth of July in the past, they used to do so by taking some well-earned vacation days. It makes sense to add the days to a week when they are off for the holiday; however, many people are no longer doing that. They work the day before and after the holiday, and many more are not taking any vacation days at all.

According to a recent report, Americans failed to use 662 million vacation days last year. That is an astronomical figure and highlights the problems in our society – we don’t know how to kick back, relax, and enjoy free time. I know many people like this who claim to be “crazy busy” like they’re wearing a badge of honor, but this is nothing to brag about because it indicates the pervasive notion that not working and taking time off that we have earned is somehow wrong.

Perhaps this attitude comes from the companies for whom people work and our own government. Paid vacations days are not legally mandated in the U.S. That leaves employers to come up with their own rules, though many of them give a standard two-week vacation per year. There are also the 10 national holidays, but employers are not required to pay employees for them.

A look at the chart may explain a good deal of the reason why Americans are not taking their days. In a work environment that does not value employees’ need to take a vacation it would make sense that many workers fear taking the days they are allotted because doing so may be viewed unfavorably by their bosses.

As someone who had been an administrator and managed people, I believed that my employees not only deserved their time off but required it. People cannot work all the time without getting an opportunity to rest and recharge. That is essential to maintain both mental and physical health.

Besides, taking vacation days affords an opportunity for travel. Whether it is near or far, getting away from home is a wonderful chance to learn about other places and people. With such a big and beautiful world out there, there are so many places to explore, cuisines to be sampled, and sights to be seen.

For the most part, my family and friends take advantage of their vacation days and travel. I do make getting away with my wife and kids a priority, and I must say that going away brings us closer as we experience amazing places together.

Years ago, I had a friend who tried taking vacation days, but his problem was that he sat at home for two weeks and never went away. Since he was single and all his friends were married, he had no one to go with him. I suggested taking a tour of some kind, but he resisted. One year he said to me that he wasn’t going to take vacation anymore because it was boring, and that was the end of his using his allotted days.

I don’t know how many people are like my friend, but not having someone to travel with you is no reason not to take vacation. There are so many travel companies for singles that there is no excuse not to research them and decide on what is the best choice.

Americans would be a good deal healthier if they embraced the concept of free time. We don’t always have to be doing something for work – it is necessary to be free and on your own time and schedule.

Use every one of your vacation days and go see the world, or if you prefer not to travel go sit on a beach and watch the sunset, and afterwards try counting the stars. Take leisurely walks in the park or a nearby forest, go to restaurants you have always wanted to try, and make a point to see movies and shows and concerts. Most important of all, spending your free time with friends and loved ones when you are not on a schedule is liberating and rewarding.

Time is precious and we are usually using up our minutes and hours on somebody else’s clock. Make the time that is your own truly yours. Take advantage of the vacation days you have earned and deserve, and go have an adventure or do nothing at all.

Doing nothing is not the pernicious evil everyone tries to make it out to be. Some of my treasured moments have been when I’m doing nothing, sitting in a park or on a beach or in my own yard, watching the world and taking deep breaths. I think people will find as have I that doing nothing is doing  something necessary and compelling for yourself.

Use those vacation days, Americans; you have nothing to lose and so much to gain.    

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Automation Takes More Than Jobs Away – We Are Losing the Human Touch

Automation Takes More Than Jobs Away – We Are Losing the Human Touch

Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock; I am an island.
-       “I Am a Rock” by Paul Simon

In Paul Simon's song "I Am a Rock" the speaker tells us that he is perfectly contented living inside four walls without any human interaction. Simon creates a chilling, somber portrait of a person who believes that he needs no one and selectively chooses to be alone. We want to feel sympathy for the character, but he convincingly lets us know otherwise – "And a rock feels no pain/And an island never cries."

For human beings it is normal to want to be around other people and to want to interact with them; it's in our DNA to be social, but these days banks and retailers are making things more difficult and are hurting people in more ways than one.  

The specter of self-service checkout, online shopping, and mobile ordering looms heavily over the American worker. This push for automation means human beings are losing their jobs as stores schedule less people to take cash and perform customer service, thereby trying to force customers to use self-checkout to avoid insufferably long lines.

Besides the impact on our communities of people losing their livelihoods, the other damaging effect of automation is the feeling of isolation. We can go out and do our banking, shopping, and eating and never have to interact with another human being.

This happened to me yesterday. I went to the bank and there was only one teller; therefore, despite my strong disapproval of automation, I was forced to use the ATM because I was pressed for time to get to a dentist appointment. The line was so long it appeared as if they were giving stuff away. Obviously, the management is encouraging us to use the ATM to save money on salaries, but I enjoy speaking with the teller and thanking him or her after I am done. The savings on salaries means little if the cost is far greater because I left that bank as an extremely dissatisfied customer who was seriously thinking about switching banks.

Next, I went across the street to my local Starbucks where I have been going for years and know many of the workers, but I didn’t see anyone I knew. They had one person at the cash register, one person filling mobile orders, and one barista working. The line of coffee lovers snaked around the store with everyone looking at their phones to pass the time.

I stood on the end of the long line and made a decision – I would save time by placing a mobile order. I kept queuing as I downloaded the app, loaded my credit card information, and placed my order. The line had moved a bit but when I saw the fellow who was filling the mobile orders put the small shopping bag on the counter, I knew my order was ready. If I had not placed the mobile order, I would have been waiting on the line for at least another ten to fifteen minutes.

My next stop was Target to pick up a few items for the backyard that were needed for a party we were having that weekend. I found what I was looking for rather quickly except for one item – usually, I always pride myself on being able to go into a store, get what I want, and leave without looking at other things – but my plan to leave swiftly was thwarted by long lines at the few registers that were open. 

Again, against all my strong feelings about not using automation, I acquiesced to the evil known as the self-checkout. One person had been assigned to oversee this area, but she was helping another customer. I went up to the machine and started scanning my items. Yes, it all went smoothly and I was walking back to my car in less than five minutes.

As I started driving I felt myself shaking a bit, as if I had been through a scary experience, but it was because I had compromised my position due to the time factor and used automation when I had sworn not to do so. I took a deep breath and came to a realization – this is all part of an insidious plot to force us to use automation.

These companies and banks know that we are pressed for time, know that we need to get somewhere, so that they deliberately schedule less workers and put customers in a no choice situation. In my case I try to go to these stores when I am not rushing to go someplace else, and so I have avoided using self-checkout and mobile orders. Yesterday, that changed and I hated myself for going against my principles.

I did make it to the dentist on time, and that was the first time I had an interaction with another human being after going out that day. The receptionist and I exchanged pleasantries, and I waited to see the doctor, but before that in the bank, Starbucks, and Target not one worker spoke with me or offered to help me.

In fact, in Target, I did look for help finding something I needed, but I could not find a worker who could direct me to the right location. I did end up finding the item myself, and that took a few extra minutes, but the point was I had zero interaction with personnel and I believe that is the whole point – we are losing the human touch!.

Of course, some people do not venture out as I do but prefer to stay home and do everything online. Supplies and groceries can be delivered now – and the goal there is to not send human beings but drones – and banking and shopping can be done online. We are moving in the direction of no human interaction – when a person could spend days, weeks, and even months without speaking to another human being.

Isolation may be appealing to some people like the guy in Paul Simon's song, but I for one enjoy interaction. I like knowing my barista by name, and it gives me an opportunity to let her know that I appreciate how well she crafts a cappuccino. There is no substitute for being able to also convey in person just how I want that coffee made, but I was disappointed with my drink because the app doesn’t allow for that.

Human beings are social by nature and this rush to automation is totally unnatural because it causes us to avoid what inherently is our birthright. The loss of people’s jobs is a tough price to pay, but price of the loss of the human touch and increasing isolation will be beyond anything we as a society can afford and will damage us irreparably.