ridley pearson

Friday, March 27, 2009

It's Illegal

For those of you who read the blog, you know that I seldom, if ever, use it to hawk another author's books, but I have to give pause and encourage you to try Paul Levine if you haven't read him yet. He's smart and funny and a terrific writer. His newest is Illegal. If you have an empty bedside table, go GET A COPY!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Power of We

The Power of We


One of the aspects of Chinese life abundantly obvious is the commune in communism. Our lane is a string of dwellings--some "grand" like ours, a small and simple house, some not so grand--our neighbor, her husband and 12 year old son live in a structure roughly 12x14 feet, their only sink out in the lane in front of their front door and roughly ten feet to the left of our front door. We often pay witness to the boy being given a bath/shower/wash as he stands naked in a plastic tub and warm-ish water is poured over him. All the cooking and washing and clothes washing is done at that tub. It can't be easy, but our neighbor always smiles at us as we come and go from our warm house, brightly lit, with its two baths and full kitchen. There is never a hint of animosity. Acceptance is the rule here.

There is a lane community center very near us where forty year old women do line dances to old fifties American hits, most of which I play with the Rockbottom Remainders. There is choir practice every Wednesday and a Chinese variation on an aerobics class some mornings. We all know each other to say hello to -- and of course the Chinese know each other by name. There's the bald man down the street who carries his large number of potted plants out when the weather is nice (he came and doctored a plant for us not long ago, all smiles to see inside our house.) There's the neighbor with the perfectly restored 1943 motorcycle and sidecar, shined to a spit polish. And of course there's the laundry. Everyone -- yes, including us -- hangs their clean laundry to dry (there are no real clothes dryers here, reducing their carbon footprints when most don't know what a carbon footprint even is), so you're able to see underwear styles and sizes, and the next time you see the woman three houses down you can't help but picture the large sized red underwear somewhere buried beneath the other plain clothing. Long underwear. Bra sizes. We know a lot about each other here in Lane 339.

But it strikes me that the power of we is at work, and no more so than when our wonderful Xue (our housekeeper) had her electric bike break down. She arrived to our house having pedaled the heavy bike (smaller wheels than a regular bike). And she explained in Chinese, and some sign language, that her electric bike had broken. Then she pointed to our back garden, where we keep our bikes, and it was obvious she had quickly jumped to the conclusion that we had four bikes and hers was broken, so we would offer her one of our bikes. Which we did. She didn't thank us. She nodded and smiled, and I gave her the key to the lock, and helped her to get the bike out the big steel door that serves our garden patio. And she rode off. I realized it was expected. This is a communal society. If you have a bike not being ridden and your neighbor needs a bike -- bingo, it's worked out. A few days later Xue returned the bike, smiled, and showed us that hers had been repaired. We were part of the we. We were part of a community.

There are exceptions. When daughter Storey broke her ankle last week and we needed a wheelchair to get her down the impossibly long lane, we turned (through our cook) to our community center. Might they, by any chance, be in possession of a wheelchair? (Since there are many elderly about.) Indeed, as we'd guessed they had one. And they were willing to loan it to us: for a fee. Shanghai is where capitalism meets communism and so we had a taste of where the we meets a fee. We borrowed the wheelchair for three days and three nights. Fee: 2 US dollars.
Today, our cook showed up with a wheelchair -- to loan us indefinitely. Someone's mother had used it, died, and it was lying around. How she managed to get it here (she lives WAY across town) I have no idea. But a man showed up, lifted it into our front door and trundled off. No fee.

And so we are learning that people help people here -- sometimes charging, most of the time not -- out of a societal consciousness that instills at an early age that the individual cannot survive without the group. Historically, we are told, this goes back millennium to the spring floods of major rivers and how, without a full effort on everyone's part, the river could wash away farm ground, taking its top soil and rendering it infertile for generations. Or... they could band together, divert the river and protect their food source. Out of the efforts of many came food for the few. Now, thousands of years later, the same attitude prevails. I cannot make it without you.

As much as an American I have instilled in me the notion of independence and every-man-for-himself, I find myself reflecting that both 911 and the current financial crisis has left me feeling this pulsing group agenda--that we need to thinking as a people not as a person. That we need the power of we. That I'm currently living in an example of how this works at the community level so well. I'm not condoning Communism as a political force. There's too much here that can be criticized (just as there is at home!). But at the base level of neighbor to neighbor, door to door, wheelchair to wheelchair, and bike to bike, there is much to be learned and cherished.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Live and Give


As employers large and small seek methods of plugging the ever-widening holes in the hulls of their sinking vessels, and tossing things overboard to lighten the load, something troubling is happening--it is being used as an excuse. It's not just that company benefits are being eliminated or trimmed, though that is happening at alarming rate, it's that obligations are being overlooked. We mustn't let the recession give us recessionitis.

I spoke to a corporate executive last week who explained a particularly vexing employee, who had badgered the department and had found protection from being fired in their Human Services rules was bundled into a bigger layoff and let go. What would have taken six weeks to several months to accomplish was taken care of in a single stroke. This happens to be one of those understandable usages of layoffs, and I could hear the relief over the employee finally being gone, but it suggests a crack in the veneer of truth. It wasn't entirely above board.

Another owner of a small company said he'd taken the opportunity to clean house of some workers who were never going to cut it, that the recession provided perfect cover to speed along what otherwise would have been costly and dragged out dismissals. There is efficiency in such layoffs--firings--and efficiency is what's needed to keep small and large businesses afloat. But if such practices become easier for having done them once, then there's a danger of falling into the excuses trap.

More troubling to me, as a board member of a worthy non-profit, is that businesses and individuals have stopped giving. As of the start of the new year money simply dried up. This makes for desperate times for our inner city youth literacy and athletics program--it may go under. And I have to wonder what's going on. Yes, money is tight for all of us, but this is no time to allow safety nets for the needy to go under. To the contrary, there are and will be even more needy--kids and adults alike--in the coming months and if ever there was a time to reach deep and give to charity, those who can afford to must.

If the recession becomes an excuse instead of a challenge then there is a double barreled effect: it hits our purses and our humanity; it degrades our bank accounts and our ethics. Times of hardship can unite and lift a society to new accomplishments, or turn it on itself--every man for himself; dog eat dog.

We must go forward, yes. Difficult decisions must be made, no doubt. People will lose jobs. Non-profits will fail. But hopefully we can retain our common humanity in the process.