Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

A Question of Priorities

We should not expect much sympathy for the higher cost of feeding the beasts sitting in our driveways.

Gas prices are high.  But something is amiss in the culture if this change is ranked as the nation’s greatest challenge. The price of fuel for cars tops a recent Associated Press poll of items that Americans are “very” or “extremely concerned” about. To be sure, low-wage workers who must drive and pay for their own gas are severely squeezed.  Those folks should have a living wage that is indexed to fuel costs. But the rest of us need to reconsider the presence of elevated gas prices in the context of other world crises that should be top of mind.

The same poll shows much less concern among Americans about the European war, schools and places of worship that have become shooting galleries, the spread of fantasist misinformation, curbing human-induced climate warming, insurrectionists who are still seated as members of Congress, and the thousands across the nation who are forced to live in our streets.

Others around the world have every right to raise an eyebrow over our angst at feeding the glutinous beasts sitting in our driveways. Most of us own some version of the SUV, those “suburban assault vehicles” that clog our streets and spill over the lines of once spacious parking spots.  In fact, most would require two parking spaces in Amsterdam, and some would be wide enough to completely span the width of a street in Rome.  If the choice for some is not the standard SUV, it’s often the truck equivalent—buffed and spotless—and frequently carrying no more than one driver in an oversized seat.

At This Moment Whining About Gas Prices Makes us Look Small

Most of us love cars, but we are selling our children’s future to buy thirsty road behemoths. “Armadas,” “Sequoias”  “Annihilators,” “King Ranch models,” “Land Rovers” and “Denalis,” are common nearly everywhere. I doubt if NASA could muster enough launch power to get a three ton Infinity QX80 into space. This car is big enough to occupy two counties at the same time. I suspect it comes with mooring lines and a ground-to-cab telephone, should anyone on the street need to talk to the driver.

Our addiction for oversized low mileage cars would make sense if we were running day camps. But most of us are just hauling ourselves around in a two tons of extra metal. The Nissan Armada gets a pathetic 15 miles to the gallon. Europe’s most popular car, the Volkswagen Golf, gets about 33 and weighs a ton and a half less.

EVs are still too expensive for most drivers.  But with far less money it is possible to get new or used gas/hybrid cars with mileage from the mid-40s to much more.

We can complain about gas prices, but most of the rest of the west has figured out how to make cars more appropriate to this crowded planet. We should face the fact that our values are inverted. At this moment, whining about gas prices makes us look small.

Symbols of Self Reinvention

               John Wayne in Born to the West, 1937 

We use everyday garments to announce our identities in lieu of the more awkward task of trying to explain them.

The Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle was not the first to notice that clothing makes its own rhetorical statements. But he was clear in noting that “coverings” can be material and well as verbal. Just as we sometimes clothe our motives in language that conceals less admirable impulses, so we use everyday garments to announce our identities in lieu of the more awkward task of trying to spell them out. For Carlyle, “the first spiritual want of man is decoration.” How we choose to appear before others is perhaps the straightest line to identity. It’s little wonder that teens grappling with an awkward transformation to a more personal self would be so particular about how they appear to each other.

Concerns with clothing can offer some odd twists. The New York Times recently reported that no one was surprised to find an apparently expensive Christian Louboutin stiletto stuck in an escalator near the new editorial offices of Vogue at One World Trade Center. Obviously, some maven of high fashion had to limp along without it.

The principle of clothing as a “statement” is only more exaggerated in the fashion world. In reality, nearly all of us trade in the imagery of personal presentation.

                              Ralph Lauren

 Consider four cases that exemplify the power of selected external skins to announce what we want to believe about ourselves. Designer and fashion mogul Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx 75 years ago.  Today the Lauren empire often features the short and photogenic President in clothing that has become one of his signature styles: a leather or wool-lined jacket, a western hat that looks like its been kicked around a corral a few times, and hand-tooled boots and jeans. Even as a teen in the Colorado mountains I never succeeded in looking so ranch-hand cool.

In his early career, Steve Martin used clothes in a different way.  Early in his career as a stand up comic he dressed more or less like men in his audience, with many sporting beards, long hair, and technicolor shirts with a calculated flamboyance.  But he found added humor when he shaved, changed into a business suit, and trimmed his hair to look like the guy who does your taxes: the perfect vessel for crazy behavior. Comedy feeds on all kinds of crazy misalignments.

And there’s the case of the iconic tamer of the West, John Wayne, born Marion Morrison in Winterset Iowa. Wayne apparently disliked horses. But nothing in his Midwestern past would deter him from becoming Director John Ford’s favorite trailblazer. The Duke achieved on film what Theodore Roosevelt constructed in his own larger-than-life legacy.  Roosevelt transformed himself from a sickly son of a Manhattan socialite into the “Rough Rider” who relished the possibilities of any test of his masculine prowess.

Donald Trump from Queens offers a related case that is more firmly anchored in the urban jungles of America’s biggest cities. Trump grew up into a comfortable family thriving on the business of building modest apartments and single-family homes in the Jamaica Estates area in Queens. He obviously expanded the base of the Fred Trump organization, creating his own Manhattan-centered version of a real estate juggernaut. Though he would have us believe that he is a master-builder, a closer reading of his career suggests a better aptitude for real estate marketing and self-promotion. Trump wears aggressive entrepreneurship as a badge of honor.

      Trump’s Name on his Chicago Building 

This mix of material accomplishment and relentless hype can be seen in a soaring Skidmore-designed building along the Chicago River. Its 20-foot tall TRUMP nameplate spanning the 16th and 17th floors is so large that one can imagine the structure listing toward the river under its weight. To be sure, the handsome 98-story structure—officially the Trump International Hotel and Tower–was his project from the start.  But the outsized sign mars its sleekness and feeds stories among locals of the New Yorker who somehow managed to settle in even against the stiff prairie winds from the West. His buildings have always been more interesting than his uniform of a loose-fitting blue suit. It seems that few of us are immune from the urge to calibrate our identity to express our aspirations.