Tom's Thoughts

Location: Granite Falls, North Carolina, United States

I'm an ordained United Methodist minister no longer pastoring churches, a former media producer with skills ten years out of date, a writer trying to sell my first novel, and a sales associate keeping body and soul together working for the People's Republic of Corporate America. I'm married to the most wonderful woman in the world, who was my best friend for 17 years before we married.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Three Questions

Three questions I have not been able to find the answer to, no matter who I called (Cecil Adams, Glad You Asked, etc.):

First: Is there another species on Earth in which two females will fight over a male?
Too many bar fights, etc. I don't like to get near two women fighting.

Second: I know that men and women vary equally in heights. I just wonder if my observation is true, that women's heights are more spread out along the range while men's heights tend to cluster around the norm. I have noticed more instances of Allison Janney and Kristen Chinoweth than I have of Shaquille O'Neal and Muggsy Bogues. Do the average group of women vary in tallness more than the average group of men do?

Third: What universe do professors at Business Schools inhabit? They teach that companies can increase sales by throwing thousands of customers out of work, that they can attract more customers by cutting back on customer service, and that you don't have to show loyalty to your workers to get them to show loyalty to your company. I mean, what have they been smoking?

Back to serious stuff later, but I am curious about these.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Communication

Actual conversation: The other day it was storming furiously outside the store. I stepped around the corner and looked out the doors at the rain coming down. I said to a fellow employee, "I'm sure glad I remembered to close my sun roof."

She said, "You left your sun roof open?"

I said, "No. I said I'm glad I closed it."

A customer came up: "You left your sun roof open?"

I said, "No, I'm giving thanks that I remembered to close it."

Another customer came up: "You left your sun roof open?"

"No. I said I'm glad I closed it."

It seems to me that we don't know how to listen to each other. I remarked to my wife last night that no one in my life, except her, has really listened to me.

I believe that if we are to make any progress as a society, we need to start really listening to each other. It's not easy. We want to push our point across, so we just wait for an opportunity to put our two cents' worth in rather than listening to what the other person has to say.

Therefore, we have name-calling instead of dialogue: "Liberal!" "Right-Wing!" "Communist!" "Wing Nut!"

It's all a shortcut past the thought process. Rather than engaging each other and LISTENING to what we each have to say, we slap labels on people and/or ideas and dismiss them out of hand.

But guess what? You might learn something if you just listen.

I promise I will listen to you if you promise to do the same for me.

It's got to start somewhere. Why not us?

Friday, May 11, 2007

On Quality

When Lee Iacocca was doing the ads for Chrysler Corporation, of which he was CEO, he used to talk about the "American tradition of quality." The only thing is, there is no such tradition.

The quality craftsmen stayed in Europe.

Those who came over here were the losers and the dreamers. Practical people don't venture out into unexplored territory. People who are doing well at their craft don't leave it all behind to strike out into something new.

Still, over the generations, the descendants of those who settled in this region of North Carolina learned how to turn out some pretty good products, especially furniture.

Admittedly, the reason furniture manufacturing came here was the same reason textile manufacturing came: cheap labor. We were the China of the late 19th. and early 20th. Centuries.

BUT: We learned to make good stuff.

The furniture they made here was good enough that the families were proud to put their names on it: Broyhill, Kincaid, Bernhardt. People felt good enough about it to put the names of their towns on it: Thomasville, Drexel, Lexington.

But, times change. Now, the companies have been bought out, merged, etc. The children of the furniture families didn't want to be bothered to run the companies the way their parents and grandparents had, so they sold out. Major conglomerates own the companies now, companies such as FBI: Furniture Brands International. And these conglomerates are run, not by furniture manufacturers but by Business School graduates.

You know, the people who learn you can increase sales by throwing thousands of your customers out of work; that you can get more customers by cutting back on customer service.

Therefore, customer service is out-sourced to India, to people who know nothing about the manufacturing process and barely understand English.

And manufacturing is out-sourced to China, where quality is low on the priority list.

Meanwhile, the local manufacturing plants are either shuttered or turned into distribution warehouses.

One of the local plants attaches legs to tabletops brought in from China. Half--HALF!--of the tabletops brought in from China are useless because the quality is so poor. Yet it is still cheaper to throw out half of them than to have local people from Caldwell County build them right the first time, as they have done for decades--generations. And cheaper is what the bean-counters who run the companies are after.

As I said, there is not American tradition of quality. America was settled by the losers and the dreamers. And the losers have gravitated to management.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

On Immigration

I have not posted much about immigration, because I have so many mixed feelings about it.

Of course we know we of European ancestry trace our heritage to those who came here seeking a new and better life, just as the current immigrants from Central and South America are doing now. Those whose ancestors came through Ellis Island (and other such gateways) brag about how their forbears came legally, obeying the laws, etc. Those whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower (and other such ships) came in conquest and didn't obey the laws. Of course, the aboriginal inhabitants whose ancestors came over on the land bridge didn't have immigration laws to enforce, nor the means for adequately enforcing them if they had existed. Those of African heritage, for the most part, are descended from people who did not come here willingly, but slavery was condoned by the laws at the time.

But we now live in the 21st. Century, and we European-Americans are the dominant ethnicity in this country. And our laws lay out certain standards by which a person may legally enter the country. The problem is that the corporate interests who fund the campaigns of those in governmental power have an economic interest in the cheapest labor possible. Labor is not "workers," nor even "the work force" any more. It is now "human resources." Workers are dehumanized in the modern world, so we are all so many interchangeable parts in the industrial machine.

Now, there are two ways in which companies try to minimize labor costs: First by relocating to places where labor costs are cheaper. Thus, they came south in the 19th. and 20th. Centuries, and more lately have moved production to places such as the Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, and, especially, China.

The second way they reduce labor costs is by bringing in immigrants who are willing to work harder for less money. Especially if they are illegal immigrants who they can pay less than the legal minimum wage. Thus, there is work for those willing to make the perilous journey to this country.

That added to the miserable Mexican economy with its corruption and lack of opportunity for the people there causes a massive migration of Mexican and other workers from that region seeking a new and better life for themselves and their families.

The backlash come from those of us who were already here having our way of life disrupted. I have to press "1" in order to do telephone business in English, which is the language most used in this country. I have to turn boxes around to see labels written in English. I have taken a few Spanish lessons, and my first wife had been a Spanish major in college. But I am resisting the necessity of becoming bilingual. If I learn another language I want it to be my choice, not forced on me by society changing around me.

Working in retail, I encounter language difficulties from Spanish-speaking customers, true. But I also encounter Hmong speakers and deaf customers. I expect in about ten years we'll start seeing Arabic-speaking customers if the Iraqi refugees are allowed into this country. If I were fluent in Spanish, Vietnamese, or American Sign language, I would be able to serve my customers better. In fact, it is customer service that causes signs to be printed in both English and Spanish. This is the reason I would wish to be bilingual. I just don't like it being forced on me.

Now, foreign language speakers are not that unusual in America. In Chicago, there are neighborhoods where you never hear a word spoken or see a word written in any language other than Polish. In Brighton Beach, New York the street signs are in Cyrillic. When I lived in New Mexico, I saw monolingual people getting by with either English or the Spanish of their Conquistador ancestors. So bilingualism isn't the main issue. The problem is that these other examples are in isolated enclaves. The American Southwest is the largest of these, but Spanish is an essential part of the culture there. Now, the whole country is being inundated with Mexican culture, and a lot of us are frustrated at the futility of fighting it.

Now, those in power see the profit in the current arrangement, so they keep Congress from passing effective enforcement laws. If there were no job market, illegal immigrants would have no reason to come here. So they have us fighting against our fellow victims of the system.

Instead of cracking down on major businesses and industries that employ illegal aliens, Congress passes a symbolic law to build a fence a third of the way along the border with Mexico. It's obvious how serious they are about this when you note that they appropriated only enough money to build a third of that. Big whoop.

So now I've laid out the problem, I think it's time for some solutions. We are not going to stem the tide with half-hearted measures like that symbolic fence. We are not going to change things by writing letters to the editor demanding new residents learn English. News flash: If they can't read English, they can't read your letter. We are not going to change things by refusing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. And we are not going to solve the problem by any "guest worker" measures. That has been tried and didn't work.

Now, I will admit that I engage in symbolic gestures, too. I display my merchandise English side out, and I speak English to my customers. Of course, I may take a sign language course, since that is the way my mentally-handicapped daughter learned to speak. It taught her the concept of words.

The only thing that will make a difference is improving the conditions in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and China. We need to demand that the products we buy are products of fair trade, not what is now called "free trade," which is just corporate exploitation of people we can't see up close. We need to elect politicians with the courage to stand up to the corporations and demand living wages and better living conditions for all workers worldwide, so that the products we buy won't be tainted with the blood and misery of other workers and subsidized by our tax dollars, the way they are now.