Monthly Archives: November 2010

Charity Begins At Home

In an alarmingly short time, we are embarking on an overseas trip.  Our destination is a country often referred to as “developing.” 

My main reason for telling you this is to let you know that postings for the next few weeks might be sporadic.  Additionally, in anticipation of the trip, I had to go to the doctor to get a shot (or jab as they call them down here).  I thought it would be one shot but it turned into two shots plus two prescriptions.  Can’t be too careful.

These days when you get a jab you have to hang around the waiting room for 20 minutes to make sure you don’t have an adverse reaction.  That meant that I had the opportunity to pick up a magazine and catch up on some reading. 

And what I read was scarier than the needles the nurse was wielding and the advice the doctor was giving me.  I read an article about something called “intergenerational theft.”  If you were born between 1946 and 1964 you are guilty of this crime, even though you may not have known about it.  It’s not what John McCain was referring to.  This is different.  So pay attention, because, as the saying goes, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

According to the article I read, many of the Generation X & Y people have looked around at the situation of people under 40 and decided that it’s not as good as they would like it.  The short explanation is that there is lots of stuff they want to do and buy but can’t for the following reasons:

  1.  They can’t get good jobs because the Baby Boomers won’t retire.
  2. They have huge student loans because college is so much more expensive than when Baby Boomers went to college and their Baby Boomer parents won’t pay for their university degree.
  3. They can’t afford houses because they are more expensive than when Baby Boomers got into the market and their Baby Boomer parents are going on cruises and buying Winnebagos instead of giving them money for a down payment.
  4. Even if they have jobs, they can’t save money because their salaries are being “taxed to extinction” in order to fund Baby Boomer pensions. And worse still, they will have to fund the health care costs of the aging population.
  5. Basically, the world would be a better place if the Baby Boomers weren’t so selfish and threatening to live for so long.

I had to double check to make sure the article wasn’t some kind of joke. 

But it wasn’t.  They had “case studies.”  

One was a thirty-something who vilified her retired parents.  It seems that they are too selfish to provide free babysitting which means she has to pay for day care.  This is preventing her from buying the luxury condominium she wants.

Another was a twenty-five year old single engineer.  His life is miserable because he has a student loan he has to pay back.  His quality of life is seriously degraded because he is therefore not able to take six months off and go to Europe.  Plus, and I couldn’t tell if this is worse, he desperately needs a new kitchen table because he is mortified to be using his parents’ old table.  Apparently that doesn’t impress the ladies.  His suggested solution?  Eliminate income tax for young people so they can live the lives they want instead of having to “pay for old peoples’ pensions.”

I don’t know anyone under 40 who thinks this way.  Or at least who articulates these sentiments.  But then again, I don’t know anyone who has ever been abducted by aliens, even though I know those people are out there.  I’m no expert on sociology, but if there are people like that, we have a rather serious rip in the social fabric. 

After the allotted time the nurse told me I was free to go and while driving home I tuned in the oldies station.  Obligingly, they played Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’.  While waiting for a red light I amused myself by thinking of how he might have written it today:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
Don’t be so greedy,
We can’t afford name brand.
Your sons and your daughters
Don’t ask, they command
Your 401ks are maturing,
Please write them a check
And give them a hand,
For the times they are a changing.

Fortunately the times weren’t the only thing a-changin’. The traffic light turned green and my poetic efforts ended along with the song.  Maybe you can do better!

It will be interesting to see if the Gen X&Y people in the developing world have the same attitudes.  I’ll report back!


No Thank You?

Next month we have two weddings in our family.  Needless to say, there has been a lot of talk about wedding stuff of late.  So it wasn’t quite out of the blue when my wife mentioned the other day that we’d never gotten a thank you note for a wedding gift we’d given earlier in the year.

I needed to be reminded of both the wedding and the gift and took her word for it that we hadn’t gotten a thank you. 

Because of our geographical remoteness we miss a lot of weddings and end up mailing the gift. “Maybe they didn’t get the gift,” I opined.  My wife decided to get to the bottom of things and made a phone call that ran something like, “Just checking to make sure you got our gift.”

The answer surprised us.

“Yes.  We got it.  And thanks, really liked it.”

Call me old fashioned, but I think a handwritten thank you note is sort of nice.  And although I guess that a verbal thank you is the ultimate personal touch, when you have to basically initiate it yourself it falls kind of flat.  Even an e-mail would have been preferable.

At least we didn’t get a broadcast Tweet: 

The bride and groom say thx 2 all u orsum ppl 4 all the gr8 gifts!

My wife and I had an interesting chat about what’s going on.  Admittedly we don’t know the bride and groom all that well (we’re friends of the parents) but based on the rather scrupulous attention they seemed to have paid to all the other traditional aspects of the wedding (e.g., fancy invitations, registry, about a million wedding and honeymoon pictures on Picassa) we would have thought that thank you notes would be part of the package.  Are they too busy?  Did they forget?  Were they mad at us for not coming to the wedding and just sending a gift?  Or is etiquette sort of passé?

We raised the subject with some friends at a party and the response was basically I can top that!

One lady told the story about how she had sent a substantial gift certificate to her grandson in Australia for his twenty first birthday.  About a month later, having heard nothing from the grandson, she called her daughter to see if he had mentioned receiving the gift.  The daughter gave what now seems to be the standard reply, “Oh yeah, he got it.  Thanks, Mom – that was very generous of you.”

Our friend inquired why the grandson could not have called to thank her and the daughter replied, “Oh come on Mom, he’s so busy.  I’m thanking you now aren’t I?”

Most of the other guests had similar stories about recipients being “too busy” to say thank you.  It sounds like this kind of behaviour is being normalized.  Not acknowledging and thanking someone for a gift or a favour is no longer considered rude. 

I think the term “too busy” is now actually code for “I don’t feel like it.”  And the real root cause is a combination of not wanting to be bothered to take the time and the fact that, let’s face it, etiquette is pretty much a thing of the past.  I did a little research and apparently the only place where thank you letters are still extant is after a job interview.  And then only if you really want the job.

As disturbing as living in a busy, uncivil society is to me, I think I am more bothered by the underlying logic/philosophy of a thank you note free world.  Because it means that (1) if you don’t want to do something you just say you’re too busy and it’s OK and (2) things like wedding/birthday/graduation gifts are so meaninglessly mundane people aren’t even thankful for them.  It’s like the attitude is, “My job is to get married/graduate/have a birthday.  Your job is to give me stuff.”

I’m not sure how we got to this point.  I would love to embark on a rant about how technology is the root cause.  After all, it’s not exactly unprecedented for people to merrily schmooze their virtual friends and attend to their Farmville holdings while ignoring their real friends (and lives). 

But I think the demise of thank you notes, and etiquette in general goes farther back than the advent of social networking. It is not that everyone is rude and impolite, it’s just that most people today are clueless about etiquette.  The world is full of super models but no well mannered role models for people to emulate.

A few years ago there were people who were known for their manner and class.  Audrey Hepburn, Jackie O, Fred Astair, and David Niven were a few of them.  But I’m fairly hard pressed to come up with a name for a currently living celebrity who embodies those traits.  Maybe the Queen, but that’s her job, and anyway, she has a staff to do all that for her.

But I think the main reason it’s hard to name a public figure known for their politeness is because if they existed we wouldn’t know about them.  The media aren’t interested. 

Reality TV shows (too numerous to name, but Jersey Shore comes to mind) glorify bad behaviour.  And I don’t know how good a chef Gordon Ramsey is—his reputation is his manners as far as I can tell and we seem to be geared up to reward him for abusing people.  We have some friends who work in the restaurant business and they say that in the past couple of years, professional kitchens are increasingly stressful as Ramsey-esque behaviour has become the norm.

 And shows like Survivor teach that you win by tearing down the competition, not by excelling yourself.  The caring, polite person is portrayed as a loser.  So is it any wonder people today are clueless about good manners.

Maybe I’m just have a gloomy outlook because of my recent discovery about King Arthur and our lack of modern heroes.  But I’m not expecting many thank you notes from now on!

First the Easter Bunny, Then Santa Claus, Now King Arthur

Last week, my wife had some research appointments in Tauranga, a beautiful town on the Pacific about three hours drive from Auckland.  She was going to be away for a few days so I decided to tag along.

Because she was going to be busy during the days, I would be on my own for a lot of the time.  It seemed like there was a lot to do to keep busy but you never know about  the weather, etc., so I overloaded myself with books just in case.

My book selection process for a trip is fairly rigorous and ritualized and the overriding principle is I never know what I’m going to want to read when I get there.  So, the bottom line is that I go well prepared.

One of the books in my stock pile was an unopened and unread copy of Michael Woods’s In Search of the Dark Ages.  I’d bought that book years ago after his In Search of the Trojan War series, but never got around to reading it.

Nothing about Tauranga remotely resembles the Dark Ages, but I decided to start the book.  It was fascinating, but there was one very disturbing chapter. 

It was about King Arthur, and one of the final statements in the chapter is “. . . reluctantly we must conclude that there is no definite evidence that Arthur ever existed.”


The chapter is an engaging piece of detective work in which each part of the legend is tested against known facts and archaeological evidence and based on the data, I guess the conclusion makes sense.  The question, of course is how can this be?

Here is a brief summary of the facts.  Although Arthur is supposed to have lived around 500-600 AD, his name doesn’t appear in any accounts, and then only as a name on a list of people involved in a battle, until the 9th century.  The main parts of the legend were developed over the years and by the beginning of the twelfth century, poets had embellished the stories, just as Homer is said to have done with the Trojan War.  The legend was also widely distributed in a book published at that time called History of the Britons. 

The main physical evidence of the historical validity of the legend is the burial places of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey.  Even today you can visit the tombs, but there is some question as to who was buried there and actually whether anyone was buried there.  It turns out that in 1155 the original abbey was destroyed by fire.  The monks needed money to rebuild it to its former glory and right about then is when they “discovered” the tombs.  A while later they also found Excalibur lying around and also the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (he supposedly brought the Holy Grail to England).  Bad, bad monks!

Nothing much happened for another 500 years or so.  In the 1700s historians were “inclined to question the existence of Arthur” and in the 1800s he was deemed “no more worthy of belief than Hercules.”  Even a contemporary historian, William of Malmesbury said of the Glastonbury tombs “Throw out such dubious stuff and gird ourselves for a factual narrative.”

 So how did we get to where we are today with Camelot and Lancelot and Guinevere?  Gird thyself.

As the English empire expanded in the 19th century, the Victorians learned more and more about antiquity and history and cultures.  They realised they weren’t that much different from the people they were colonising around the world.  Throughout history, England had been fought over by imperial powers—first the Romans, then waves of Anglo Saxon tribes, and later the Vikings.  National heroes a la Joan of Arc or George Washington were noticeably lacking, so when Tennyson’s Idylls of the King was published, it became a huge best seller.  Who would make a better national hero than a warrior chieftain who may have united warring tribes to repel Anglo Saxon invaders 

Not only that, the richness of the history and the ideals of chivalry and loyalty appealed to the Victorian tastes.  Plus I bet they liked the sex.  As a result, the legend was rekindled and institutionalised. 

If you’re like me, you are shocked that Arthur is a manufactured hero.  I’m not sure how this disclosure compares to the Piltdown Man or the Milli Vanilli lip-synch episode in terms of myth shattering, but in any event, it does nothing to detract from the appeal of the story.   It did, however, get me thinking about how societies construct myths and made me wonder whether we are in need of developing a myth right about now.

After all, we are in a global recession, it’s hard to keep up with the pace of change, there is widespread political instability and unrest, energy, the environment and the food and water supplies are all at risk.  We need a hero. 

During the Cold War we had James Bond and Superman, but I think that the years of prosperity after that made us think we didn’t need a mythic figure to unite us and provide emotional comfort against the storms of reality.

The Victorians chose a legendary figure who embodied characteristics they valued.  That’s the trouble with coming up with a mythical hero du jour.  I’m not sure what characteristics we value.  Do we want a superhero to knock off all the bad guys out there?  And whose bad guys do we knock off?  Evil governments?  Terrorists?  Big bad businesses?  Drug lords?  Purveyors of junk food?

Or do we create a mythical alter ego who is victorious in love, career and family and is able to deal with all the daily frustrations of modern life?  Their phone battery would never die, their computer would never get a virus and no one would unfriend them.

Or is it a sports hero?  A rock star? All of the above?

The more I think of it, the more I’m convinced that it’s an impossible job because Hollywood is doing the job for us.  Every movie and sitcom and drama series is designed to give us a mythical hero (or villain) who will help exorcise our anxieties.  And if they don’t do it, there is always a sports figure or rock star making megabucks and living the life of a modern mythical hero.