Don’t Change Anything!

April 2015

Hugging Cheerios

The local ice cream store on Georgia Avenue that sold tropical fruit flavors closed recently. When I saw the “For Lease” sign in its window, I felt a familiar sadness. Another peg had been knocked out of the structure of my life and surroundings.

It was only a small sadness, though, because I don’t actually like tropical fruit flavors of ice cream that much. I favor coffee ice cream – which reminds me that when my local grocery store stopped carrying the Häagen-Dazs Five brand of coffee ice cream (with only five ingredients – all natural!), I was bereft. I’d grown so fond of that brand.

But my dismay at the loss of Häagen-Dazs Five coffee ice cream was nothing to what I felt when Addie’s restaurant closed. Addie’s is where Barry and I celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary. We invited a bunch of our friends; it was lovely. And then one day I heard it was closing. I went into mourning.

But the grief I felt at the loss of Addie’s paled in comparison to what I felt when Borders Bookstore closed a few years ago. Barry and the kids and I used to practically live at Borders on Rockville Pike. We bought so many books at that store I was sure we were among their major financial supporters. We would sometimes spend a leisurely Saturday afternoon or evening just browsing at the open tables laden with new books. And then one day we heard it was closing. Noooooooo! It was as if a basic institution had been ripped from our lives – like the post office or something.

Which reminds me that our local mailbox, around the corner from our house, was ripped out, right about the time of the anthrax scare in the D.C. area in 2001. If you can’t count on your neighborhood mailbox being there, what can you count on?

Not much, apparently. White Flint Mall, which housed the Borders Bookstore we frequented, is itself going to be demolished and replaced with a mixed-use complex of some sort. And the local Silver Spring Post Office – the first stop for the mail we used to drop in the now-gone mailbox – that’s gone too, also replaced by a mixed-use building.

It’s unsettling; all these things that were once there and seemed so solidly there are now gone, replaced by other things to which I have not yet become accustomed.

Each time this happens – each time something that was a stable part of my life and surroundings vanishes unexpectedly – I feel a loss. And I’m actually surprised at the extent to which I feel it. After all, we’re talking about retail stores, restaurants, and ice cream brands, not people I care about.

So why do I react this way? A first-pass explanation might be the simplest and most obvious one: I liked these things – or, at least, liked knowing they were there when I needed or wanted them – so I felt bad when they disappeared. But I think it’s more than that. These things, to which I developed attachments of varying degrees, helped define and describe my life and surroundings.

Imagine a resident of a small town showing a stranger around. “Here’s the local grocery store,” he might say, pointing proudly to the storefront, “and over there’s the library …” He might go on to describe programs the library offers for the town’s children or a favorite brand of beer the grocery started stocking a few years back. He’s lived in that small town for most of his life. It’s the “backdrop” to his life; it provides many of its “props” – permanent structures he knows will be there the next time he strolls down Main Street. And, even though he doesn’t really think about it, he finds that familiarity comforting. It’s his town.

I feel a lot like that. In my mental image of “where I’ve lived these past thirty-three years,” over there’s the Borders Bookstore we go to all the time; it has a great children’s section, and the person who works there really knows about kids’ books and can recommend good ones. And here’s my favorite brand of my favorite flavor of ice cream. Oh, and that ice cream store over there specializes in tropical fruit flavors – mango, guava, soursop; I’ve been there only a few times, since I’m not that crazy about tropical fruit flavors, but it’s been there for years. And see that house on Rockville Pike? It was converted into a really nice restaurant – Addie’s; that’s where Barry and I celebrated our 30th anniversary with a bunch of our friends.

These things were permanent fixtures in my life in the D.C. area. They were always there, and I could count on them being there – until they weren’t. It’s as if someone took a photo of “my life,” and where the Borders Bookstore had been, there is now an empty space in the photo; and where the Häagen-Dazs Five brand of coffee ice cream in my local grocery store had been, there is now an empty space in the photo. And where Addie’s had been … well, you get the idea.

I get used to things; and I forget that they might not be comfortingly there forever. And when it turns out they’re not there forever, I feel like reaching out to the things that remain and physically holding them down. You’re not going anywhere! Don’t change anything!

I do realize that this is a first world (or maybe even a 0th world) problem. While I’m mourning the loss of Addie’s restaurant, refugees in war-torn Syria are mourning the loss of their homes and, in many cases, their family members. A family in Oklahoma stands amidst the wreckage of their house, which has been completely destroyed by a tornado that ripped through their town. Thousands of people in the Philippines are mourning the loss of their loved ones who died in the deadly Typhoon Haiyan. I could go on. The point, of course, is that many people suffer enormous losses and must contend with change that is orders of magnitude greater than any of the relatively piddling “losses” I’ve described. So no pity parties for me!

I’m well aware of how good I have it. This is not a “poor me” essay; it’s just a reflection on the extent to which we – well, I, at least – get attached to things in my life, and the comfort I draw from their permanence, and the fact that these things are actually not permanent at all, and the discomfort I experience when I keep bumping into that fact. I feel a Buddhist lesson coming on … Don’t get attached to things.

Okay, I have to acknowledge that Häagen-Dazs Five wasn’t the first brand of coffee ice cream to which I became attached. If my memory serves me correctly, it was a different “line” of Häagen-Dazs ice cream – the gelato “line” (and I think the flavor was actually called “cappuccino”). I was quite enamored of that ice cream and upset when it disappeared from my grocery store. However, I got through that “local nadir” when I discovered something pretty much as good – that would be Häagen-Dazs Five brand. And then I became attached to that. And as for Addie’s – well, really, there are lots of excellent restaurants in the greater D.C. area. Lots.

This is less true of bookstores, however; there aren’t lots of excellent bookstores in the greater D.C. area; and the few that remain are hanging on by their bookish fingernails, threatened within an inch of their retail lives by the new technology we all know and love: the Internet.

Which brings up a broader issue – the demise of Borders was emblematic of a larger trend. Whole industries are being threatened by new technologies. And whole job categories and professions are being threatened and diminished by forces that are conspiring to make life more difficult for ordinary people (although the rich are making out like bandits). If you wanted to skip college and just get a factory job – well, there was a time when that would have been no problem; but no more. If you do want to go to college and come out unburdened by a huge debt – well, I could do that about 45 years ago (and I basically put myself through college); but no more. There was a time, decades ago, when I might have considered a career in academia, but now I wouldn’t – since I wouldn’t relish being among the 75 percent of professors who are now adjuncts earning enough to keep them pretty much in poverty and with no security.[1] The shrinking of the middle class is just one of the ways in which things are changing around us – to a large extent, for the worse (at least in the near term).

It turns out that I grew up (in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s) in what is now being called a golden era – more of an aberration than the norm in the history of our country – in which opportunities for middle class folks were expanding and income inequality was shrinking (just the opposite of now). Of course, I thought it was just the way things were. And so did everyone else.

In a fascinating article exploring the relationship between innovation and failure, Adam Davidson discusses how innovation causes a raft of failures, since the innovation inevitably replaces something that was there before (that now fails the competition with the new innovation). And he makes the point that, looking over the vast course of human history, the “failure loop” – the replacement of an innovation with yet another innovation – has gotten shorter and shorter. That is, it takes less and less time for an innovation to itself become a failure, replaced by a newer innovation.

“Whereas the corporate era created a virtuous cycle of growing companies, better-paid workers and richer consumers, we’re now suffering through a cycle of destabilization, whereby each new technology makes it ever easier and faster to create the next one, which, of course, leads to more and more failure …

“ … the innovation era is sundering the stability of the corporate age. Industries that once seemed resistant to change are only now entering the early stages of major disruption. … These changes are still new, in part because so many large businesses benefit from the old system and use their capital to impede innovation. But the changes will inevitably become greater, and the results will be drastic. … The lives of tens of millions of people will change.”[2]

Perhaps my desire to hold onto familiar physical things in my world, my tendency to mourn the demise of these small tokens of stability, comes from a deeper unease about these more significant rumblings of change. It’s not just that Borders Bookstore closed; it’s that bookstores are disappearing. It’s not just that my local mailbox disappeared and my local post office relocated, it’s that public institutions are getting privatized in ways that appear to threaten the public sphere. It’s not just that I don’t know if my children will get married; it’s that marriage as an institution is no longer the unchallenged “everyone-does-this” default it used to be. These are huge changes, and it feels like they’re happening at an ever-increasing rate.

If I had lived in a much earlier time – say, the Middle Ages – I wouldn’t have had to worry about rapid change. I could have lived my whole life with basically no important changes to contend with. I would have lived in surroundings that were basically the way they were when my parents were my age, and their parents before them, and their parents before them, and so on. I would have done things the way people (of my gender and social class) had done them in many generations before mine. This would have been comforting, if stifling.

Of course, I’m glad I live now rather than in the Middle Ages. And many changes are for the better. But very rapid change can be disorienting.[3] There is a tradeoff, after all, between the excitement and sense of possibility offered by new things and new ways, on the one hand, and the comfort offered by known quantities, on the other hand.

Well, at least we have the people in our lives to lend comfort and stability in the face of rapid change – but, of course, this can change too. Many people, it turns out, cannot count on their marriages lasting or their jobs lasting or even their good relationships lasting.

I recently looked at a photo taken at our wedding over 35 years ago. Barry and I were standing in the center of a semi-circle with the members of both of our families – my sister, my mother, my grandmother, Barry’s sister-in-law, his father, his mother, his grandmother, his brother and his sister. As with the imaginary “photo of my life” I described above, I mentally changed the image before me to reflect just who was still alive. Where my mother, my grandmother, both of Barry’s parents and his grandmother had stood were now “empty spaces.”

So perhaps it’s the other way around – if we cannot count on the people in our lives to always be there, perhaps we hope that certain things will always be there, to give us a little bit of comfort as so many important things change around us. Well, for me it’s not going to be Border’s Bookstore or Addie’s or Häagen-Dazs Five brand of coffee ice cream.

But there’s still Cheerios! This cereal has been in my life as far back as I can remember – and it’s still there, sitting in my kitchen cabinet. Yes, Cheerios, I derive some comfort from you. So, as the comic strip character Calvin said to his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, “But don’t you go anywhere!”[4]

[1] http://www.salon.com/2014/09/21/professors_on_food_stamps_the_shocking_true_story_of_academia_in_2014/

[2]

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/16/magazine/welcome-to-the-failure-age.html?alg=4H7LY&_r=2

[3] Alvin Toffler’s book, Future Shock, published in 1970, focused on the “personal perception of ‘too much change in too short a period of time’”. It was an international best-seller. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_Shock

[4] http://dogwithblog.in/2010/08/02/best-of-calvin-and-hobbes/

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