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Roadrunner (Anthony Bourdain)

Roadrunner (Anthony Bourdain)

August 28, 2021 (343 words)

Before going to see Roadrunner, the new documentary on the life of Anthony Bourdain, I knew very little about the man beyond the basics: He had a show on the Food Network, he traveled to exotic locales while filming the episodes, and he committed suicide in a Paris hotel room a few summers ago.

I was not the least bit tuned into the urban legend that had grown up around Tony Bourdain. But by last weekend I was itching to watch something on a big screen, and this was the only title playing that I could talk someone else into going along to see with me.

The movie has a sad ending (his suicide), but I found Bourdain’s story downright inspirational, nonetheless. It turns out before he was a TV host and talk show personality, he was a writer. His writing is what launched him into media stardom. I had no idea.

That he was a Vassar College drop-out and Culinary Institute of America graduate who started as a dishwasher and a line cook, then worked his way up to executive chef at a fancy Manhattan restaurant, is fascinating enough. That he also managed to develop a writing talent along the way, and eventually captured the imagination of a wide audience with his words, gives me hope.

Not that I have any interest in scaling the heights of fame and fortune. I am quite happy with the life I lead, and grateful for the people who share this life with me. But, hey, I wouldn’t mind a few more readers…

The film-makers have done an excellent job putting this little documentary together. The action footage of the witty and gently profane Mr. Bourdain is priceless. As are the interviews with his two wives, the last love interest of his life, his friends, and his co-workers.

If you can stand an unhappy, inexplicable ending to what seemed from the outside to be a most rewarding life, go see this movie. Anthony Bourdain was apparently one interesting, funny, complicated guy. May he rest in peace.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
August 28, 2021

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Homeschooling and Socialization

Homeschooling and Socialization

August 27, 2021 (836 words)

For many years I partnered with my soon-to-be-ex-wife – who by the way just happens to turn 60 years old today – to raise four children. She did most of the work, of course. Our kids have each emerged into adulthood (ages 21 through 30) as reasonably decent human beings. They are responsible individuals and more often than not manage to be considerate of others. Best of all, none of the four have done any significant jail time, at least not yet.

But neither are any of them what might be called a social butterfly. While they are each bright and funny and can hold their own in conversation, they seem to be content keeping their own company, most of the time.

Since they were home-schooled throughout elementary school, and to varying degrees during their high school years, the casual observer is likely to chalk up my kids’ innate solitary streak to the so-called ‘lack of socialization’ all such ‘deprived’ children are believed to suffer from. As if every graduate of a public or private school is a bon vivant, life-of-the-party type, with a wide circle of close friends.

But we all know that is simply not the case. The socialization available in a formal classroom setting does not guarantee your student will blossom into a bubbly game-show host. There are all different kinds of kids, with all different temperaments, and each child needs to find his or her own way in this world. Hopefully that journey includes the loving support of parents and teachers, siblings and friends.

*

Yes, that’s right, even home-schooled kids almost always have more than their parent (or parents) as a teacher during the course of their elementary and high school years. And every home-schooled kid has more than their immediate family members to act as friends.

The image of a few siblings trapped at the dining room table for twelve years, grappling with a range of challenging subjects with only their beleaguered mother for a guide, is not an accurate representation of the home-school experience. At least not of any home-school family I was familiar with, back in the day.

The moms in our little circle of friends got very creative at pooling resources with each other to form mini educational co-ops. Subjects would be taught by a mom with a particular expertise, or sometimes an outside instructor was brought in to handle a certain subject. Many moms chose to enroll one or more of their children in a public or private school for a grade here, or a grade there, to make sure a subject was adequately covered.

And every home-school family I ever heard of took their kids on numerous field trips to parks and museums and such. Along with enrolling their children in a wide range of after-school activities like community sports teams, community music and arts groups, summer camps, etc.

*

Socialization can be broadly defined as the ability to interact with the outside world. Parents who choose to home-school believe their children are actually better prepared for this, since the kids are called on to do so from an earlier age. They get to interact with not only their peer group and teachers, but also with a variety of other adults in the ‘real’ world.

And then there is the matter of ‘negative’ socialization. Teasing, bullying, gossip, immoral discussions, and general peer pressure may be a part of life, and an argument can be made that the sooner a child learns to deal with such negative influences, the better. Parents who choose to home-school seek to foster the development of their child’s character in a supportive environment, before having to contend with life’s less-than-pleasant realities.

Beyond the ongoing debate over socialization, there is the even more important matter of what curriculum is being taught. In my experience this is the main reason most parents choose to home school. They want to see their child receive a solid grounding in the classic liberal arts tradition: reading and writing, history and literature. Educational fads tend to come and go, and children instructed according to those fads can be left without the ability to form coherent thoughts or express themselves clearly.

At least that’s what most parents who choose to home-school think.

*

This is not to say a public or private school is incapable of providing such a solid foundation. It all comes down to the individual instructor. A good teacher is worth his or her (usually her, at least in the early years) weight in gold. It should also be noted just how frequently that special teacher finds herself working at odds with her school’s administration.

Usually that’s because the gifted teacher has developed instincts and knows what works in the classroom, while the administration is pre-occupied with implementing the latest educational fad, dreamed up by a committee of overseers who think they know better.

In far too many cases the committees and overseers have lost touch with the student body they are charged with educating.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
August 27, 2021

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Sweet Music

Sweet Music

August 23, 2021 (172 words)

And then there is music. Lots of stuff appeals to me, starting with what the yard birds do each morning before dawn. There is Americana Fest, held every September in Nashville, which I only just discovered in 2019. (They skipped last year due to COVID).

Have always loved any-and-all breeds of singer-songwriter, along with the rock of my youth, most of Motown, a little classical, some jazz, select R&B, the whole of The American Songbook, swing (Ella, anyone?), Echoes and World Cafe on WXPN.

And get this: I have the nerve to consider myself a musician, even though i don’t actually play an instrument. Is that allowed? A word in conversation can remind me of a lyric. A random sound makes me think of a downbeat or a melody. Before long I am singing something out loud, or playing something in my head.

I guess you could say I am one of those people who are easily amused. It makes for a full life, and life is rather sweet right about now.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
August 23, 2021

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Chronicles of American Money

Chronicles of American Money

August 15, 2021 (1,962 words)

I.
My nominee for most productive use of the pandemic shutdown would be the esteemed essayist Lance Morrow. Last year while the rest of us were sorting through our attics and basements and closets, and figuring out how to work remotely and conduct Zoom meetings, this 81-year-old managed to produce a breezy, accessible overview of the good, the bad, and the ugly concerning American attitudes on the defining subject of money.

Mr. Morrow weaves a rich tapestry that is part personal memoir, part history lesson, part social commentary, and part cultural anthropology. If there is any other writer you think could bring such a panoramic concept to life, please let me know who that might be. Reading this delightfully short meditation is both an education and a joy.

The democratic acquisition of money and the widespread pursuit of material advancement is what has defined the enlightened modern age. We Americans have always put a righteous spin on this activity, insisting such acquisition and advancement is not automatically at odds with our better angels. We like to straddle the age-old, edge-of-the-cliff tug of war between virtue and wealth – between God and Mammon. In America, the story goes, one can do well for oneself, and still do good in the world. At least that’s the grand premise, the promise we all want to believe in.

Achieving that promise has proven to be elusive. Throughout God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money, Morrow cites one example after another of money’s inherent tendency toward selfishness and abuse of power. Starting with a few prominent case studies from our country’s early days, that show how the fabled Men Who Built America during the Gilded Age accumulated their great wealth in sinful ways. The contradiction is obvious, since these titans were professed Christians, almost to a man.

Other first-generation entrepreneurs are portrayed as being a bit more circumspect, having done a somewhat better job reining in harsh, get-ahead business practices by keeping at least a few of the basic tenets of Christianity in mind. All in all, though, it hasn’t been a pretty picture.

II.
Despite these many unfortunate examples the book is far from an outright trashing of America’s risk-taking, death-defying movers and shakers. In fact, the reader can detect a certain sympathy on the part of the author for the dynamic achievers this young country of ours has produced. And with good reason, one is forced to concede. Since without them and their raging success stories we would never have advanced beyond a state of pilgrim self-sufficiency, and there would be no grand chronicles of American money to discuss and dissect.

Still, one wishes Mr. Morrow could find it in his eloquent heart to spend a bit more time spotlighting the plight of the downtrodden – the ones who have been exploited over the years, to one degree or another, by too many of our dynamic achievers.

On page 119 he does reference the “brutal economic dislocations of the Gilded Age, (which extended to) labor/management violence.” But this is merely offered as an aside, in contrast to the cheerful, inspirational young adult fiction of Horatio Alger, whose 120 volumes were churned out during this same Gilded Age. Morrow’s point being that even in the worst of times a “sweet, providential” vision of American life persisted among the general populace.

Alger’s influential stories were not “rags to riches” fairy tales, but rather a celebration of grit and determination that helps a hero overcome his initial poverty to arrive at middle or upper middle-class respectability. All of which reinforced the idea that in America, success is the natural result of purity of heart and a steadfast character. It is virtue that enables wealth. If you are good, you will do well. Success fulfills the national destiny, and justifies the tremendous trust God has placed in the American project. Such is the essence of our nation’s mythology.

III.
Mr. Morrow’s book gently explores two basic themes: how dynamic achievers often rationalize their tendency toward ruthless business practices, and how the country as a whole has always tried to reconcile such callous behavior with the cherished, self-congratulatory notion of American Exceptionalism.

He outlines two schools of thought that have developed among the body politic, to allow the seamier side of American wealth creation to be refined and purified, and reorganized for the common good.

The first is through philanthropy. Under this model, movers and shakers have carte blanche to lie, cheat, and steal their way to the top – either flagrantly or subtly. Then redemption is earned by seeing to it that hospitals and universities and museums and libraries are erected, in a grand show of public benevolence.

The second is through taxation and government bureaucracy. No need to fret over the selfish and inconsiderate business tycoon, and the rowdy ways his wealth is accumulated. Because at the end of the day we will address the social inequities his behavior helps create by taxing the ill-gotten gains and using bureaucracy to return that money in the form of various programs aimed at the public good.

These two basic models have obviously organized our politics, dividing the citizenry into two opposing camps. This is most unfortunate. Because the real issue, the underlying problem, is not being addressed by either of these two established schools of thought.

IV.
You may think I am laying it on a bit too thick, with talk of lying, cheating, and stealing, and ill-gotten gains. Employing such language may disqualify me in your eyes as a serious social commentator. After all, it’s just such ranting that has gotten hotheads like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren expelled from polite conversation. Which is the very same fate suffered by progressive voices of American Virtue from an earlier age, such as Ida Tarbell.

But I can assure you the descriptions still apply, even if the transgressions are not as overt as they once were.

We have done away with slave labor, child labor, treacherous working conditions, 14-hour work days, 6-day work weeks, etc. Due in large part to the nagging progressive voices of American Virtue. Today, whatever sins are being committed by those amassing great wealth are more of the covert variety, more sins of omission.

To clarify, I don’t believe contemporary business men and women get up in the morning with the express purpose of being deceitful or dishonest. Quite the contrary. I believe most everyone harbors the best of intentions. But there are a lot of moving parts to a commercial enterprise of any size. Countless decisions – some of which are small and inconsequential, but some of which are pretty big – must be made in the course of a hectic day. Even when you are really trying it’s hard to get each and every decision “right” – to do right by all the extended stakeholders involved, such as employees, vendors, and the surrounding community-at-large.

The problem is when the going gets tough, most of these well-intentioned business people allow ethical considerations to fade into the background, as they go into survival mode. Not because they are bad people, necessarily, but because so often it’s just too damn hard and too damn complicated to be conscientious and maintain commercial viability.

This is the proverbial slippery slope, though. Because once a business succeeds beyond the founders’/owners’/investors’ wildest dreams, it becomes just too damn easy to allow ethical considerations to stay right where they are – in the background.

An obvious example is the common practice of focusing on executive compensation and investor return, and excluding rank-and-file employees from any sort of meaningful participation in profit-sharing. Maintaining the status quo in this regard becomes an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement. When a job posting references “competitive salary,” that can be nothing more than a euphemism for “you’re not going to get paid better anywhere else, so you might as well come to work here.”

V.
In evaluating all this swashbuckling economic treachery, Lance Morrow’s fallback position seems to be one of knowing acceptance. He clearly acknowledges the blatant ethical contradictions imbedded in so much American money, but can’t help but admire what the big dogs have done in moving the needle forward for society as a whole. Maybe that’s to be expected of a writer who has been nurtured in the bosom of the establishment all these years.

For instance, on page 96 Mr. Morrow explains the fatal flaw in the ‘taxes and bureaucracy’ model of purifying the seamier side of American wealth creation and reorganizing it for the common good: “The workings of justice in such (bureaucratic) distributions are imperfect and sometimes corrupt, big government duties being more diverse and comprehensive than those of philanthropy.”

This is certainly true, and something most everyone would agree with. But the only alternative being proposed is philanthropy. What goes unsaid here is that philanthropy is simply not diverse or comprehensive enough in addressing our economic system’s glaring shortfalls and oversights.

Then on page 112 Morrow discusses the attraction Communism and Socialism had for a certain breed of American intellectual, in the wake of the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Faced with the breakdown of “the great, malignant capitalist machine,” these intellectuals were looking to usher in a new society, and restore a sense of basic decency.

As Mr. Morrow notes, they were a bit starry-eyed in this pursuit, thinking people could go on quite nicely without the great machine, “sustained instead by an all-powerful and presumably just and righteous government.” Again, most everyone would agree Communism and Socialism is not the cure for what ails us. But Mr. Morrow sort of leaves us hanging as to just what that cure might be.

On page 120 he seems to be chiding today’s critics of capitalism for the way they have precluded the possibility “that decent, constructive energies might still be at work among plutocrats.” I agree we should not automatically assign nefarious motives to our most successful citizens. But neither should we assume the opposite, that doing well for oneself is an automatic reflection of decent and constructive energy.

VI.
It’s as if Morrow is telling us our only real hope for achieving a more equitable distribution of America’s great bounty is to wait for the plutocrats’ better angels to win out over their lower-order inclinations. As if there is no system of thought available to humanity that can be invoked to bring about a thriving economic environment with justice and charity as its core.

This is where the social teaching of the Catholic Church on economics, starting with Pope Leo XIII in 1891, and running all the way through the 20th century to the current writing of Pope Francis, can come in handy. It fills the gaps in what we mistakenly believe to be the only two alternatives available to us: a no-holds-barred version of capitalism, and a stifling, incentive-killing state-sponsored socialism.

In the course of his book Mr. Morrow makes specific reference to the views of Quakers, Buddhists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Puritans when it comes to commerce and money. But his erudition apparently does not extend to a familiarity with the Catholic Magisterium as it pertains to economic behavior. Which is okay, since nobody is perfect.

But it’s the one perspective that could solve this puzzle.

Let me close by acknowledging my own pronounced limitations. These brief remarks cannot come close to capturing or doing justice to what Lance Morrow has given us in God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money. His achievement far exceeds my ability to reflect on its glory. Please do read this book for yourself, and partake of his wisdom. I am merely suggesting that as wonderful as Mr. Morrow’s latest work is, his is not necessarily the last word on the subject.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
August 15, 2021

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By Way of Explanation

By Way of Explanation

August 7, 2021 (1,759 words)

I.
The tiny enterprise I started in 1974 out of my one-bedroom apartment has slowly morphed over the years into a healthy little contracting company that does business in Philadelphia and the metro NYC area. We do interior finish work in office buildings and other public spaces, and now specialize in acoustic wall and ceiling treatments. An even more generic term for what we do would be ‘fabric-wrapped panels.’

Here’s how it works: An architect or an acoustician will specify certain products or materials designed to control sound reverberation or sound transfer in areas like a conference room or a concert hall. Companies like mine then assemble a quote for the cost of those materials, along with a cost for the labor required to install them.

The quote, or proposal, does not go directly to the architect or the acoustician, but rather to a construction management firm that is hired to oversee the various trades (plumbers, electricians, HVAC people, millwork, flooring, etc.) that are needed to pull together any given construction/renovation project.

This means we operate almost exclusively as part of a team with other trades, one of many ‘sub-contractors’ who function under the direction of the construction manager. As such my company does not have any name recognition to speak of, out on the street. We may get involved with some of the sexiest, highest profile spaces around – for tech giants and other corporate behemoths, Wall Street wheelers and dealers, leading universities, blue-blood performance venues, and the like – but chances are you’ve never heard of us. And you probably never will. This makes us just another humble nuts-and-bolts blue collar contracting company, earning a living by furnishing and installing certain lines of specialty construction materials.

II.
Assembling these proposals for labor and materials is the job of an ‘estimator,’ which in the construction industry is the equivalent of what you would think of as a sales person. An estimator works from the project architect’s plans and specifications, which taken together are referred to as the ‘bidding documents.’ Though these documents are now digital and easy to download, they can be less than clear, and sometimes even downright contradictory. This makes an estimator’s job very difficult: trying to decipher what the architect is looking for, and then trying to convince the construction management firm you have the proper scope covered in your proposal.

There are always multiple proposals/bids from competing companies for each line item of work (plumbers, electricians, etc.) on any given project. The construction manager sifts through these bids and decides which ‘sub’ to hire in every category. No matter what trade you’re in, developing relationships with all the active construction management firms out there is key to an estimator’s success.

Once a contract is awarded it then becomes a matter of procuring the materials that have been ‘custom specified’ for each project. We don’t deal in generic stuff that can be obtained from the local lumber yard, or the local Home Depot. We purchase from a variety of manufacturers and distributors, some of whom are located overseas. These materials have to be warehoused by us until they are needed on site. The concept of on-time delivery doesn’t really work in our business. To avoid unexpected delays and ensure completion deadlines are met, we want to have what is specified at least a month in advance of when it is scheduled to be installed.

The bidding activity and the purchasing function lead up to the final component of this entire process: the installation. This final and most important task is completed by our own steady crew of union carpenters. Our estimators have to deal with a lack of clarity and constant revisions to the bidding documents. Our purchasing person has to contend with material pricing and shipping dates that are often a moving target. The biggest challenge our installers face these days is trying to do their work in a professional and workmanlike manner, in what are often adverse conditions.

Construction schedules have always been aggressive, since the tenant/owner is eager to occupy the new space and start generating revenue. But these schedules are set at the very beginning of the process, and in recent years it seems any contingency that once existed to accommodate unforeseen circumstances or unexpected delays has been eliminated. Since we are what is known as a ‘finish trade,’ we are increasingly asked to work around and on top of other trades that should have been done-and-gone long before we ever stepped foot on site.

The proper sequencing of events, which is the primary role of the construction manager, is now often an unobtainable pipe dream. There is simply not enough time allotted to these projects. Smart, highly compensated people with spreadsheets are deciding when and how things will get done. Unfortunately, these decisions are being made by those with little-to-no-knowledge of how things actually come together on any sort of major commercial construction site.

III.
About six years ago I stopped having anything to do with our Philadelphia ‘division,’ and I stopped having anything to do with sales (praise Allah). Since June 2015 I have functioned strictly as an operations manager for our metro NYC division, making sure men and materials get where they need to go. Being able to hand off sales to a few younger guys in the office has been good for my soul. Being able to immerse myself in a much larger market has been good for my perspective. And concentrating my efforts solely on the needs of our NYC field staff has given me a new lease on life.

(Truth be told, cooperation not competition has always been my mantra, and this has made me something of an outlier in the world of commerce.)

I now consider myself semi-retired, since the stress of generating sales has been assumed by younger team members. So has responsibility for maintaining the company’s long-term viability, to a large extent. I may have been a decent little sales person in my day, but it turns out I am really an ‘organizer’ and ‘facilitator’ by nature. I still go to the office every day, but my role has changed. What I do now definitely needs to be done. And it’s currently not being handled by anyone else in the company. But it’s not a full-time job. This means I am (finally) able to check out and unplug on a regular basis.

To the casual observer it may look like I am working as hard now as I ever have, if not harder. Because I currently get up in the wee hours and head into the office to finalize details of that morning’s delivery of materials and equipment to our various office building job sites in NYC and North Jersey.

(Someone else in the office handles the morning’s delivery details into our Philadelphia territory. That person wisely gets things squared away by the end of the previous work day.)

But this weird, middle-of-the-night start to my day is not as bizarre as it sounds. For one thing, what man my age sleeps through the night? Coming in when I do is really not that big a deal, since I’m already awake. Plus, after our two ‘North territory’ drivers are safely on their way, usually around 4:00 am or so, I head home and climb back into bed for a few more hours of very restful (and usually dream-filled) sleep. I return to the office about 8:00 am, to start the ‘normal person’ part of my day.

But that’s only about half the time. Other mornings find me heading north at 4:00 am in the passenger seat of one of the delivery vans. It’s always good when I can stop by the NYC/ North Jersey jobs we are currently installing, to make sure things are coming together as intended. As well as do some advance scouting of the projects we are scheduled to start soon, to confirm readiness. On these days I get to snooze a bit on the ride in, and on the ride back.

So all-in-all I am really not the least bit sleep-deprived, though I admit the manner in which I piece together the recommended six or seven hours each ‘night’ is a bit unconventional.

IV.
This new, very reduced role in the business has generated a degree of flexibility in my schedule I have never experienced before. A typical work day now consists of being able to cut for a few hours right in mid-shift, to do whatever strikes my fancy: run errands, swim laps at the Y, or have lunch with a friend.

By mid-afternoon I usually have to check back in, since that’s when I start receiving updates from our NYC installers about what is needed for the next day. By late afternoon the delivery vans could technically be loaded. But by then, due to my early pre-dawn start, I no longer have the interest or the energy to even direct someone else to do the loading. At that point I either leave the office for the day, or maybe stick around for a while but switch out of ‘work’ mode to pursue other interests.

That pretty much sums up how things have changed for me. I now have free time to do something other than earn a living. I have always had a solitary streak, have always liked to read and think deep thoughts. My new-found leisure has made it possible to turn these life-long inclinations into a little side hustle – writing. And don’t you know, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.

Writing helps me collect my thoughts and figure things out. It makes me more lucid, more coherent when interacting with others. Finding the right word or turning an apt phrase never gets old. It’s my way of singing and dancing to my heart’s content. Here I am in my late sixties, and suddenly writing is pretty much all I think about. Whatever I am doing during the course of a day, or wherever I may go, it’s always with an eye out for the next sliver of inspiration.

One final note on being semi-retired from my ‘real’ job while simultaneously stoking a late-in-life amateur writing career: Getting up in the wee hours for work is proving to be an integral part of my writing process. It helps me break through the space-time continuum, as it were, and tap into my creative side. I always seem to wake with words on the tip of my tongue, which I can’t wait to write down.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
August 7, 2021

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Commitment

Commitment

July 29, 2021 (42 words)

There are a lot of attractive women in this world. But when one of them decides to give you her heart, well, that’s not a run-of-the-mill, everyday occurrence. Best to sit up and take notice, if you know what’s good for you.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
July 29, 2021

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