Monday, February 3, 2014

A Tale Of Two Choices

It is tourist season they tell us in Key West and the streets are filled with the carefree. This year I find myself wondering where they come from and where they go to when they go home, and what do they think when they get there. Was it worthwhile? Did we do a good job of making their winter break memorable? Did they find within what they looked for in the Keys? And then what if we did...what if we did such a good job that they think this really is paradise, the place they want to live, not just vacation

I got a disturbing call this week and it forced me to look within and I wonder how it us that I live here when others don't. I do not think I am alone in believing we are living life on a knife edge as we launch ourselves into the 21st century, a time of turmoil and uncertainty and in many cases, scarcity. We all know these are not the 1970s, a time of abundance and certainty and revolution too, hippies and protestors who waved clenched fists at the people in charge, certain that when the time to protest was over the time to work, to sow future wealth, would be ready and waiting to embrace the former protestors. Nowadays we live in uncertainty, unemployment, social isolation and obedience. Our leaders tell us that to protest the ordained order is to be a Nazi, to demand more from our bosses is to be a Facist. When a billionaire compares himself to a persecuted minority and we do not ties up and deride him en masse we can safely say we are cowed.

I love history, it explains the present and hints at the future. History is also complete, there are no surprises or uncertainties. We can study Pearl Harbor in the sure and certain knowledge that the sneak attack is not the prelude to disaster but the beginning of a drive to ultimate military victory. Read about the Great Depression and know that no matter how times may have been in 1935, milk and honey would flow in abundance fifteen years later. At least for the survivors of all those explosions that separated the decade if poverty from the decades of abundance after the war that killed fifty million people. History is certain, history is written, immutable, a world where consequence follows action in a straight clearly understandable line.

Today we are of course living tomorrow's history and our actions today will lead to consequences tomorrow that will one day seem linear and obvious. Yet right now the consequences of our choices today are mere speculation, filled with possibilities, yes, but also with rife with failure. They say the process of shiny is one if accumulating regrets, and I am sliding into old age as I wonder at the choices of my younger life. And yet things could have gone worse. I am grateful to KeyWest, a city that stepped into my life, that declared itself ready to accept me after decades of flirting with a relationship and has given me a refuge in a world filled with uncertainty. My wife and I have jobs we like, with pensions promised just at that moment when our working lives are starting to wind down after two working lives in jobs that offered no retirement. How is it possible we found our retirement home in a town whose image promoted far and wide is a place of mindless, foolish hedonism?

The telephone call from a blog reader whose life dedicated to a place filled with winter, high costs, rich people playing, jobs lost, angry relatives all combined to present an uncertain future. Joblessness is at the heart of it all, the sense of not bring wanted or needed, the loss of the true value of one's labor, one's place in the world. We meet, we talk, we learn about each other and the first question, as we size each other up is: "What of you do?" And what if the answer is nothing? It's the fundamental explanation of our lives. It justifies us and gives us our place in the world and when the answer is "nothing" the void is until label. It's enough to make you dream of pulling up your toots, leaving your friends your history and your familar places and sent you spiraling south to escape the ice on the roads and the ice in your heart. And yet in an hour on the phone I fought to put the emigrant off. Why? I am fearful, I know how unshakeable is the rejectionist front in the Florida Keys. Our unemployed skilled Northerner dreams of holding a simple job, bringing useful industrial skills to our small southern community, fishing and watching winter sunsets in shirtsleeves. Why not? Because the rot of unemployment, of off shooting of jobs, of the fear and navel gazing of our self absorbed leaders has penetrated One Human Family. Secure jobs are at a premium and to come from outside is to ask local people to trust that you will stay, even when you discover low pay, long hours, not much time to fish, office politics and no interest in building your career aspirations. Resentment builds, paradise is found not to be and home looks like the dream deferred as the ice melts and the trees bud and the honey bees come back yo the lost hedgerows of the emigrant's youth.

I have been observing this process first hand of another blog reader who came to Key West with her fiancé for years enjoying the bars and the winter sun and the crowded optimism of America's Southernmost Town in the years before 2008 when wealth inequality and the powerlessness of the middle class were made brutally apparent to anyone who cared to look. She and he bought a house, using the wealth of their northern, unionized pension plans to buy an excessively expensive home in a union free town with not many opportunities. Her job did not pan out and on his alone they cannot live. This story is not history, yet, and it's ending cannot be foretold. But it does not look happy to me. I can say this, Key West in some manner rejects people and in some manner she did not tie herself to the fortunes of her adopted town, a place where strong prejudices and loud beliefs are not easy easily digested. Sitting on a barstool being loud and doctrinaire making "friends" is one thing but telling anyone who will listen how their lives would be better if they did things your way at work... That is a hard thing to sell in a town where we all are grateful for the acceptance our quirks have received at the hands of our neighbors. Yeah, our way may not be the most efficient, it may very well not be the way you did it Up North, but that's okay, our bosses like it that way and we know they are the puppeteers of our daily lives. Key West is very feudal town for incomers: know your place, be loyal, don't rock the boat and know your place, take orders, know your place. It's the price of a footstool at foot of the dinner table in paradise. I pay it willingly because I have lived a life and know when I am well off. The foot stool suits me.

A young colleague of mine was pondering one day about buying a house. She looked me, I demurred. She sees a future married one day to the man she lives with, she sees children in the picture, the whole American catastrophe. They already have a dog, bought not adopted, but her heart is in the right place. I didn't know what to say. Buy a house with a man you think you know? She's done that once already and had the devil's own job leaving the house to her former boyfriend and his ambitious family. Buying a house is the dream, no one can tell you what to do etc...we know the refrain. The problem with house buying here is that prices are high and the commitment is thirty years in a community famous for impermanence. Divorce, separation, a move, all will end up requiring that house to be sold. Does that possibility mean it's not worth trying to settle down now? She'll know the right answer a few years hence...

Another friend married almost thirty years raised three children in the family home but now she is pondering a future without him, they've grown apart and so forth. So was it worth it? Undoubtedly I'm sure she would say as those children raised in these islands go out into the world and make their own successful way. She spent her whole adult life living and working in the Keys, where they built their own home and a life. It's the dream, lived. That the storyline takes a different turn doesn't invalidate what came before. It takes adaptation to keep going.

People who observe me from the outside believe me to be impulsive, but I am a planner. Faced with a choice I ask myself what's the worst thing that could happen? If the worst outcome is too much to bear I know my choice. At the same time if I have a deepseated desire to do something I plan my way towards that goal. If you want to live here and have the opportunity should you not take it? On the other hand burning bridges at home to launch yourself on an experiment in sub-tropical living is not too wise, in my cautious opinion. Key West's image of itself doesn't lend itself to the way life is supposed to be lived, get a career, get married, buy a home and have kids. Yet people do it all the time, in defiance of the image, the bars, the temporary nature of a society in transition. Incomers bring their baggage, their desire for escape from the burden of expectations, and they expect to find freedom from convention.

Freedom comes from within and it's a hard task master. No one loves pioneers, no one trusts travelers who come and go and don't put down roots. Later, after time passes society reveres its founders, the awkward members of society who figured it was better to cross a desert or an ocean and risk dying rather than stay in town and do as expected. Blessed are the settled for they shall prosper in situ, and not suffer the uncertainties of change. I have wondered how it is to live in Alaska, a place of extremes, of cold, of darkness, a place where people live normal lives despite the natural extremes around them. Yet that curiosity has never driven me hard enough to do anything about it. It's an idle curiosity and I dare say at this point it will never be fulfilled. And one could argue I am the worse for my curiosity unfulfilled, but I feel okay. I like living in the heat, taking on the same daily tasks in a world of palms and mangroves, not so different from granite and pine trees, or saguaro and thorn bushes, madrone and eucalyptus.

So what's the choice? Me, I'm cautious and I suspect that my mobility over the decades has been enabled by an economy cruising along, cheap energy fueling mobility with work on tap in any town. I balanced no career with a choice to have no children, so all I needed was a job from here to there. Today it's not so easy to show up new in town and find a job with millions unemployed everywhere. You stay put to keep what you have. So is there a choice? I have no idea. I'll tell you in a few years, or decades, when this history is written.