When I was a kid my father used to lament that he could no longer get a Chinese meal for 25 cents. Born in 1915, he lived through the Great Depression and served in World War II. It was not easy for me to understand him because so much had changed in the 50 or so years between when he had been born and when I was a teenager. Now I am the old dude, and it dawned on me how much time has passed and how much "distance" there is between my world and that of my grandkids.
I think of that on the 4th of July 2017. Today I think of that distance as most of us seem to agree that our national problems couldn’t be worse. Most of us can’t even mention politics among family and friends for fear of starting a fight. But then it dawned on me that just like it shaped my father, time and experience have given me a perspective. I forget it most of the time but on the 4th of July, it is worth thinking about.
In elementary school, we practiced air raids by hiding under our desks in case the Soviets decided to attack us. At Ponce de Leon Junior High School in Miami, we held our collective breath as a Soviet ship carried missiles toward Cuba. Jackie Robinson had to stay in a different hotel from his white Dodgers team mates. Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and later spent time in prison for saying what he believed. Elvis changed from serious musician to Vegas entertainer, and Bob Dylan gave up his acoustic guitar for an electric one. I played little vinyl records on a phonograph at 45 speed, and our landline was a party-line with a human operator at one end whose name was not Alexa. I used to give my punch-card computer programs in a cardboard box to a guy called the computer operator who laughingly told me that the turn-around time would be 24 hours. Ya'll, come back tomorrow.
The point? A lot of water has gone under the bridge. How can my grandchildren understand anything I say when I used to watch my mother hang clothes on something called a clothesline after scrubbing them on a washboard? But the truth is that on 7/4/17, much has not really changed. Today we have very challenging economic and social problems. We still find ourselves in a very scary world where our leaders cannot trust the bad guys to not make trouble. Technology both thrills and worries us. Driverless cars? Robots? Artificial intelligence? These and other innovations both fascinate and threaten. I recall one colleague telling me right after the Soviet Union fell that the future of the world would henceforth be peaceful. What was he smoking? Change is the only constant we will ever know, and any generation that thinks tranquility or the end of the world is right around the corner is fooling themselves.
The point? Lean back and take a big drag. This is as good as it gets. Appreciate the now for what it really is. Our current President doesn’t look or act like John F. Kennedy. But Kennedy almost got us all blown away playing chicken with Nikita Khrushchev, and he showed he wasn’t very adept when he messed up the Bay of Pigs invasion. Iran, North Korea, and China are threatening but we have lived through plenty of menacing situations, not to mention the the Vietnam War, Cuban Revolution, Korean War, WWII, WWI, and so on.
The economy is nothing to write home about today. But the ups and downs of the 1970s were no fun either. As we exited WWII, most people were pretty sure we would fall back into the Great Depression once the government spending stimulus for the war was retracted. While we are not now setting records for economic growth, we haven’t had a recession in almost nine years. I think we had two recessions in every decade since the 1950s.
We worry about low inflation and interest rates. True, they have their negatives. But many of us remember rising inflation and mortgaging our first homes at double-digit interest rates. We didn’t have to take a finance course to understand the power of compound interest.
What’s the point today? The point is that we should give our family and friends a big high-five as we enjoy the birthday of America. Our land is not perfect and it is far from being safe and strong. But it has been worse before and it will probably be worse again in the future. There has never been a time when all was well and we didn’t have important things to threaten us. Our land is what it always has been – a work in progress in a dangerous world. And thus, we will always have to be aware, mindful, and ready to act to preserve what we have.
Combine that truth with the larger truth of our freedoms. We have freedom to express and share our views. We have freedom to fashion solutions for tomorrow. We have freedom to argue and to be right sometimes and wrong other times. Today let’s worry less about our troubles and disagreements and kiss the ground that gives us so much. Tomorrow let's get back to the work of making things better.
Raise your cups of JD to the 4th!