Advice to Spencer


Why should I presume? What advice can I––an old guy likely to confuse his aches and pains with the collapse of the entire world––give to a sixteen year-old boy wondering what to make of his life? Only old fools qualify for the wisdom of age. I’m happily defunct––retired on a pension, with mortgage and health insurance paid, and some savings for rainy days that don’t seem to be letting up. And you, Spencer, are sweet sixteen––creative, articulate, smart, lively, and polite, with the good sense and decency to be one of my son’s very best friends. What wisdom can I offer in this Halloween season, which marks the advent of the Christmas shopping season and birth of the seven billionth human being on planet earth? Think of me as a pumpkin-head, my words of advice exhausted by the eerie glow of teeth and eyes lit by a stubby flickering candle inside.

One advantage of being gray is that I’m beginning to match how I see the world. The other is that I have less time to worry about the consequences of saying something stupid and wrong. It frees me up to speed my advice on its way.

So, Spencer, here’s the advice I am not giving you: You can do whatever you want, if you try hard enough. You can be rich and famous if you work hard enough at it, or, to be on the safe side, rich and anonymous. Go west, young man, and follow the American Dream all the way to California’s San Andreas fault. Go for broke brokering real estate, for example. As the earth shrinks under the press of seven billion souls, housing bubbles may burst but property prices are sure to re-inflate. Slum lords will have especially fat success stories to tell.

So here’s what I do advise: Beware the Empire State Building promise of the American Dream, Spencer. Hard work will not necessarily get you the life you want. Ask bean pickers in the fields how hard they work and how far they’ve come, often in the hope of having just enough to get back home. Good solid Americans are supposed to dream big, and their dreams are supposed to make them famous and rich. Like thousands of lost boys on the playgrounds of Philadelphia and Detroit, I know you like to shoot baskets in the back yard. Do you think that any amount of practice is likely to propel you, or those thousands of lost boys, into the NBA? A lot of dreams, Spencer, are clueless and big. As the earth shrinks it will have better room for dreams that are smart and small.     

It’s obvious, Spencer, that in you there’s an artist, not a lab technician or engineer, looking for ways to express himself. So I advise you to avoid unnatural acts. The political squeeze is on for true-blue American kids to take crash courses in science, math and technology so they can out-engineer the millions of Asians who already have taken advanced versions of those courses. But those Asians are waiting in lines to work for wages that wouldn’t pay the rent in your home town. Can we STEM the tide of Asian brilliance and hard work while preventing the theft and recycling of our patented techno-properties? I doubt it. Do you, born with a compassionate artist’s heart and mind, want to beat your brains out doing something you hate so you can finish in the pack in an endless global race?

Why not slow down and smell the flowers, Spencer, so you can see straight into the core of crooked realities with enough good sense to tell the difference between necessities and junk. Henry Ford was a genius whose sense of art was careless enough to be indifferent to the junk, toxins and wars his gadgets have created for us worldwide. Do we need more Henry Fords to invent gadgets that will allow a couple billion more cars in China and India to run in the exhausted air they emit, or do we need artists to conceive communities that can get by just fine without or with fewer cars?

I want you to be a realist, Spencer. Fifty years ago the earth had (only) three billion souls to feed. By 1999 we had six billion, and if current trends continue we will have eight billion about the time you turn twenty-one. Pollution, global warming, and wars cast dark shadows over all the hope in your heart. So you need to be clear about what these shadows mean to you. There’s a bottomless difference, Spencer, between cynicism, skepticism, and pessimism. Cynicism is the self-defeating and wholly demoralized belief that says “Everything sucks.” You hear a lot of young people saying it these days. To the cynic, everything sucks. Nothing is worthwhile and nothing is better or worse. Cynics respond to life by dragging everything and everyone down to their mind-blown level, and also by trying to suck everything out of life without giving anything back. A skeptic is not necessarily a cynic. A skeptic takes a wait-and-see approach, questions authority, and subjects all beliefs to credibility tests. Skepticism is vital to critical thinking, and critical thinking is where good judgment comes from. A lot of pessimists are critical thinkers. A pessimist is one who sees the dark side of things, without necessarily becoming cynical. Pessimists tend to be realists, especially in these troubled times. A pessimist worries that tuna sandwiches made from real fish, Spencer, may become extinct. This pessimistic possibility also may be realistic and has to be looked at clearly. A realist is one who uses critical thinking to discern what necessities are, and it seems realistic to conclude that tuna fish are becoming increasingly scarce on the steadily shrinking and exhausted planet that is your primary place of residence.

A lot of skeptical realists are especially pessimistic about current models of economic growth. They see these models as unsustainable and disastrous to the human race. But realists also understand the importance of “following the money” and “growing the economy.” Currently a lot of important people are quite unrealistic. They think we’ll be better off by having more stuff, especially the engines that feast on the oil and gas needed to feed millions more engines rapidly exhausting the air, water, soil, and parking spaces that 7,000,000,000 souls find more than merely convenient and fun. What’s worse is that a lot of these important people spend their energies promoting an unrealistic paper economy that grows profits but not lettuce, beans, goats, goods and services. This paper economy exists mainly in cyberspace, and it promotes mainly its own growth. With an alarming percentage of the Ivy League’s best and brightest graduates opting to become bankers, investment brokers and financial gurus, a lot of our nation’s geniuses have addicted themselves to casino life. Well stocked with funds provided by the pensions and savings of working people, they sit behind computer monitors, hedge their Wall Street bets, and wait for tidbits of good news that will momentarily drive Wall Street numbers up. A lot of them, relatively risk free, lose a lot of money that is not theirs, and get rich doing it. Lucrative Wall Street geniuses currently have markedly devalued the fortunes of ordinary people who live on the Main Streets of our cities and towns. As a lot of these financial gurus became very rich gambling at the Wall Street casinos, even after the bad news that hit hard in 2008, we, back home, were too confused to ask what their betting had to do with our daily necessities.

Make a list, Spencer, of peoples’ basic necessities. Live according to the necessities. Start with food, shelter, and clothing, then work your way up. Above all remember this: Food does not come from supermarkets. Then observe the squirrels, rabbits, and birds in your neighborhood. Note that they go naked all winter long and that most manage to survive to see the next spring. They huddle with other squirrels, rabbits and birds, and know the efficiency and pleasures of small spaces. And thrift stores offer great clothing deals, even on labels that have come back into fashion.

Live where there’s an abundance of fresh water, even if it’s frozen half the year.

Live where you don’t have to wear a mask to breathe the air.

Live where body heat is a valuable natural resource, especially in the winter months.

Live where there’s a bit of dirt to grow veggies in, at least during the unfrozen part of the year. A back yard or lawn space will do, and it doesn’t take much dirt if it’s black enough. Very small spaces also work. You can’t grow pumpkins there, but arugula sprouts inside sidewalk cracks.

What advice can I give you, Spencer, about pursuing a career, especially since you’ll be competing with 7,000,000,000 people wondering what to do with themselves? Hustlers say, “Follow the money.” I say, “Follow the necessities,” because money necessarily follows necessities too. Make a list of what people really need, and if you think smart and small some of them may pay you to provide those needs.

Here are other basic necessities, beyond the ones listed above.
1. Health care.
2. Education.
3. Human services.  
4. Creativity.     
5. Loving care.

Please note, Spencer, that we have certain standard ways of providing some of these necessities to some of our citizens. Those who can afford it go to doctors, schools, and supermarkets, so you one day could become a nurse, teacher, or butcher and have a salary. But most of the people who provide the five basic necessities mentioned above do it for free. They are the wives, grandmothers, brothers, sisters, neighbors, and strangers to those in need. They don’t have regular jobs and salaries for providing the necessities for the many who need them. So your major challenge, Spencer, and the major challenge of your generation, is to get your money’s worth for the valuable and necessary work you do for the millions who need your talents and services.  

How can you get paid for doing good and necessary work? The artist in you, Spencer, is alive and well in you. Keep nourishing that good source of necessary life. Then make what’s necessary in you available to others who need it too. You could teach, Spencer, perhaps in a school but also perhaps in a shop on main street or in a nursing home. You could become a leader in your community, conveying your understanding of art to the design of new neighborhoods and towns that work efficiently without or with fewer cars. You could mentor and be an example to others who know that creativity is a necessity but don’t know how to realize it in themselves. Dare to dream new forms. Dare to express to the world how necessary your well-wrought visions are.

But be a realist. Only a few like you, Spencer, will realize their dreams unless the funny-money afloat in Wall Street cyberspace has a conversion experience. The billions of dollars that flow from Main Street into Wall Street accounts go there on the paltry strength of thousands of mouse-clicks per minute. Those billions of dollars need to stay––and come back––home. Home is where the heart is. Home is where the clearest sense of what is necessary and good is. Home is where we get to know the names of the people who need health care, human services, education, creativity, loving care, food, clothing, and shelter. Home is where new companies, capitalized by local cooperatives and banks, can spring into being for the purpose of employing people able to provide necessities to people willing to pay reasonable sums for them. You will need to discover what necessary work you can provide. Do your homework. Call it market research. How many people, especially the increasing millions of the retired, need what you can provide? What can they afford, and how can you make yourself affordable? The greater the need, the greater your career opportunities. But make this a rule: You don’t want work that will make someone else poor. You will support generous collective programs, including those undertaken by governments, that help the poor.

Keep clear in your mind what work is. Work is what you don’t want to do but believe you have to do, usually for money. If you love your work you will want to do it, and if there’s love in your work your work will be easier to love. When you want to do your work it becomes more like play. Think about this when you meditate on how you want to spend the rest of your life.

But you also will have to be realistic and strong, Spencer. Money doesn’t trickle down naturally from cyberspace casinos into real places we can be proud to call home. It trickles more unnaturally up into the cyberspace bank accounts of the rich. When you are realistic you understand that the casino players are playing for keeps and will try to humiliate you. Their habits won’t just go away. You, Spencer, will have to deal with addicted, sly, pathetic, fanatical and nasty individuals, and some also will be very nice people who live next door. Most are single-minded optimists. A few will call you a loser, or worse, and you will have to acquire the habit of seldom baring your fangs as you turn the other cheek.

Are you up to it, Spencer? Do you see the challenges and opportunities? Do you dare to dream new forms?

Meanwhile, the price of food, clothing and shelter will increase. These are still necessities, and it is natural that necessary things will have prices that reflect their value. But you will have fewer gadgets and toys, Spencer, and more hours to spend with friends, family and art. Perhaps you one day will take the time to read Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, and take its first chapter called “Economy” very seriously.

Meanwhile, Spencer, cultivate what’s nicely growing in you––your curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, and sense of community. Read good books, see good movies (only), hang around smart teachers and disagree with them when they’re being stupid again. Do your art, love doing it, and love it when it’s done right. Broaden your learning and deepen your sense of life by going away from home, far away to strange but safe places. Be wide-eyed there, and talk to ordinary folk. Learn their languages, and learn from the realists you meet what you can do better next time. Then return to a place you discover or re-discover and begin to call home. Make a home of it by loving where you live. Think long and hard about taking a job you don’t really want in a place you don’t really want to live. You may have a job but not a home.

Play clean and hard. Exercise daily. Eat fresh fruit and veggies. Learn how to cook them to perfection. Make pilgrimages to sources of clean fresh water.

Keep your good friend, my son, from harm.

Look up. As Halloween pumpkins––and the vampires, zombies, and ghouls who hover near them––deliver us into the Christmas shopping season, a big moon sits pregnant in the early November sky. Soon the Wall Street seismographers will record the latest blips: The Dow Jones Average, Consumer Index, Standard and Poor’s, and Moody’s will be up or down. But even if all the moody economic indicators are up they will leave most of us unsatisfied, hungry for more. Once upon a time that big autumn moon was called a Harvest Moon, and a lot of people ate (rather than wasted) pumpkins out of necessity. They were plenty good enough. A few weeks ago my daughter baked one to perfection for me. From her I learned that when properly prepared a pumpkin is inexpensive, satisfying and wonderful.