July 29, 2010

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Running to stand still

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as we enter the summer doldrums of August that nearly everyone is taking it easy. It’s a tough time to be in the business of reaching people via phone or e-mail… Everybody’s on vacation. Weekends are starting early Friday and running into Tuesday.

Actually, a little bit of research reveals that it really is just me… Americans are not taking vacations. At an average of 25 days off a year (vacation and holidays), Americans take more vacation days than only the Chinese and Canadians (!?)  according to a recent study by Mercer, a global human resources company.

There are no other places in the developed world where workers work more. In the Czech Republic, they get 32 days off. Spain, 36. Russians take 40 days off (so do the famously vacation-prone French).

Why Americans are taking so little vacation isn’t entirely clear – though workers in this country have long been considered more productive than European counterparts. For a long time, it was seen as a reason for our economic prosperity. In America, we got stuff done.

In these days of the Great Recession, as it has come to be known, Americans are working harder and harder for less. Average weekly hours rose a bit in June but only because workers put in more hours, according to a July 13 piece by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich in the Christian Science Monitor. Reich noted that the net effect was a 4.5 percent decline in worker earnings.

According to Reich, and many other sources, wage inequality is again at pre-Great Depression levels. In 1928, the top 1 percent of American earners collected 23.9 percent of the nation’s total income. It was just a hair more than the 23. 5 percent that bracket made in 2007. Yet the New York Times recently reported that Wall Street firms are hiring again and offering $1 million signing bonuses.

Without a healthy middle class, which by every measurement is endangered in America, the economy will never recover. We can expect this to be a hallmark of the upcoming debate in the nation’s capital over the Bush-era tax cuts, which are set to expire this year and send tax levels back to the Clinton era. 

Republicans will continue to push Reagan-era theories of trickle-down economics – an idea that always seemed spurious at best but now seems even more impossible, given the average firm’s ability to run lean with technology and outsourced labor.

No, Congress must fix the middle class, which has been running backwards now for a decade. I don’t think this should be a clarion call for the usual class warfare nonsense. But it should occur to all that the trend is no way to address an economy that continues to slump.

During the go-go years of the last two decades, Americans fueled demand by borrowing. That’s not happening anymore, and demand has slacked. As Americans earn less and stop borrowing, demand for services and products will continue to wallow.

Americans need jobs and a path to better wages. Everyone’s prosperity depends on it.

Pete Mazzaccaro


An ode to diapers: thoughts in changing times

Babies are a never-ending source of happiness, especially for the first-time parent. From the wonderful sound of his laughter to the even more wonderful silence of his naps, I had no idea there would be so many different, little things I’d love about my son.

When I told a cousin that we were expecting, he, a father of three girls, told me that having a baby was “better and worse.” At the moment I did not grasp the meaning of such a cryptic portent, but now, four months in, I think I understand. The sleepless nights, the arguments with my wife, and one fear-filled car ride to an emergency room for a high fever have shown me what he meant about parenting being “worse” than expected.

But it is also so much better than I expected. The smallest things give me the biggest thrill, like my son’s hand wrapped around my finger, or the smell of his head (which sweetly smells like strawberry jam, although this is usually right after I’ve had toast and strawberry jam), and his naps … have I mentioned his naps? Like every parent, I am capable of endlessly praising the pleasures of parenthood, but I’d rather detail just one of my favorite and most unexpected joys of being a father: diapers.

I love diapers. I mean, I really love diapers. I don’t love diapers in the “I love this, I love that” way we talk about TV or restaurants – I love diapers the way one loves his mother, or his country. I take diapers with me when I go out without my son. I have mistakenly called my wife “diapers” during a tender moment. In a world of uncertainty (and wetness), I feel comforted to know diapers are here to protect us.

I enjoy the names of diapers. I go over them at night when my unsettled mind can’t sleep: Pampers, Huggies, Luvs, Tushies. Even their different style names: Cruisers, Swaddlers, Little Movers, I know these are just pretty advertising lures to hook the wide-mouthed consumer. But I will happily jump into the boat. I want my son to be a Little Mover.

I relish in the feel of the diaper as well, the waxy smoothness of unwoven fibers on the outside, the cushiony give of thirsty moisture-abso- rbing materials within. Not to dwell on the names again, but the technology sounds like magic: polymers, hydragels, superabsorbent top sheets, and ultra dry cores. It’s as if NASA brought diapers back from the moon.

In preparation for Henry’s arrival, my wife and I went shopping for a few things. I remember seeing the box of 252 diapers and my mind reeled: 252 diapers! “That will last us six months,” I screamed. Who needs that many newborn-sized diapers? Octoparents? (By the way, why the strange seemingly random count of diapers – 252, 146, 160, 116? Is this based on some infant actuarial calculations or were these numbers selected by the writers of Lost?)

I bought the box of 92, which would get us through the summer, or so I thought. Of course I was back in four days, a sleepless madman stacking as many 252 count boxes in a Babies’R’Us shopping cart as I could.

Eventually I came to like the big numbers – the sheer magnitude of uncountable amounts. Just as mountains are measured in feet and not larger units to make them seem greater, I believe babies should be measured in diapers. My son is roughly 1,500-diapers old. At the 4,500-diaper mark we’ll invite friends and family over for cake and ice cream and listen to the horror stories of other parents whose kids have recently reached the terrible 9,000’s.

(If you enjoy large numbers as much as I, and measuring your child in diapers is too small a scale, feel free to mark them by how much money you’ve spent on their diapers. But be warned: that number is enormous and will make you wish you were wearing a diaper after you calculate it.)

Despite these huge tallies, the individual diaper is a thing of wonder and simplicity. Take a diaper – that is, a clean diaper – and smell it. It smells more like a baby than an actual baby does. It is thin and nearly weightless, yet, if it does its job, the next time you handle it, it will be bigger and have a satisfying weight to it, like dough successfully risen.

Today’s disposable diapers have as many options and features as an iPhone. There are aloe diapers for sensitive skin, environmentally friendly diapers, sleep diapers, swim diapers, Max-Dry diapers, diapers that look like jean shorts (if you haven’t yet seen the commercial for Huggies Jean Diapers, you must.

I thought it was a parody of some sort because the baby says things like, “My diaper is full … full of fashion,” and the slogan is “the coolest you’ll look while pooping your pants,” but the product is real. My favorite diaper feature, in case you’re wondering, is the wetness indicator. Diapers with wetness indicator have a barely visible yellow stripe down the front. When wetness is absorbed, the stripe turns to a beautiful Caribbean sea-blue. All a parent has to do is peek inside his baby’s onesie and look for the blue line.

Early on, I made the mistake of assuming that all diapers came with the wetness indicator. Why wouldn’t I? If we have this technology, why not use it in every case? A diaper without wetness indication is tantamount to a car without seatbelts. Unbeknownst to me, I bought diapers without wetness indicators and didn’t change my son’s diaper for three days because I never saw the blue line. Please contact me if you are interested in joining my class action lawsuit.

Surprisingly, this love of the diaper is not universal. I’ve talked to other fathers who proudly claim to have never changed their child’s diaper, although I feel that in a two-parent household this is the least a dad can do.

In our house, my wife is in charge of dairy production, and I’m the head of sanitation. Most parents seem to love babies but hate diapers. I love them both. In fact, they need each other: a baby without diapers is a terrible thing, and a diaper without a baby’s bottom is just a rag for car waxing.

Diapers have given me a confidence that I can handle whatever challenges life, or my son, throws me. I have seen some horrific sights at the changing mat and survived with the help of diapers, and their trusty sidekick the wipes. I am a better man and father thanks to diapers. On more than one occasion I’ve held one before me and said, “Oh diaper, who has truly changed whom?”

Perhaps I’ve lost my mind? Perhaps the Sisyphean effort of replacing diaper after diaper after diaper has robbed me of my sanity. Could it be a case of the Stockholm syndrome, and I’ve fallen in love with my tormentor? It’s possible you (and my wife) will think so. But I’m going to count diapers as one of the most unexpectedly wonderful things about becoming a father.

I’m proud to admit I love diapers and I can’t imagine my son without them. I wish diapering would go on forever, but it won’t. To my son I say, “Don’t be in a hurry to get any older.” And to diapers, I’ll paraphrase the song, “Don’t go changing, I love you just the way you are.”


Worse than the Enemies of Reading: The Enemies of Writing, Part One

On July 21, 2000, without any announcements, not to anyone, just to keep a promise I’d made to myself, I left home at dawn and drove over to my bookshop. Once there, I did not turn the lights on, or open the window curtain, or flip the Closed sign.

Instead, I sat at my desk, opened a marbleized school notebook, laid three Bic Fine-Point pens nearby, and started writing my first novel, titled “Garner.” As I began, the sun had just emerged from behind the rear of the Eichler-Moffley Real Estate building’s roof, across the street, and cast a sharp beam of light across the edge of my desk. Within minutes, the light created a glare on the white sheets I ‘d started to write on. Too bright. I leaned over the notebook, and blocked the harsh gleam with my head and shoulders, thus putting my face close to the words as I wrote. 

Hunched like that, blocking out my view of the desk, and the shop, and the building, and the street, and the community, I plunged further into the world I was creating. I felt my hands were riding a magic pen as the scrawl appeared on the page just below my nose: words that told of a fatal train ride from Lynchburg, Virginia, to Knoxville, Tennessee, back in 1920. I’d researched those regions and that era for months and now felt as though I’d slipped past a gauzy barrier and entered that long-lost world.

Exciting things happened as I wrote. A man would accost a stranger he should have ignored. A boy would look up from a railroad embankment and see another boy sitting in a leafless tree. A woman would put her hand on a door knob and start to turn it. I warned her, “No, don’t do that.” She didn’t listen. None of them heeded. I was merely their witness as they acted out their destinies.

And each day, by the time the sun and shadow had moved over the real estate building, crossed the street and came to loom behind the building that contained me, I’d have finished my 10th hand-written page. I could quit for the day. I’d drive home and read the installment to my wife, Janet. She told me she thrilled to each new installment as though she’d been shown the daily rushes of some great new film.

So it went, day after day, as July moved into August. Slip into the shop, hoping not to be seen by someone who wanted to buy books. Write till I reached my quota. Slip out the shop, go home and read aloud. Dream of what might happen tomorrow.

And then, at the end of November, six entire notebooks later, a terrible thing happened.

The story ended. Bang! Whimper.

All the writing teachers and instruction books will tell you the same true thing: to be a writer, you must write. So far, so good. But in a lower voice – or maybe I wasn’t listening so well – they’ll also tell you that after the story ends, the work begins. I think I wrote the first draft of that book, 1200 pages, in four months.

I will probably never again write a book by hand. The next step was to type it on my word processor, and I am a slow typist. Although I revised as I transcribed, I wanted a typed version that was faithful to the script. After that, I rewrote and revised every day, choking the life out of the book because I did not know how to create scenes. I thought revision meant rewriting every sentence to make it gleam. In doing so I managed to take a lively story and crash it into a wall.

However, by spring of the year 2001, I had reworked a few scenes well enough to enter a chapter in a writing contest. Lo and behold, I won first place at the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference in the category “Novel-Character.” As anyone would, I took that award as a “message from the universe” to keep going. I paid an editor/consultant/ script doctor to read and comment. Then I would seek publication.

Her comments were so lukewarm and unhelpful, however, that I didn’t know what to do next, other than put the book in the drawer and start another novel: “The Marx Brothers meet the Three Stooges in Harry Harlow’s Motherless Monkey Lab.” (More or less.) Its hero was a bookseller who falls in love with a one-armed, married woman. Two years and some months later, I “finished” that novel, and lacking confidence in its merit, I laid it, too, in the drawer, atop the first one.

And two years after that, I finished a book-length memoir, “My Three Suicides – A Success Story.” Not kidding. Also in the drawer. It was well written, but needed time in the smoke house. Three books in seven years.

And then I started the novel, “AmericanaRama,” which I’ve been describing via this column for the past two-and-a-half years. It’s good enough that I’m making a sincere effort to sell it. This week I mailed the manuscript to the literary agent, Mr. Goodtaste, whom I’ve been telling you about. Ball’s in his court. I’ll let you know soon what he has to say.

So, here’s the occasion for this column: I just happened to look up after mailing my manuscript this week, and I noticed that July 21 was here and ten years of my life have gone by. Ten years.

I’ve written three novels, a memoir, and about a hundred and thirty columns for this paper in those ten years. In a very real way, I have nothing to show for all the thousands of pages I’ve written.

But in another way: I vowed when I was young that I’d be a “writer” some day. And I did nothing more than dream about it most of my life as I earned my living, raised a family, and had my fun in the sun. And all along, I’ve had this fear that I might come to the end of my life and feel a deep regret that I never seriously tried to satisfy the small talent and huge hunger I had.

Ten years now. If nothing happens, it won’t be for lack of trying. That I can accept.

Offered as hope to all the other dreamers out there on July 21, 2010.

Contact Hugh at             





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