Friday, May 8, 2015

Is Encouraging Entrepreneurship the Solution to Unemployment?

The man in the middle is my dad. He started a Western Auto franchise in a tiny little town in central Florida and won one top sales award after another. He loved his employees and they loved him!



Did you know this was Small Business Week? Sponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration since 1963, this annual celebration of the foundation of the American economy is a great time to consider a few facts you might not know:
  • More than half of Americans either own or work for a small business.
  • Small businesses create 2 out of every 3 new jobs in the U.S. each year. From the end of the recession (mid-2009) through mid-2013, small businesses were responsible for 63% of the net new jobs.*
  • From 2002 to 2012, self-employment among young people age 25 and under decreased by 23%. In that same time period, self-employment among senior adults 65 and over increased by 66%.
I'll come back to that last bullet point in a moment but, in the meantime, if you think big business is where big ideas come from, think again: a 2008 study** from the SBA’s Office of Advocacy found that small companies are much more likely to develop emerging technologies than are large ones. Plus, small business owners have a strong interest—and an active voice—in economic and political affairs: a whopping 95% are registered voters and 84% vote on a regular basis. Small business owners put their money where their mouth is, too: 91% of them routinely volunteer for, and donate to, nonprofit and community organizations.

So why, when small business is the proven backbone of this country, have we made it so ridiculously hard to start one? Even if they can figure out what licenses have to be obtained, what forms need to be filed, what regulations must be adhered to, and what taxes need to be paid, what small business owner has time to DO all that when he or she is likely working 70-80 hours a week to get that new business off the ground? And how’s he supposed to pay for all those licenses and taxes when he’s barely generating enough to stay afloat in those early days?
Let’s go back to that last bullet point. We know why seniors are starting their own businesses—they can’t afford to retire and just sit on the porch—but why the decline in entrepreneurial efforts among young people? I’m thinking it’s because there’s so much red tape and so many roadblocks, which is a crying shame because it seems to me that starting their own business would be an ideal way to get unemployed young men in our urban areas off the streets and into a productive lifestyle. Seems to me big cities with big crime problems, big drug problems, big gang problems and other issues that seem to center around big numbers of idle young males would do well to offer free classes in entrepreneurship then do whatever they can to help these fellas take a shot at running their own business. Seems as good a strategy as anything else and, who knows? Instead of getting swept up into illicit activities due to boredom or desperation, those streetwise, calculating young brains might instead spawn some amazing contributions to society.
If you’re the owner of a small business, take a moment right now to pat yourself on the back for your role in helping to sustain the U.S. economy, because starting and running a business has never been more challenging. If you’re one of the 25% that has hung in there for 15 or more years, you really deserve some applause. Meanwhile, if you work in the corporate world, as you go about your routine for the next few days, think about the many ways small businesses make your life better—from your local grocer and your hair salon to your day care and your vet. It would be a sad world without them, so how about a tip of the hat and a word of appreciation? They’ve earned it.

*SBA’s Office of Advocacy
**“An Analysis of Small Business Patents by Industry and Firm Size,” by Anthony Breitzman and Diana Hicks




Monday, April 20, 2015

In Praise of Libraries

Okay, so I'm late to the party: National Library Week was last week, but I was too busy reading then to stop and write a blog post. Now that I've finished my book, though, I want to spend a few paragraphs raving about that most precious of public resources.

I won't bore you with the history of how libraries came to be in most every city; let's just jump right to the fact that they're there and if you're not taking advantage of the one closest to you, you’re seriously missing out. First of all, your tax dollars are helping sustain that library, so you ought to be reaping its benefits. Second of all, you need to be setting a good example for your fellow citizens by showing them how easy and rewarding it is to be a library patron. And, finally, if you're not visiting your library on a regular basis, you are missing out on so many marvelous things (books are only one of a library's many assets) that those of us who do visit on a regular basis should be lined up murmuring laments on your behalf—but, sorry, we don't have time because we're so immersed ourselves in said marvelous things. Also, it's pretty hard to feel sorry for someone who doesn't take advantage of marvelous things that are there, free, for the taking.*

In the last month, my life has been forever changed by the three most recent books I've read: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb; Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller; and The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. I consider myself a pretty informed person, but each of these books introduced me to information I was unaware of, broadened my understanding of their respective topics, and dispelled longstanding assumptions I've maintained which have now proven to be untrue. On top of all that, each book kept me riveted for hours, bringing immense pleasure and satisfaction. Pretty spectacular payback for something that cost me nothing.* 

This weekend, as I hungrily and regretfully finished the final chapter of The Invention of Wings, I found myself thanking God for words, and language, and the edification and connection that comes from written communication. We take it so for granted, but without the ability to read and write, without words to read and write, our world would not only be scary and confusing, it would be small and dull. I love nature and its many manifestations, but is our experience with a bird's bright feathers and merry song not enhanced by reading about that creature's lifestyle and unique characteristics? Is our encounter with ocean and mountain not deeply enriched by reading of others' encounters, as well?

I do not ever take books for granted; reading has been among my greatest pleasures for my entire life and I mourn the thought that, a hundred years from now, books and bookstores—even libraries!—as we know them may not exist. All the more reason to arise at this very moment and travel to a library near you to select a title (or two . . .or three!) that will transport you to a place you've never been, a place you dearly love, or a place you can only imagine.

See you in the stacks!


*Alas, unless you come on foot, you cannot experience the library for free at Greenville’s Hughes Main Library. In what is an abomination akin to requiring payment to attend church, one must pay to park at the downtown library. Therefore, I urge you to know what titles you want so you can get in and out in under 15 minutes (no charge!), go after 5 PM (no charge!), or patronize one of the branch libraries instead.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Rest in Peace, Rod McKuen

I cried when I heard the news about Rod McKuen’s death. (Only briefly, because I was in a marketing meeting and the response when I gasped and said, “Rod McKuen died!” was, “Who’s Rod McKuen?” At that moment, I stifled my tears and questioned the company I am keeping. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone not knowing who Rod McKuen is, but there’s a link at the end of this that will enlighten you if you don’t.) For the moment, though, I want to talk about this man’s impact on my life.

Robert Louis Stevenson was the first poet I loved; Rod McKuen was the second. I was 12 and just beginning to discover the world beyond my small, central Florida hometown when my sister came home from college with Rod’s books and records. As the Viet Nam war and the civil rights movement raged on, as Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered, as people everywhere were protesting everything, I slipped into adolescence on the wings of the gentle words of this Oakland-born poet who wrote about love and summer mornings, love and yellow buses, love and loneliness, love and snowfall, love and God, and love. Why my mother failed to intervene is a mystery; many of Rod’s poems fell far outside the parameters of my strict Southern Baptist upbringing. Perhaps she, like so many, dismissed poetry as unworthy of notice. Or perhaps she, like so many, never realized the impact that year would have on all our lives. In any case, as those months of ugliness, unrest, and uncertainty permeated the pages of history, I immersed myself in McKuen’s world of keen observations, pensive reflections, probing questions, and insightful assessments.

Along the way, I fell deeper in love with poetry. Since discovering Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (every child should own this book) soon after learning to read, I already loved the genre. But McKuen’s simple, honest words took me to a new level of appreciation and inspired me to view the world in a different way—in my opinion, the most important thing poetry can do. From the beginning, the academic world dismissed McKuen as a lightweight, but the real world wholeheartedly embraced him. In the course of his career, the man sold more than 100 million records and 60 million books. His songs have been recorded by artists ranging from Johnny Cash to Madonna, and he earned a Grammy, two Oscar nominations, and a Pulitzer nomination. Some things never change: the academic world still largely dismisses any poet who is commercially successful. I’m not sure why it’s such a sin to have one’s poems adored by the masses; seems to me that’s the ultimate indication of being a successful poet.

In the end, my experience with McKuen’s poetry formed the foundation of my belief that poetry is most valuable when it readily resonates and is easily understood. That conviction is what led me to launch my annual April “Poetry Parade” many years later, which led to the birth of www.YourDailyPoem.com in 2009, a venture currently celebrating its fifth year with a subscription list that continues to grow daily. I actually exchanged emails with my poetic hero in 2003 when I hesitatingly asked permission—and Rod generously granted it—to share one of his poems in that year’s Poetry Parade. (I still have that email in my inbox; I will leave the task of deleting it to my children, when I am dead and gone.)

Not everything Shakespeare or Yeats or Frost wrote was brilliant; not everything Rod McKuen wrote was brilliant, either. But much of what he created touched the hearts of millions and for some, such as I, those words had a lasting impact. I am grateful for his talent and legacy, grateful to have been the recipient of my sister’s literary hand-me-downs, grateful that my introduction to love and its sundry pleasures came packaged in such tenderness. I will miss you, Rod McKuen, but I know the poets’ corner in heaven is definitely a bit brighter today.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

It's Time for the Tao of Thumper


"Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can." 
  -- Arthur Ashe, American professional tennis player

I read this quote today and thought, it's those who embraced and lived out exactly this attitude in the years leading up to 1776 that we need to be thinking about and thanking as we celebrate American independence this weekend. The people who gave birth to this country weren't special, weren't unified, weren't perfect; they were simply committed to principles they believed in and chose to do whatever they could, wherever they were, with whatever they had. Whichever of the increasingly divergent socio-eco-political principles you believe in, you owe your ability to sing the praises of those principles, ad infinitum and ad nauseum on the world's sundry news and social media channels, to those men and women who died defending theirs.

I am astonished, and saddened, at how angrily divided this country has become. Perhaps there have been other times like these; I can speak only to my own years as an American citizen. No longer is it a matter of simple etiquette to avoid the subjects of politics and religion in conversation, it’s absolutely essential if you want to avoid starting a fight or losing a friend. We can get past Coke vs. Pepsi and Rolling Stones vs. Beatles without too many hard feelings, but mention gay marriage or minimum wage or Hobby Lobby and things get ugly in a hurry.

For that reason, I don’t “do” politics online. Does that make me a wuss? Possibly. But if we don’t dwell on our differences, I can love you without liking your taste in senators or appreciate your sense of humor without appreciating your position on immigration reform. It becomes a different matter, however, when you start labeling my opinions as evil, wrong, or stupid simply because they differ from yours. You may think I am evil, wrong, or stupid, certainly, but how incredibly rude of you to say so—in a public forum, no less! I would never say those things about you. 

To me, it's like books and movies that fill a great story everyone would enjoy with violence and profanity only some will enjoy. I don’t understand the logic of alienating part of your reading/viewing audience—especially if that audience is comprised of friends and family members about whom you ostensibly care. Seems to me a better approach, if you're determined to initiate controversial topics on social media, would be to share reasons why you support your particular solution/candidate/position rather than denigrating what others hold equally dear and declaring them deviant satanic morons.

I don't think anyone would ever call me an activist (except, perhaps, on behalf of poetry or the Oxford comma), but I never miss the opportunity to vote and I've enthusiastically volunteered in a number of political campaigns over the years (for various sides, I will point out; I am all about the person and the issue, not the party). I'm certainly aware of and involved in current issues and affairs, but I see nothing to be gained by vehemently espousing views which, no matter what they are, are guaranteed to invoke reactions ranging from mild surprise to rabid rage from anyone who doesn’t agree with me.

So as we celebrate the 4th of July and move another few days deeper into the unpleasant morass the next 28 months are shaping up to be, I'm asking you to be nice. I’m pretty sure that’s a recommendation given in the Torah, the Qur'an, and the Bible—though, goodness knows, we’ve certainly dropped THAT ball. As Thumper suggested, “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” And whether you do it on a lake, at a barbecue, or with a protest sign in your hands, I hope you will celebrate your American heritage this weekend with the pride and appreciation it deserves. At the same time, I hope you will consciously rein in your animosity for your different-from-you-but-equally-deserving-of-respect fellow Americans. We are united, like it or not, and badmouthing your teammates when times get tough is poor sportsmanship at its most repugnant.

Americans are not always the best or the brightest, we are not always right or respectful but, in our 238 years, we have done much to make this world a better place. And beleaguered, flawed, and imperfect though we may be, we are still a land of opportunity in which I firmly believe the majority of folk are kind, generous, honest, hardworking, and fair-minded. Even the ones who prefer Pepsi and the Rolling Stones.

The next time you start to post something online, ask yourself if it is potentially (or, perhaps, intentionally?) inflammatory. If it is, please consider posting Mr. Ashe’s quote instead so that each of us might be inspired to start where we are, use what we have, and do what we can to make a difference in a positive way.




Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Return of the Generation Gap—in the Grocery Aisle

Today's generation gap isn't centered around music (much to their chagrin, I quite like most of the bands my sons listen to); it's centered around food. In a recent survey done by The Institute of Grocery Distribution, statistics show that shoppers under 35 are twice as likely to want organic food as those over 35, and a third of them don't mind paying more for it. Those under 35 are also more likely to waste less food, cook from scratch, and base their food purchases on a company's reputation for social responsibility. 

Having read Michael Pollan's riveting and enlightening book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, my eyebrow inevitably quirks any time I read a product's proud proclamation as "Organic!!!" (though I've recently conceded that if I'm planning to eat the peel on a fruit or vegetable, perhaps it really is worth paying for the chance it might actually be pesticide-free). Meanwhile, my 23-year-old's silent stares of recrimination when he's with me in the produce aisle are such that—at least when he's around—I find myself picking up organic more and more. In fact, the changed eating habits of my three sons—all under 35— have changed my own grocery buying habits dramatically. Gone are the white bread, soda, chips, cold cuts, and sugary cereals they loved in their youth. Now they ask for brown rice, dried beans, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, whole grain pasta, and Brussels sprouts. Yes, Brussels sprouts.

How is it that a generation raised on Pop-Tarts, Red Bull, and sundry processed foods has suddenly discovered their inner Euell Gibbons? These are children who grew up with 2XLs and Furbies, not Easy-Bake Ovens—children who ate more meals in back seats than at dinner tables because their parents were always working or on the go. That 23-year-old who now sneers when I reach for sugar instead of raw honey was the "Taco Bell Kid" until his passion evolved from burritos to bicycles a few years back.

But all this purity is a good thing, surely—and not just for those farmers wily enough to grab on to a USDA label. (Go for it, guys; you farmers deserve any break you can get.) Certainly there's enough evidence now to convince us that homemade whole wheat bread is healthier than a loaf of Sunbeam, that snacking on a fresh apple from a local orchard is a better choice than French fries from a local McDonald's. And how can you fault a mom who works all day then comes home and willingly makes kale and goat cheese calzoneswith tomatoes and basil from a backyard garden, no lessinstead of whippin' it through the Pizza Hut drive-thru?

No, I'm quite willing to let the Millennials lord their superior nutritional standards over us Boomers, because while I will never feel the need to apologize over serving up a cake that started with a box from Duncan Hines, I readily admit that Happy Cow un-homogenized whole milk, with no additives, from [happy!] grass-fed cows, is significantly better than ye olde mass produced 2% and worth the price difference. Meanwhile, it's pressure (read: guilt) from my own 3 Millennials that has reduced my soft drink consumption to almost nil, my fast food meals to a minimum, and my love affair with white food to the occasional crush. For that, I credit them (and say a heartfelt thank you) for a healthier body and a hefty weight loss.

I'm not quite ready to jump on the tofu wagon or give up Coke completely, but if this generation wants to raise their own chickens, bake their own bread, grow their own fruits and vegetables or insist on buying what goes into their bodies from someone they know instead of from Monsanto, who are we to stand in their way?

Respecting those choices is the least we can do after raising them on Pop-Tarts and Tang.



Friday, June 21, 2013

Who Hasn't Ever Said That Word? PLENTY of Us!

NEW YORK (AP) — Paula Deen should hope for more fans like Jennifer Everett of Tyler, Texas, who carried a shopping bag filled with $53 worth of merchandise from the celebrity chef's Georgia store on Thursday. A day earlier, it was revealed that Deen admitted during questioning in a lawsuit that she had slurred blacks in the past. 
"Who hasn't ever said that word?" Everett said. "I don't think any less of her. She's super friendly. She's a warm person who wouldn't hurt a fly."*

I haven’t ever said that word, Jennifer—and I take monumental offense at your assumption that such a vile racial epithet might roll off people’s tongues like a benign adjective. Using the Lord’s name in vain or dropping the F-bomb is one thing; those unfortunate word choices speak to poor judgment, a bad day, or lousy manners. But referring to a fellow member of our human race by a hateful, derogatory term that is universally recognized as a slur is a choice, not an accident, and it speaks directly to contempt.

I find that word so offensive I could not even bring myself to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my children. Though I encouraged them to read that wonderful book for themselves when they were older, I simply could not say that word aloud—even within a literary context.

I have used it once in print—in a poem based on a conversation that left me staggered. If it is difficult to imagine any educated, ethical person willfully uttering that ugly word, it is impossible to imagine hearing it used against your own child. Reading this poem still brings tears to my eyes as I ache for the pain my friend suffered.

Parameter

She is a gentle woman—pretty,
with a sweet smile that is honest and warm.
We would be friends if we had the time
but we don't and so we are 
barely more than acquaintances— 
except that she comforts my mother 
when I am not there, 
soothes her in the night,
wipes the oatmeal from her chin.
And because even though 
she has to do those things—it is her job—
she does not have to do them
with love, and so I love her.
I do not know her favorite color 
or her childhood heroes,
but I know she adores her children,
enjoys her job, and loves to laugh.
She is a loyal friend, busy mother,
with a beautiful son and compassionate heart.
I think of us as alike until she tells me a story one day
and I am aware that no matter how many tears 
I might shed for her pain, I can’t know her pain;
no one will ever call my child "nigger."

From She of the Rib (CRM Books, 2006)

No, Jennifer, every one has not ever said that word, and there is no apology—however heartfelt it may be—that can remove the stench from the tongues of those who have. 


Thursday, May 30, 2013

When the Spirit Says "Shout!" . . .


For the last week or so, when I awaken in the morning, I am singing the Doxology. (Only in my head, thus far; not sure what my husband’s reaction would be if I were to start warbling in his ear at 6 AM!) That song is as familiar to me as my image in a mirror, but it’s never been a particular favorite. Suddenly, though, its words seem glorious and essential:
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!  
Praise Him, all creatures here below! 
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host! 
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!
My communication with God has always been more about thanksgiving than petition. I frankly believe He gives us way more than we deserve, so I’m constantly saying thank you—for the incredibly beautiful tulips I saw in Chicago recently. . . for the fact that my sons have reached adulthood in one piece and without undue harm . . . for my comfortable home, good health, and beloved friends. I do ask for guidance on a regular basis, but I hold back on special requests—thinking, perhaps, we might get only so many in the course of a lifetime.

To suddenly wake daily with a praise song on my cerebral tongue is a new experience, though, and causes me to wonder what has triggered this need to more effusively praise my Lord. There’s been no miracle, no disaster, no upheaval or resolution. At this point in my life, one day is pretty much like the next, so why this mysterious flood of gratitude emanating, apparently, from my subconscious?

I wish I knew. Could it be simply another new milestone in being older and wiser? Thus far, aside from the incessant need for reading glasses and the inability to cram quite as much into my days, the positive aspects of being over 40 (okay, over 50) vastly outnumber the negative. Perhaps I’ve just finally become aware of how many blessings flow daily from the Lord into my life. The beautiful birds that gather outside my office window . . . the network of creative, funny, wonderful people with whom I get to interact every day . . . the fresh eggs and vegetables that result from my husband’s hobbies . . . the words I read and write that bring such pleasure to my soul . . .

Truly, nothing good in life happens of our own volition; to arise singing praises to God is as it should be. So I’m fine if my newly enlightened (for whatever reason) self keeps up the early morning exaltations; in fact, I may see if my subconscious can work in a little brass and percussion. After all, Psalm 150 says, “Praise Him with the sounding of the trumpet . . . Praise Him with loud clanging cymbals . . . Praise ye the Lord!”

Selah! (And thank you to my son Jaron for his visual interpretation of my melodious dreams!)