Thursday, July 4, 2013

Gratitude for The American Revolution and Other Unintended Consequences

A humorous and memorable series of television commercials for the Dish Network asserts that unless you terminate your subscription to cable TV and switch to a satellite dish you may lose all of your life savings in Las Vegas, your house may explode, or you may simply end up in a ditch. Each commercial is a memorable short story linking, by cause and effect, a series of improbable events that begin with the decision to have cable TV instead of the dish and end in calamity for the cable subscriber. At the end of each tongue-in-cheek story, the very serious narrator exhorts the viewer to avoid losing your life savings, having your house explode, or ending up in a ditch simply by switching from cable to a satellite dish. Although the conclusion proposed by these commercials is based on an absurd generalization, the improbable sequences of events are not unlike real life. These stories are funny in part because they contain an element of truth. Most of what we have and who we are is the result of our own uniquely improbable sequence of events.
I worked for many years for Hart Schaffner and Marx, later Hartmarx Corporation, now-defunct, later HMX LLC, now-defunct. Although Hart Schaffner Marx, an iconic American brand of fine men's suits lives on through a new company, the enterprise is a faint shadow of what it was a generation ago. This is a direct result of the arrival of "business casual" – a change in cultural norms in the American workplace. In the 1940s men wore suits, ties and formal hats to see a baseball game at Wrigley Field. Today, some men don't even wear shirts. Today, we still refer to many occupations as white-collar jobs because a generation or two ago, the men holding those jobs were expected to wear a suit, tie and white shirt to work every day. Because of this evolution, many good people lost their jobs at companies like Hart Schaffner Marx and other makers and sellers of business apparel. What happened? What caused all this? In January of 1961, John F. Kennedy was the first person to be sworn in as President of the United States while not wearing a hat. Soon, consultants at Arthur Andersen were no longer required to wear hats to work. Eventually, employees at IBM were no longer required to wear white shirts every day. People started reporting to work on Friday without a tie. The term 'business casual" was coined. People stopped wearing suits to work. Many employees at Hart Schaffner Marx lost their jobs. Don't lose your job making suits. Insist that the President-elect wears a hat.
In 1674, Englishman George Ravenscroft invented lead glass, also known as lead crystal. Great Britain's King George III enjoyed port wine. His wine was stored in lead crystal decanters. The longer the wind stayed in the decanter the more lead leeched into the wine. King George developed lead poisoning. He lost his mind. He began treating his American colonial subjects badly. They rebelled. King George lost a large chunk of his empire. Don't make your King lose a large chunk of his empire. Don't let him store his wine in lead glass.
We celebrate the birthday of the United States of America today, on July 4th. We are grateful to our nation's founders and to all who have given so much to create our nation and to preserve it. Should we also in some small way be grateful to George Ravenscroft who inadvertently poisoned his King? Or should we simply be grateful, for all that we have, for all that we love and for the whole tapestry of our lives, woven together from innumerable threads of unforeseen causes and effects?
Be grateful that you have nor ended up in a ditch.