Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Qualities of Quantities

It's attributed to Stalin: "Quantity has a quality all its own."  Chances are good ol' Uncle Joe never said it exactly that way, the most famous quotes in the world become more poetic with a little bit of license on the parts of those who retell them.  But he's right.

The Good (sorta)
In Stalin's case, he was referring to using wave upon wave of poorly-trained, ill-equipped soldiers to fling them against the flinty-eyed war machine of the Nazi eastward expansion.  As poorly prepared as they were (at least at first), they ultimately got the job done, halted the German advance and finally pushed them back onto their original territory.  I could go on about this, but I'm not a historian with a headful of facts handy and since I hope to sleep tonight, I'd best not do a lot of research, because it quickly becomes fascinating.

The point I'm making is that if you don't have an economical amount of something great, then a bunch of merely "good enough" might get the job done anyway.  Fighting, for example, the bitterly determined Finnish Defence Force in the Winter War of 1939, the Red Army met resistance quite beyond anything they'd ever expected and suffered losses entirely out of proportion to the sizes of the opposed armies.  But the Red Army won eventually.  There were simply more and more and more of them.

The Bad
So what do we have more and more and more of?  America isn't as high quality as it once was.  We proved we were the best and the brightest in WWII, but a couple of botched wars later and we're not the sleeping giant, wakened and enraged and absorbing punishment to protect friends, but the blundering giant, thrashing aimlessly in the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of the Middle East for goals that aren't obvious to the American people and in defense of political entities whose citizens may well hate us.  On top of that, the exit strategies aren't clear.

Americans aren't stupid.  We're not.  Like Agent K said in Men in Black, "One person is smart.  You can talk to him, reason with him.  People are dumb, panicky animals and you know it."  This may be the smartest line of movie dialogue I've ever heard.  I apply it to many situations, and it hasn't led me astray yet.  So while you might be able to communicate a complex, sophisticated and subtle array of military goals and exit strategies to one guy at a time, it's way tougher to convey that message to the nation at large.  The quantity of citizens has a quality all its own.  Unfortunately, that quality is a short attention span and an inability to comprehend nuance.  In the act of communicating, parts of the population begin to react to the message before it's fully communicated, react loudly.  The media picks up on the reaction, and reacts to that.  Next thing you know, part of the story is the story itself, not what it's trying to convey.  The message gets diluted in its own impact.  Dumb, but there it is.  So, Americans aren't stupid...but perhaps America as a whole is.  In mass quantities we aren't as smart as we are individually.

The Ugly

Home-cooked meals were at one time the presumed standard.  Mom cooked, Dad worked, kids helped set and clean up, etc.  The classic nuclear family was never more than an idealized image on the TV screen, Hugh and Barbara reacting to pretend names and shaking their heads over The Beav's latest shenanigans.  But look at those kids in that show, and pretty much any other show of the period and what you don't see is a kid as wide as he is tall.  "Lumpy" on Leave it to Beaver was a husky kid but not over the top.  Cindy Brady had some baby fat in her first couple of seasons.  That's it.  And going outside to play, I'd see leagues of other kids my age and we were all built like that, lean and energetic.  We might go to McDonald's for lunch if one of us somehow found a five dollar bill in the laundry, and the biggest sandwich was a Big Mac.  There's three or four sandwiches bigger and bolder than the Big Mac on the McFood menu these days.  Drink refills are free so you can guzzle all you want, then fill up again to take some with you.  I wish I could remember where I heard this, but recent estimates place caloric intake for the typical American at 40% from our drinks.  Sodas, tea, sports drinks.  Crazy!

 And the Big Mac was supposed to be a quality burger.  It was a combination of tastes nobody else had and that was okay, if you wanted something less specialized, you'd go to Burger King and "have it your way," they'd build a sandwich exactly to your specification: a whole different quality.  If it's exactly the way you want it, or a sandwich like no other shop is going to offer, you don't need more of it, right?


Enter: Everybody Else.  Sandwiches have gotten bigger to make them stand out against other chains.  "Five!  Five Dollar!  Five Dollar Foot Long!"  Big eats for cheap.  "Thickburger," "Half O Pound," "Super Size it!" Lord knows what else.  Golden Corral couldn't have named itself more aptly; walk in there and the soundtrack should be wall-to-wall oinking.

It's shocking to me at the Golden Corral.  I'm not a big guy, but I'm not tiny either.  5'10" and 185 (naked, maybe holding a couple of balloons), I could stand to lose a few.  Like, a few = 20 pounds.  But at the Golden Corral I'm the smallest person there by a wide, wide - really, seriously - wide margin.  There are people there half a foot shorter than me, but twice my weight.  Quantity has a quality all its own, and instead of finding a smaller meal and enjoying it, the diners there are finding a one price fits all meal that doesn't stop until they do.

The food isn't that great.  But for one price, eat all you can handle.  The quantity is the quality that has attracted the new American.

Okay, let me back that up.  The steaks are fabulous.  But I can cook steaks at the house for the whole family, lay out huge platterfuls of veggies and steak and a peach cobbler for what it costs to purchase one buffet pass at the Golden Corral.

The estimates for how much food energy the typical American needs to stay healthy hasn't changed.  In fact, in light of our increasingly luxurious lifestyles where you don't have to get up from the couch to change any of the channels, we "play" games by staying on that couch, and don't even walk around at malls much anymore, the estimates have probably decreased.  Americans average around 2600-2700 calories per day when our average level of physical activity is probably the lowest it's ever been.  The USDA still bases a lot of its assumptions on an idealized 2200 calorie diet, which is in my opinion a lot more in line with how much so many people are doing.

Our lives have become too easy, unhealthily so.  Channels that change from the couch.  Automatic transmissions.  Telephones that you can have anywhere in the house - no jogging to catch it before the answering machine does!  Remember when typing meant you had to bang the key hard enough to actually make the ink stick to the paper?  Even that made a difference.  Now, you're just clicking little switches;  a feather touch is all it takes.  Each modern keystroke is a teensy bit easier to complete than a manual typewriter keystroke.  It adds up.  If I were to bang out this collection of thoughts on a manual typewriter - remember that creaky old Underwood, Mom? - I'd be getting some exercise.  The keystrokes add up.

Their quantity has a quality all its own.  I believe that as a country, we must refocus ourselves on better understanding the qualities we seek to keep around ourselves.

We must examine them, assess them.  Keep the ones that are harmless, take up more of the ones that are beneficial, set aside more of the ones that are destructive.  We can watch less TV and afford to get up when the channel needs changing.  Better yet, we can leave the TV off entirely and go walk around the block.  One step isn't exercise, but a few hundred is.  While you're out, stop by the store and pick up a gallon of milk.  Not soda, milk.  Vote more.  Text less.  Try to always listen longer than you talk.  We should increase the quantities of positive qualities.  We'll be better off for it.

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