A big city and its stretch of influence

A major metropolis has a gravitational pull that reaches far beyond its city limits and suburbs. Actually, this can affect various fields quite differently.

Manhattan, for instance, holds sway over classical music and opera across the entire continent. Most soloists have an apartment there, as do many conductors who also reside in the cities whose orchestras they lead. It’s all about connections.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, has the movie industry, thanks to Hollywood, and Nashville is the nation’s country-music capital.

And Washington, as the center of national government, is always in the headlines.

You get the picture.

Across the country, smaller clusters appear. State capitals, of course, are one focus as they span all the communities in the state – and this often includes much larger cities. Again, consider Albany, miniscule in comparison to the Big Apple, or Harrisburg in between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Chicago’s long reach over the meat industry is another, or the Twin Cities’ impact on the grain industry. Think of Toledo, Ohio, with glass, Detroit with the automotive world, or Pittsburgh with steel.

In fact, the economic pull and push of a city is a fascinating topic of investigation. The money that powers the place has to come from somewhere – as do the materials that supply it. In turn, the city has to sell its goods and services somewhere. It’s a matter of balancing what comes in with what goes out, in more ways than one.

So business and finance are defining elements. Again, Wall Street’s role in corporate investment gives New York national prominence, but other cities have similar impact.

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Is this it?

The Covid-19 devastation, already spread around the globe, is poised to inflict even greater damage when it ravages Third World countries, or so we’re reading. The impact is much more than grim death tolls. We’re hearing predictions of the greatest economic depression in a century.

In the United States, the virus is what finally exposed Donald Trump’s house of cards to full view. Not just his own illusions but his party’s, too. You know, the failure to plan. Failure to take responsibility. Endless stream of lies and fabrications. His scorn for fact, truth, scientific reality. Ridiculing and blaming others. Inability to steer a course. And so on. Feel free to add to the list.

For the past three years, I’ve restrained from commenting much on the outrage after outrage being inflicted on our democratic society. With his hooligans and their fellow cultists being so impervious to facts, I sensed anything that might break through their shells had to come from the right. The polarization of the country predates Trump, anyhoo, just look at the Congress dead set on obstructing President Obama from doing the will of the people, regardless of the ultimate impact.

From my viewpoint, what’s seemed obvious is that only something catastrophic might break through their state of denial and bombast. I kept wondering what that would be. What would it take to allow civil conversation again, one based on fact and not bullying and bombast?

In my years in the news business, I saw how difficult predicting public reaction could be. Big issues are commonly greeted with a yawn, while some seemingly trivial account unexpectedly gets everyone stirred up.

So here we are, with a medical crisis Trump arrogantly derided as a “hoax” and then claimed to have “under control” now exploding exponentially before our eyes. As it begins to hit closer to home, even his supporters can no longer poobah the epidemic as “liberal hype” to “discredit” their fuhrer. Not unless they can explain Italy and Spain’s suffering as part of a conspiracy.

Not unless they can explain why GOP senators were informing their super-rich backers of intelligence findings about the brewing virus storm and quickly selling off millions in stock while telling their voter constituents to stay calm. (Isn’t that insider-trading?)

Not unless they can explain why the markets and employers and local and state officials of both parties have independently taken the drastic actions they have, contrary to White House proclamations.

He still doesn’t have a clue, does he? This is the man who offers big aid to China after turning down any help for the most seriously impacted states in America. (Sorry, you’re on your own, guys.) What!

One of the reasons he’s clueless is that none of his incoming staffers who attended a big meeting with outgoing Obama officials eight days before the inauguration took the ebola lessons seriously. At least one future cabinet secretary dozed off during the briefings and their worst-case scenarios. Another reason is that Trump promptly eliminated the emergency preparedness coordinating office Obama had created for cases like this. What Trump touted as streamlining proves to be reckless disregard for reality and an exercise of personal spite. There was no planning, period.

Fellow Republican Susan Collins, a senator from Maine, even prevented epidemic response planning from being budgeted back in 2008. There’s a pattern.

Here we are, after being stuck with Trump’s obsession to spend billions building a useless border wall but do nothing on pandemic prep. Like that wall will stop anything.

I long ago saw that incompetent managers and executives feel threatened by competent people working below them – the very ones who could make their bosses look effective, if given the chance. Do I need to say more?

Smart management is taught to be proactive, not reactive, but that’s not what we’re seeing here.

The illness itself is only the face of the storm as we get glimpses of even bigger economic, political, and social ills that have been long festering.

Oh, yes, high turnover is another sign of mismanagement. Two-thirds of Trump’s team at that epidemic meeting three years ago are no longer part of the administration. Who’s in charge, paying attention to details?

Wall Street may have been soaring, and a “correction” had been long anticipated though not expected to kick in till after the November election, but for many of the country’s working class, full-time jobs – especially those with benefits – have been scarce. Minimum wage rarely covers basic living costs, and health insurance premiums often eat up a third of that income while imposing high deductibles few would ever be able to pay without going homeless or, if hospitalized long, losing their jobs. Many of those minimum wage jobs, by the way, require “reliable transportation” from employees, as if the pay actually covers as much as a clunker to get to worksites far from public transportation. Steps to improve their situation has not been presented from the current administration, even while cutting taxes for the rich and corporations continues.

Well, some of that finally has been acknowledged in the proposed coronavirus aid package, at least for this specific illness. Maybe it’s a start. Those low-pay, part-time jobs are a huge part of the workforce, and if they break down, even for two weeks, watch out.

That’s the real economy.

I could say more, much more, but let’s leave it at that for now. From all indications, this drama’s just starting.

There’s no disputing that bodies are piling up, even in the USA.

My big city love-hate relationship

Considering all the places I’ve lived over the years, my fascination with big cities would seem an anomaly.

I mean, I grew up in what’s considered a medium-sized city but at the fringe of the city limits. We actually had a working dairy farm less than a block away from our house. As a teen I could ride my bicycle to the public library downtown or my grandparents beyond, though it was in heavy traffic. But that was before the suburban bloat that now engulfs its blot on the map.

I also lived on three farms, which make appearances in Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, Yoga Bootcamp, and the upcoming Nearly Canaan.

Most of the cities were in the 30,000 to 40,000 population range, with Baltimore being the metropolitan exception and Binghamton, New York, and Manchester, New Hampshire, each around 100,000 in the metropolitan area, coming in much smaller than my hometown.

These days I live an hour north of Boston – or more, depending on traffic.

Yes, I do have a certificate in urban studies as part of my college diploma, and cities are the home to high culture I find essential – symphony orchestras, opera companies, art museums and galleries, live theater, art movie houses.

Yet I rarely venture forth to these, in part because of the expense and in part because I find myself being nurtured by them in other ways. For instance, I habitually listen to live broadcasts of Boston Symphony concerts and Metropolitan Opera performances. And I do sing in a choir in a Boston suburb and have wonderful memories of the city’s skyline after some of our concerts. That part’s magical. But all in all, it’s kind of like listening to the Sox games rather than actually going to Fenway … just part of life around here.

Each week, as I go to rehearsals, I’m always astonished at the lines of cars waiting ten or twenty minutes just to get off an expressway in afternoon rush hour traffic. Just think of the stress and precious time that’s expended daily. I’m so glad I’ve been spared that.

As for the packed subway trains at that hour? It’s a fascinating study in humanity, but for me it borders on claustrophobia plus. Somehow, I’ve survived those, uh, assaults of moving from one station to another. Nowadays I can walk to downtown.

My novel Subway Visions stands as an emblem of my relationship to a big city. Like Kenzie, I once thought I’d be living and working in cosmopolitan circles. I came close once, in Detroit – hardly my ideal, then or now. As for Baltimore, I was largely out on the road during the week and, when that ceased, I hunkered down in a self-awarded sabbatical. So events ultimately led me in other directions.

I do enjoy our trips into Boston and, these days, other New England cities. But candidly, I also relish returning home to our small historic mill town of 30,000, free of so much kinetic energy in the air. How else do you think I find time to write?

Whatever happened to apprenticeships and mentors?

The conversation turned to a current problem many face in finding the right job.

Employers seem to demand college degrees for even the most basic positions, and then expect years of experience as well for what’s lowly paid entry-level work.

How does anyone get that requisite experience in such a setup?

That’s had me thinking of bosses who see something in a candidate and hire them, regardless of the credentials, and then guide them in their development. I’ve certainly had some fine examples as well as some crucial (paid) internships.

It’s also had me reflecting on the great inventor Charles F. Kettering, who once said that if he faced a metallurgy problem and had a metallurgist and a biologist on his staff, he’d hand it to the biologist – because the biologist would be more likely to solve it.

Why? The biologist wouldn’t know all of the things that weren’t supposed to work, unlike the metallurgist.

Of course, this is not just about jobs. I’ve noticed that we need mentors in the many diverse skills of living and in the practice of our own niches within it.

These days, I’m also realizing I’m at an age where I might be expected to be fulfilling the mentoring role, not that I often feel that capable. What I am noticing, however, is the gap in the circles I travel, where individuals in their twenties and thirties are scarce. A wider look finds them scarce in general, and those I know openly admit their puzzlement about connecting in real life with their peers. Where are they, outside of the Internet?

I can name a long list of mentors in my journey to here. Some were teachers or bosses, others poets or Quakers or Mennonites, even fine arts painters or folks a generation younger than me.

Who’s filled a role of mentor in your life?