Weekly Update, 8/25/19: Silver Spring, American Factory, & Grasping What You Fear

Last week I returned to Silver Spring, the urban center just outside Washington, DC where I’ve made my home base for the past eight years.

I walked past Veteran’s plaza, where in the Spring and Summer the city holds outdoor concerts, where I go to vote, where in the winter my son skates on the public ice rink. Past the Regal cinema, past the pedestrian area with the year-round Saturday morning farmer’s market, past the Whole Foods, toward the new library, still with its gaping hole where one day perhaps the Purple Line rail link might finally be built.

I walked through downtown Silver Spring and thought to myself: this place holds no more special attachment for me than the day I first came. I will be fine to leave it behind.

At the end of September, my partner and I will move what we have to New Hampshire. We will spend time there with my family, finish renovating the garage of the house into a rentable apartment and bouldering hut for climbers, then travel to Mexico for a few months to firm up our Spanish, and then go to Europe for a while to be closer to her family.

We plan to return to the DC area next year, although not to Silver Spring. So, this is goodbye for the place I’ve made my home for so long. I first moved here because it was close to DC, but cheaper than living in the District proper, and because it was more kid-friendly than any of the neighborhoods I could afford in DC.

It’s been a fine place to call home. At the same time, it does say something that I haven’t grown any more attached to it as time has gone on. The friends I made here have all moved away. I’ve formed no special emotional connection. My relationship to Silver Spring as home will be buried without ceremony, and without regret.

What I’ve been watching: American Factory

Go watch American Factory. Now. It’s on Netflix.

The film is about an American GM factory in Ohio which closed at the start of the Great Recession, and was then re-opened by a Chinese glass-making company. The film (the first one distributed by the Obamas’ production company Higher Ground) is a clash of cultures story, but it is also, in my view, a searing indictment of American entitlement.

Simply put: we are fat and lazy and our culture is in a period of decline and decadence.

In a literal sense, nearly every American depicted in the film is fat, and that reality is all too obvious when the Americans are shown next to their Chinese counterparts. It’s a salient fact because, as the film shows, they simply cannot keep up with the Chinese workers, who are thin and hungry for advancement.

As one Chinese factory manager in the film puts it: the Chinese are all working toward a common goal; the Americans are just there for the paycheck.

It’s hard to disagree. The Chinese in the film are indeed embarked on a grand national project, and they are sacrificing far more than the Americans to pursue it. Most of the average Chinese workers spend 12-hours a day, six days a week in the factory. They spend months or even years away from their families. Even the workers who are in China only go home to see their children one or two days a month.

When the factory is falling behind on its productivity goals, a mid-level Chinese manager laments that the Americans won’t come in on Saturday to help the factory meet the goal. For the Americans, coming in on a Saturday isn’t even discussed as an option.

Instead, the film tracks an effort by the American workers to unionize. These workers are making less than half of what they used to make at the GM plant, in less safe conditions and under more pressure to perform. If they were competing against other American workers, the effort would make sense. But it was pretty clear to me from the film that all that effort spent on a campaign to unionize might have been better spent figuring out how to make the factory run more efficiently and quite literally losing some weight.

The China that we Americans are competing with is a hungry China: more ambitious, more committed to their goals, more disciplined, and more unified. And younger and thinner to boot.

While watching the film, I began to wonder why the Chinese opened the factory in America in the first place. It was clear the glass company would have been better served keeping the factory in China, where the workers didn’t want to unionize and where they could be paid less, keep up the pace, and still be thankful for the job. The answer is, as the CEO of the glass company said in the film: to make a point. He opened the factory in the U.S. simply to demonstrate and prove that China could open, own and operate a factory in the U.S.

It wasn’t about the money, because running the factory in Ohio is, for them, a money losing proposition. It’s about something that for them is bigger than money: a sense of national destiny, national pride, and collective accomplishment.

Grasping what you fear

Since losing my nearly ideal marketing job in June, I have had to re-discover my ability to grasp what it is that I fear, to understand that fear, and to come to some kind of comfort with it.

For me, that fear was about a loss of financial security.

A common Stoic admonishment is to take one day each week to walk barefoot, hungry, and penniless through the street, so you know what it is you fear.

I think of that sometimes when I’m hungry, or when I’m caught out in the rain: I think, this is what it is to be hungry. Sometimes I prolong that feeling. I fast not necessarily for the health benefits, but so that I can spend just a little time, even just half a day, coming to know more intimately the feeling of an empty stomach, so that maybe I won’t fear it.

One of my very few favorite YouTubers is Nate Murphy, who had this to say about “questing off into the unknown”:

Then, last night, I watched the movie Papillon. The movie is based on the true story of a French man who in 1931 was falsely accused of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in the colonial penal colony of French Guinea.

It is a brutal story of a man ripped from a life - a beautiful and loving girlfriend, all the romance and culture of Paris in the 30s, a world of opportunity - and thrust into a different world entirely, completely cut off from everyone and everything, where getting a little extra coconut with your soup is the difference between life and death.

At one point, the man (nicknamed Papillon for the butterfly tattoo on his chest) endures solitary confinement for two years - and not to spoil it, but his situation gets even worse.

I can’t even contemplate how to survive something like that. But I do appreciate any little reminder to cherish the precious comforts and joys that I have, and of how to clearly grasp what it might be to lose them.