Learning Curve

But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?

--The Book of Job, 28:12

I arrive home from the grocery store in the early evening, just as the rain's beginning to fall. It's so cold I wonder if it may snow. For those of us in the Bay Area, that's a remote but slim possibility. Last year about this time we got a beautiful, short-lived dusting of white. My youngest daughter, Michelle, was then still living at home. We bundled ourselves up and drove a winding road near our house that leads to the top of a ridge. Each time we came into a curve, I slowed way down. And sure enough, just there, around one particular bend, a group of deer stood motionless on the asphalt road. Mama, papa and offspring? Their almond shaped dark eyes looked straight at us. I gasped, "Bambi!" Michelle laughed. We sat in the car and waited for the deer to decide it was time to leave. Snow on cedar branches. Deer-trio eyeing us. A moment I'll never forget.

So as I come into the house yesterday afternoon, my reusable grocery bags filled with mindfully selected domestic produce, I'm suddenly struck by that image. Not of the Disney-like deer, but of those curves on the road leading up to the ridge, and how learning happens unpredictably, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, each of us learning at our own rate, never knowing what's going to pop up around the next bend. I'm learning lots about offshore manufacturing. Taking it all in, talking with various people who've worked as CFOs of clothing companies and such, processing all this new information; reading books I never in a million years would've touched before my Dad passed away. At the moment it's Amy Chua's World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (Doubleday, 2003). Yikes. Let's talk instead about the snow on the ridge and Bambi, shall we?

I'm counting on Ms. Chua, a Chinese-American professor of law at Yale, to help me better understand what we're up to here in the USA with our export / import shenanigans. I'm hoping she can offer a compelling philosophical justification for my year seeking and buying only American products.

In the meantime, with TJ's safely behind me, my pantry and refrigerator are increasingly import-free zones. Happily, I found a 100% made in the USA salsa: "Newman's Own," produced in Westport, CT. Not exactly south of the border, yet somehow it's authentically delicious. Must admit, Hollywood girl that I am, I like the corporation's family ties to the entertainment industry (Paul Newman,1925-2008). Since 1982, Newman's Own has donated more than $300 million to thousands of charities. The top of my salsa jar says: "All Profits To Charity. Newman's Own Foundation continues Paul Newman's commitment to donate all the royalties and after tax profits from this product for educational and charitable purposes." Nice. Add a cup of salsa, along with a cup of oatmeal, half-cup of chopped mushrooms, one shredded carrot and two fresh chopped tomatoes to a pound of super lean ground beef. Bake for an hour and 10 minutes at 350 degrees. Makes a yummy meatloaf, which Don and I enjoy for dinner, along with fresh steamed cauliflower from the San Joaquin Valley sprinkled with chopped fresh Italian parsley from a local farm.

So far so good. But looking ahead to my emerging clothing needs (made in China Costco bathrobe's in tatters; made in China Saucony running shoes worn thin) the Dad-ism I mentioned earlier comes back to hit me in the face. "Rots o' ruck."

Late in the evening, my deeply ethical, always optimistic, entrepreneurial-businessman brother, calls. Within minutes we are discussing his business ties to China. His company manufactures furniture there, then sells his products to a chain of stores here in the United States. Listening to him I feel like I'm entering another universe. It's as though Foxconn and its abuses don't exist. My brother paints a scenario where impoverished Chinese are able to leave the hardscrabble countryside behind. They're transported by buses to clean, well-run urban factories. Chinese factory owners provide them with housing nearby. "The workers live in these dorms," my brother says, making it sound as if all these Chinese people were heading off to university. "They're given food and clothing. I have pictures, my partner has visited the factories. The people are dressed nicely. They all look happy. It's not a third world sweatshop anymore. Maybe it was 30 years ago. But not now." He goes on to say that ours is not a manufacturing-based country anymore. "People have to get re-trained to do service work. Become plumbers. Work on cars. There's lots of things they can do."

By the time I go to bed and turn off the light, I'm in a state of confusion. Cheerful brother has made offshore manufacturing sound like a win-win. We consumers get inexpensive furniture. The Chinese people have jobs. The Chinese factory owners become wealthy, and, if all goes according to plan, the American entrepreneurs will reap plentiful profits as well. American workers will learn to fix old pipes, we'll all buy Chinese made guitars, everybody can join hands and sing Kumbaya. Hey, what could possibly go wrong?

In 1973, my Dad received a rejection notice from Intellectual Digest for his "Import Backlash" piece. At the same time the movie "Westworld" came out. My Dad found working on the film with director Michael Crichton a joy. He hung a framed "Westworld" poster on the wall of his study at home. In the poster--as in the film's ads--actor Yul Brenner, dressed as a bad guy cowboy, holds a gun. His face is torn away to reveal he is not human at all but a robot gone bad. The poster says: "Westworld: Where Nothing Could Possibly Go Worng." I fall asleep with that poster's tagline in my mind.

This morning, my phone rings. It's a dear family friend, calling to chat about many things, among them Chinese manufacturing and factories. It's as if Dad has sent an emissary to help clear things up.