Twelfth Night

Researchers say it takes twenty-one days to form a new habit. That's astonishing. Only three weeks? Wow. I guess the toughest part is actually committing to make a change. Indecision--that tortured limbo--can go on indefinitely until some unpredictable, subtle internal shift occurs. We reach a tipping point. The status quo will no longer do, something has to give. It's time to change.

As those who've followed this blog for the past year know, my tipping point arrived on Thanksgiving Day, 2010, during a brief conversation with my 91-year-old Dad. Suffering from esophageal cancer, Dad could barely swallow. Thin but tanned and dapper in a cashmere sweater and pressed grey slacks, he sat on his favorite leather recliner, tried to eat a cherry popsicle. He took a bite, tried to swallow, spit up what he'd just gotten down. He finally handed the melting treat over to me. "Got any turkey?" he asked. I shook my head. "No, Dad. We're having soup this year, remember?" My eight siblings and I figured we'd have soup for Thanksgiving dinner, too, rather than torment Dad with the aroma of a turkey roasting in the oven. If he couldn't eat turkey and stuffing, we wouldn't either. But how to take his mind off food?

"Hey, Dad, remember in the 1970s when you wrote that paper called 'Import Backlash'? You were so fired up about offshore manufacturing." He nodded and half-smiled. Even a half-smile was better than nothing. I went on. "Back then things were beginning to be made in Japan. Now seems like everything's made in China. Know what I mean? Do we even make anything here anymore? Maybe I should only buy American products for a year or something. Write about it." Dad nodded again, smiled weakly. Then he said: "Now can I have some turkey?"

Two days later, after Don and I had returned home to the Bay Area, Dad passed away.

This project began as a tangible way to mourn Dad's passing; to read his "Import Backlash" words, to channel his presence, to hear him. It quickly took on a broader scope, as folks across the country--stung by high unemployment and a nasty recession--awakened to the very concerns Dad had written about over three decades ago. Suddenly everyone wanted to save American manufacturing. "China Ate My Jeans," the private journey, gave voice to a public trend. ABC Nightly News, too, jumped on the Made in America bandwagon. Who could have predicted that would ever happen? I just wish Dad could've been here to witness the phenomenon.

As December, 2011, neared its end, Don and I joked with friends and family that we'd probably wake up on New Year's Day, buy heaps of China loot at the nearest mall and never look back. On the afternoon of New Year's Eve, in fact, I scoped out women's shoes at Nordstrom, tried on a pair of sale-priced Steve Madden grey leather boots (Made in China). They looked and felt great. Women's boots simply aren't Made in America anymore, at least that I know of. "Maybe I'll be back in the morning," I told the salesperson. "I need to think it over."

Almost a week later, I'm still thinking. No new Steve Maddens. No new clothes. No new iPod, although I lost my old one months ago. Habits, once rooted, aren't easily undone. My resolution's officially ended, but now what?

Yesterday, on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, my true love sent to me a message on our answering machine: "Honey? You there? I need to get to Nordstrom before it closes. My shoes have had it."

So much for partridges in pear trees and drummers drumming.

As regular readers also know, Don's been amazingly supportive of this project. He has alerted me to manufacturing news, listened to my blog posts, urged me to keep going. He has worn t-shirts emblazoned with "China Ate My Jeans" to the gym. He has read labels religiously--even cheerfully--and put foreign-made products back on store shelves. He's stuck to a difficult yearlong resolution made by me, not him. Add to that his own twelve-hour-plus workdays, dressed in shoes so worn that the bottoms had holes in them months ago. But he held off buying new ones, knowing the affordable brands were manufactured Anywhere But Here.

But yesterday, with the New Year safely here, Don's own tipping point had finally arrived. He'd been a very good boy. He needed new shoes. Off he went after dinner. I called to him as he walked out the back door: "Good luck! May the Consumer Force be with you!"

An hour later (he has a low threshold for shopping) he returned home, Nordstrom bag in hand. He plunked it down on the kitchen table, pulled out two boxes. "The Allen Edmonds were Made in the U.S.A. The Cole Haan's were Made in India. The Cole Haan's were on sale for $99.90. The Allen Edmonds cost $235.00, but they're so much more comfortable than the others. Hey, at least I spent the majority of my money on something Made in the U.S.A."

Seriously. The guy should get a medal.

Will this project continue? How can it not? We've grown accustomed to seeing Made in the U.S.A. on most of our purchases. There are stories to tell, items to buy, frustrations to share. The bottom line? There's more to come.

But you knew that, right?

Happy New Year!