Go to the Ant

Santa Fe, New Mexico

After 26 days on the road, my laptop contracted Black Screen of Death. Instead of my home screen, I get a blank black void with a cursor. Not good for productivity, but a great excuse if you don’t want to write. I can’t--I have BSOD!

There’s a biblical proverb that says, “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!” Ants are incredibly productive. Every summer they invade our house and I have the opportunity to watch their relentless movement and industry as I try to exterminate them. They’re always working.

The implication seems to be that humans can learn from ants because we may have a tendency to slack (I have BSOD!) when given the opportunity.

On our drive down the west coast, we visited Google in Mountain View (our niece works there) and there was an ant-hill like quality to the place. (No slacking allowed!) Everyone was very busy working and eating free food.

You don’t need perfect SAT scores to realize Google knows if they offer everything their employees have ever wanted, they will work longer and harder—and maybe never leave (again, like ants). We enjoyed the free food, but we weren’t allowed behind certain doors, so maybe in those restricted areas everyone was playing Candy Crush.

I don’t know, but the Google people all seemed pretty happy and engaged. Perhaps the deeper meaning of the proverb is that productivity is good for us.

That afternoon at the epicenter of Silicon Valley there was a hum to the place. The sense of people working hard and striving to do more. The same hum existed in Seattle and LA, though for very different reasons. We also felt it in Colorado Springs, home of the Olympic Training Center.

Our hotel housed a mix of girl’s gymnastics and/or figure skating types, kids competing in a taekwondo event and Comic-Con attendees. The super fit athletes and super smarmy comic book geeks we ran into at breakfast were opposite ends of the spectrum, but they shared the same get-up-and-go. They were out to compete for something--anything.

Even at the Grand Canyon, there were swarms of humans who populated the park so absolutely it was difficult to get a clear view. Busy taking selfies, studying maps, hurrying from photo op to photo op. Climbing beyond barriers to get the perfect shot. We stuck to the trail (as the sign says “it’s not worth dying for a selfie”), but we were doing the same—trying to capture digitally a reality we couldn’t quite absorb. It was oddly competitive.

After the Grand Canyon, we drove 10 hours to get to Santa Fe and it was worth it. I’ve visited twice before and had forgotten the gem-like quality of the place. Earth tones painted over with circus colors in surprising splashes. Basilica of St. Francis is the perfect balance of both. Historic adobe and vivid iconography. We didn’t want to leave. Let’s live here! (Not exactly in our price range.)

Around the corner from the Basilica is the Plaza, a shaded green square edged by art galleries and historic markers. Along one side under a colonnade, Native Americans sell their crafts. Some pottery, but mostly jewelry—silver, turquoise and coral rings, bracelets, earrings, cufflinks, key chains. Some true art pieces. All worth admiring.

As my daughter and I walked along the row of blankets neatly laid out with each artist’s jewelry, I observed that nothing much had changed from the previous two visits. Most artists personally occupied their space. Only a few of the sellers looked like grandpas who had been dropped off to take a nap and mind the store. What I didn’t remember was a slight edge to the atmosphere.

One woman was selling pieces by her mother, herself and her daughter. She was very proud of their work, particularly of her daughter’s bracelets, which were the typical 8-year-old beaded bracelets all our daughters do. I understood. I loved my daughter’s bracelets too.

Pointing to her daughter’s work, she said, “These are $10, but this one (the one we had particularly liked), that is $20.” It had pink and yellow beaded flowers. Pretty, but you can buy the kit at Michael’s for less. My New York radar went off and I nodded admiringly and politely walked away, knowing I was being hustled ever so slightly. Okay, now I’m beginning to understand the edge.

We walked ahead. I came upon a grandpa-like salesman. I asked about a necklace. I was going to buy it. “30 dollars.” “I have 40. Do you have change?” You would have thought I had asked for a snowball in the desert. “Oh, no no. There’s a cash machine over there.” “I actually have money, I just don’t have exact change.” No response. I asked about credit. “Not really.” “Okay, if I get change, I’ll be back.”

We continue on and the exact change issue comes up again and again. I know it’s hard to make change sometimes, but if you do this sort of selling every day, you can anticipate that someone might need change. Did the artisans expect me to pay more because I wanted some sort of authentic experience?

I finally did find a necklace I liked and went off to find exact change. The woman was genuinely surprised I came back with the money. This sort of negotiation must happen all day long. But I left feeling uneasy. What was behind it?

As you drive east from California (and even as you drive west to Seattle), you pass in and out of reservations. I hope there are thriving neighborhoods where Native Americans live, but when you’re on highways and byways, you see mostly rundown trailer homes or gigantic casinos that would put Trump in the dust. It is a sad juxtaposition; the poverty and the profit. It could account for the jaded transactions at the Plaza and the level of distrust.

I did meet a Native American woman from the Navajo Nation who was open and friendly and happy to talk. And Jerry met a Native American store owner in Sedona, who enthusiastically shared all of her secret tips for visiting the Grand Canyon. Clearly, we must talk to people to better understand them.

But my interaction at the Plaza stuck with me. And it put the west coast experience in stark relief; that hum of productivity contrasted with the practiced lethargy of the jewelry sellers.

The Native American tribes in and around Santa Fe have a proud heritage. They are warriors, craftsmen, artists, cultivators, builders. Had their legacy been reduced to photo ops and tourist jewelry? How many other people were getting left behind in this era of high productivity?

If our native people are resentful, that doesn’t set a good precedent for other groups of Americans. Is our country really willing to take the coal miners and factory workers and retrain them to not only survive, but thrive in the new economy? Our history doesn’t always say so. Will they be reduced to the same jaded response? Yes we remember the promises, they were lies.

I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but the resentment is palpable as you drive across the country. This same jaded eye exists in the inner city as well as in small farm communities.

What is our responsibility, we the uber educated, upper middle class? Our productivity is well established, but what are we doing locally—besides social assistance—to reach into people’s lives and pull them up with us? Teaching people how to fish, as the saying goes, instead of giving them the fish. What is my responsibility where I am right now?

Ants are cooperative and collaborative. They know how to work together. They certainly work harder than I do on any given day. Maybe I’ll spend more time when I go home watching them (I’m sure they’re still there) instead of stomping on them. I might learn something.

[To learn more about our thirty day adventure across America, check out our other publications 30 CUPS ACROSS and BEST (HEALTHY) ROAD FOOD.]

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