Let me tell you about sustainable living...and about my shirts...and Tony Soprano.
But first, the obligatory introduction in which I tell you who the hell I am and why the hell you should read this column. I am Stephen Morris, and I've been trying to get it right for many years. I am now old as dirt, but filled with the wisdom of one who has seen the Who at the Fillmore, the Red Sox in the 7th game of the '75 World Series, and Fred Tuttle's run for the Senate against Pat Leahy. My journey has included homesteading in Nova Scotia, woodstoves, solar panels, rock and roll, compost, lotsa beer, and periodic grasps at fame and glory. Although seemingly obscure, I am one of the great social and cultural observers of our times.
Just take my word for it.
Ahem. The throat clearing is now complete.
It's Sunday afternoon in mid-winter. I am watching a rented video of The Sopranos, HBO's morality tale about the Mob in suburban Jersey. This show may be old news to the rest of America, but it's just trickling into my consciousness. I'm about eight episodes into the first season. The problem is, I don't do television. At least I tell people I don't. But Tony Soprano has sucked me in completely. The only way I can justify my tube addiction is to pull out the ironing board to iron my shirts.
First point of keen, social observation...I am ironing my own shirts. As a male of the species, a white one no less, I went through the first fifty years of my life with others ironing my shirts, thinking it my birthright. This, by itself, is worthy of a column, if not a full-length book. The thought of my own father standing at an ironing board is unimaginable. Do you think he fought in the Big One only to come home to iron his own shirts? Maybe this is my penance for wimping out on Vietnam. (Observe that we have already touched on major themes of the changing gender roles and socio-economic evolution in the latter half of the twentieth century. Self-reliance, the nature of war, and non-toxic living have emerged as sub-plots.)
If you asked me, previously, where my shirts come from, I would have answered "Dodgeville, Wisconsin, home of Land's End." As I watched Tony Soprano wreak havoc on Northern Jersey, however, this old dog learned something. By reading the labels, I learned that my shirts come from everywhere on the planet, except Wisconsin.
The first shirt I ironed, a blue pin stripe button-down, originated in Hong Kong. Years ago Hong Kong was the Mecca for expensive, custom suits. Now, it's a magnet for China's rural poor who work in what we might describe as sweat shops that provide a small boost up on the global scale of materialism. One person's sweat shop, I've learned, is another's golden opportunity.
The next shirt comes from Mauritius, and I can't even tell you what continent that's on or in. Also, since I have a strict policy against research or fact checking, you're going to have to look it up yourself.
Next up, a blue Oxford, is from Malaysia. This, I can tell you, is a place far away, across the Pacific, probably near Asia. Undoubtedly, it's hot, swampy, and teeming with people willing to make shirts for me.
And the fourth is from Mexico. At least that's on the same continent. These worldly shirts have come a long way to adorn my body. Something trips my Sustainable Living trigger. I go up to my closet to see where the rest of my shirts come from. Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Thailand, Turkey. I've got the United Nations in my closet.
The sustainable world is one in which the consumption of resources is in harmony and balance with nature. Transporting shirts all over the planet is clearly inconsistent with this premise. The question arises, "How can you be sustainable, and not go shirtless in Vermont?"
I found the answer in a visit to the Ethan Allen homestead last summer. The Docent on duty gave an interesting presentation on how the early Vermonters made their clothing from the stalks of the flax plant. Ethan couldn't call 1-800-Land's End.
First, the early Vermonters cleared the land. Then, they planted flax. Next, they harvested the flax. Then, they beat the stalks into tangled floss; then, they used a nasty-looking comb to straighten and separate the fibers so they could be spun into yarn. This very tedious process occupied the settlers for many a winter night. (They also didn't have The Sopranos in those days.)
You're still a long way from a shirt.
After spinning, the yarn is loomed into bolts of linen cloth. Finally, all that remains is for a skilled seamstress to handsew the cloth into a shirt or frock. The whole process takes a lot of patience, a lifetime of specialized knowledge, more skill than anyone I know possesses, and several years. The process is completely sustainable and equally unthinkable.
I could no more make a shirt than I could design a nuclear submarine, but much of what I have learned about sustainable living involves relearning things that we, as a culture, forgot. When I was growing up we nearly forgot how to bake bread or to brew beer, but now Vermont abounds in hand-crafted loaves and brews. Isn't that progress?
But make my own shirt? I can't make anything. I think it's remarkable that I can actually iron a shirt. Is it good or bad that my shirts come from all over the globe? Is it good or bad that my shirts are made by Third Worlders who earn pittances while suffering work conditions that I don't want to even think about?
Tell you what. As the all-knowing columnist, I will ask the thought-provoking questions, and you, the curious and creative reader, answer them. Seems fair to me.
The world of Tony Soprano's Mafia to which I return after my trip to the closet is less perplexing than the world of sustainable living. As I pick up a tan button-down from the Philippines, I wonder if Tony knows how to iron a shirt.
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updated 7 February 2003 : 8:15 (m) Caspar (Pacific) time
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