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A Yankee Notebook

February 2, 2015


MONTPELIER – A few years ago several friends and I had just completed a successful and on-schedule descent of the George River in northern Quebec, and had a day to spare before our flight out from the Inuit village of Kangiqsualujjuaq. We dismantled our folding canoes for travel, showered, washed our dodgiest clothes, and cruised the village and the local coop store. We had rooms in the Illuliliq Hotel, which was just a pair of double-wides bolted together, but quite nice after a couple of weeks on the river. In the evening we plopped ourselves in the “lounge” to finish off our leftover lunch snacks and watch television.

The channel selection was limited to one: the UHF station out of St. Johns, Newfoundland. “Great!” I thought. “I’ll get a nice Canadian slant on the world news.” But it turned out the station carried only local news and rented features. The news was that there was only one candidate for mayor of St. Johns in that year’s approaching election; the feature was a demonstration of a new toilet design that flushed forty ping-pong balls down a four-inch soil line (transparent for demonstration purposes) with an amazingly small amount of water.

The station flogged those two stories all evening. After a few repetitions, our interest flagged a bit. Two construction workers from Montreal, on contract to put up a steel building for the coop, shared the lounge with us and made pungent remarks about the disconnect between ping-pong balls and the usual burden of soil lines. Otherwise, it was a pretty dull evening, and we went early to bed.

But the business about the mayoral non-race got me thinking: News almost invariably derives from conflict – depends upon it, actually; I’d never seen it with such poignancy before that evening. With only one candidate, the poor TV station manager in St. Johns was forced to highlight, over and over, the conflict inherent in the anomaly between the usual run of events and the (probably unsurprising) lack of interest in being mayor of St. Johns. The repeated demonstrations of the space-age toilet underscored what must have been his frustration.

We Americans have always thrived on conflict. We left our homes in Europe because of conflicts that we couldn’t win. Once we got established here on the new continent, we started others that we could win – first against the French and Hurons, and then against the British (with a little help, this time, from the French). We don’t need a catalog of the rest of our battles to understand that conflict is our chronic condition, and warfare our elixir. Our “defense” budget is more than ten times the amount budgeted by the next ten nations combined.

Mother and I spent a couple of hours last evening at a Super Bowl party. Great people; none we’d ever met before, and a lovely buffet of everybody’s specialty. We were there to watch the annual ritual of the ultimate American civilian conflict. I discovered, as the game began, that most of the folks were not Patriots fans – which caused me some inner conflict. I was gratified that their enthusiasm was nothing like that of European World Cup fans, who often take their cue from the battle on the field and reenact it in the stands, without benefit of referees or red cards. Still, I tried to control my occasional outbursts of enthusiasm and give bipartisan credit where credit was due (“Wow! that was a great catch!”). I think that’s called conflict resolution, or, alternatively, self-preservation. We had to leave during half-time to get home for Downtown Abbey, whose theme also is conflict, between generations and styles of English life, and is itself filled with more personal conflicts than a daily soap opera. At the end of this week’s episode I changed channels to catch the end of the ballgame and was relieved not to be still at the party during its last two minutes.

In secondary school we learned the classic story form: setting, characters, conflict, tension, climax, and resolution. Listening to current news reports or commentaries, I wonder if teachers nowadays are skipping all but the characters and conflict. Nearly everything in the news is presented as a battle and the outcome as a victory or a defeat. It’s no longer a bill or a proposal that’s passed or defeated, but a party or individual who wins or loses. There’s too much of gladiatorial combat in our legislatures; but we musn’t forget that if the gladiators weren’t urged on to it by the fervor of the spectators, they wouldn’t do it. I’m particularly bemused by the New Hampshire legislature, whose fiery one-time Speaker was defeated for reelection, and has reportedly set up a shadow party caucus in a rented office nearby. Conflict resolution doesn’t seem to be on the front burner in the state capital named, ironically, Concord.

I do not as a rule enjoy television or radio advertisements for law firms; most specialize in injuries or illness caused by faulty drugs, toxic substances, or product failures. But I do like the little ad that ends, “...when conflict leads to litigation.” In other words, if you and your antagonist can’t get it together yourselves or with a counselor, you’d better look to your piggy bank, because resolving your dispute is now going to cost you some serious money.

A few times, back in my contracting days, I was embroiled in discussions over unpaid bills. If there was a lawyer involved, I generally caved; I couldn’t afford to argue. But if the bill was small enough, Small Claims Court was an attractive alternative. Not only was it almost free, but if the parties to the dispute agreed to it, there was an alternative to a judge: resolution by volunteers, most of whom were working on degrees in mediation. I remember thinking at the time that this is the way the world ought to work: Disregard principle, politics, and religion, and try to find common ground between people who are seriously at odds over what are, in the larger scheme of things, pretty trivial matters. Blessed are the peacemakers.

Photo by Willem lange