Living Now in the Age of Bud Vases….

I saw my friend Joe last night.

It’s been awhile.

“Back in the day”…. we worked on  many Balls and big community events together here in the small city where I live. A set designer and a floral genius, he could transform any space. Many of us still talk wistfully about the year he did the “Faberge eggs” for our Russian Ball…amazing creations of flowers, fruit , faux gems…every table different. Another year there was Rick’s Cafe for “Casablanca”…. the spectacular entry “Forest” for the Camelot theme….and so much more. Photos in little frames in my sunroom stand testimony to the way things once were.

This was not so very long ago…10 or 15 years…but talking about it, I’ve come to realize,dates the speaker. Like Grandpa talking about chopping wood  to heat the house. Eyes glaze over. Yawn.

But as Grandpa would say, “back in the day” there was once a large group of us that worked on the Symphony Ball fundraiser every year. and the other charity events in town. We traded around the titles, sometimes Leader, sometimes Lackey. We were extremely well-organized and dedicated to getting things done.

This was one of the most satisfying periods of my life.  These are some of the most important friendships of my life. We functioned together for years like one slick operation.

We knew each other’s talents  and weaknesses. And, yes, we knew each other’s husbands.

That is an important part of fund-raising, of course…to know “the guy that writes the check.” But that was only one part of it. Our  core group of women  approached volunteerism as a real job, as if we had an employment contract.  We put in long, long unpaid hours. Dedicated ourselves, we were disdainful of those who just showed up for the picture-taking, of those who would not get on ladders, or crawl under tables, or would shockingly just sit and eat at these events rather than be up and about, counting forks, putting out “fires” and cajoling our guests. There was no “power of the paycheck” that kept us coming back, just the satisfaction of seeing how the money we raised…raised up our community.

And it did.

Of course, we have stories…

One year, our friend Florence, a native of Taiwan, borrowed wonderful authentic costumes from the Embassy for the committee and a few sporting husbands (which mine was NOT) to wear during cocktail hour… to enhance our Chinese theme. Immediately after, we all changed back into Ball attire and the costumes were stored in a out-of reach ladies lounge….safe…or so we thought. But during dinner, Florence approached my table, and pointed upstairs…”Joan, Drunken Women. Trying on Costumes!”   (I often functioned as the Sammy the Bull of this consortium)  And yes, there the ladies were, sloshing drinks on the borrowed silk and embroidery. But it ended well and we enjoy the retelling these days.

And there were the laughs.

After the Feds came in here one year and carted off various judges, the Road Commissioner, and other luminaries, we felt compelled to revamp the Ball invitation list. We were tasked to update and review the list to cull the 3 D’s.. “the Dead, the Divorced and the inDicted.”

“Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.”

But they did and they have.

“The guy who writes the check” has been pushed out or bought out  and the new guy mostly lives in another city these days. Nobody can get past his secretary.  Our group has mostly disbanded, moved or moved along. One day, we looked behind us and realized our daughters were all doctors, and lawyers and corporate chiefs. There is no one to do what we did. The ranks are diminished. The need for the money we raised is more desperate than ever…but the interest in these sorts of community events has also declined. When held, they are only modestly attended and the big budgets that made the magic and bought the blooms is gone.

Our community is not alone. I guess raising money to meet our local needs is an idea out of vogue. The prevailing idea now is someone should just give it to us.  The State. The Federal Government. It’s fashionable now to hate the “Guy that Writes the Check” as well and to forget, on a local basis, the generosity that funded so many cultural and educational programs.

In a society that believes in entitlement…that its citizenry is “owed” everything by the government….the concept of charity is an anachronism, maybe an anathema. I have begun to feel almost an embarrassment about my volunteerism at times in certain political circles. A paid “community organizer” can be a considered worthy of the highest office in our land…but an unpaid community volunteer has a taint of some vapid silliness, some insulting intrusiveness, some degenerate thinking process. There is a new attitude about need, that it exists because someone else is denying you, someone else has what should be yours.  There is a new push-back against anything that might induce the slightest sense of gratitude..because gratitude might undermine the anger of the metanarrative.  Community organizers exploit this anger; while community volunteers find their efforts stymied  by this new puzzling revulsion.

“Go away…we want the Government to do it.” is the prevalent meme. The satisfaction of putting in long unpaid hours …in the context of these new attitudes…makes recruiting new volunteers almost impossible.

But the need around here remains high and is growing. And the Government is tapped out.

There are no apparent answers.

So, yes, things have changed. Last night, my friend Joe and I reminisced about the old days, the Faberge “eggs”, the themes and the flowers. We discussed how everything has just diminished.

He leaned in so the others couldn’t hear him..”My God!  he said to me conspiratorially ..”They are now about one beat away from a bud vase.”

I thought later…so well said.

That just about sums up the decline. The Age of the Bud Vase.

Out of money, out of ideas..and increasingly, among those who need to find solutions to address the  still ever-present need, ominously…  out of sorts.

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3 Responses

  1. My wife and I recently joined the local chapter of Kiwanis International, an organization that has been providing volunteers and money to communities for almost one-hundred years.

    Recalling my father’s activities as a Kiwanian decades ago when he was still very much in his prime, I was startled to see at the first regular meeting we attended that almost every other member was considerably older than we, ourselves in our sixties. Almost all the other volunteers had, in fact, retired from the daily grind of getting, if not spending. Was something generational at work here?

    I cannot deny that we joined partly out of guilt. Although we had “helped out” when the kids were young—for example, serving as den leaders and committee persons for the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, as coaches for the local rec. council, and as gofers for the various PTAs—we had never undertaken the “larger” volunteerism you so beautifully elaborate in your essay. Yes, we had plenty to occupy us when our kids were still running around. But my father still managed to do more than I’ve done despite his working two jobs and raising six children.

    You have deftly touched on some of the reasons for the decline in volunteerism. For starters, many more women, my wife included, leave the house for the workplace than did just a few decades ago. (My mother worked full-time at home–without pay.) And though they bear fewer children on the average than did their own mothers, they find themselves engaged with their children in ways often unknown to their mothers. For example, it seems we spent more time driving the kids to and from–and then watching them play–organized sports than our parents spent with us altogether. And let’s not forget the shuttle service we ran for music lessons and lessons of other sorts—none of which our parents could afford to provide and to which we could not have been conveyed anyway as their households, like those of so many others, made do with just one car.

    Although my mother was busy enough looking after her brood, she often took advantage of her built-in babysitters—namely, her older children. So even she, a mother of six, could occasionally pitch in for community projects, many of which she learned about while enjoying coffee time with other housewives in our neighborhood. How many young mothers nowadays get “networked” in this way?

    About our increasing reliance on government instead of on our own efforts to “help out,” you have surely hit the mark. Were I inclined in a Machiavellian direction, I’d suggest a longstanding and quite successful conspiracy on the part of “deep thinkers” and their minions to enfeeble the population. That depressing story, however, I cannot bring myself to discuss on this beautiful (at least here in Maryland) first day of a long holiday weekend—one set aside to celebrate the Founders and their stupendous effort to put government in its proper place.

  2. I would agree with Benny’s assessment. Women and men today find themselves, depite the plethora of labor saving devices, fewer children, and in the abstract more rather than less leisure time, with fewer hours of the day to do anything at all. The insistence that one must be tethered to one’s job 24/7 through computers and cell phones and the fear, for lack of a better word, that seemingly haunts so many parents that their offspring will either be at a disadvantage unless every aspect of their young lives is progammed and regulated or that they will be harmed irreparably unless carefully cosseted has led to the treadmill existence that allows of little if anything else. If one looks at organizations that used to teem with volunteers, one finds their ranks have thinned. And while volunteerism is on the rise among the youth – I have questioned for some time how much staying power that commitment will really have since the volunteerism is “forced” by school requirements and college resume enhancing demands.

    A a teenager, I was very active in Rainbow Girls – the junior version of the Eastern Star. Every other week we met – the women who guided us were insistent upon so many things – punctuality, correct memorization of the rituals, paying rapt attention to eh speaker at each meeting, correct attire (one a month, if memory serves we wore formals and long white gloves to our meetings), etc. We were always involved in some charitable concern – that was our function to learn what needed to be done so that when we were older, we could and would be involved on a larger scale. Our meeting were always listed in the social column of the local newspaper. I think it is another one of those fraternal organizations, like the Grange, Society of Odd Fellows, the Elks, etc. that have gone the same path as the Shakers of the 19th century. Such groups played an important part of small town life – but they are now viewed as elitist – and that has been their death knell.

    We, as a society, expect government to do all for us. We also expect that, as Joan wrote, the “man with the checkbook” to cover it all – only instead of the check writer spending what he wants to spend as he is able within his budget, the government determines what percentage the check writer must pen into those blanks regardless of any other considerations as it is the government who has determined who should receive and to what extent.

    Taking the ability and the fun – because such affairs as Joan described were fun to plan and attend , from volunteerism has not helped as well. Volunteers must be recognized and applauded (everyone gets a trophy syndrome). It is all too commercial. I remember planning and decorating for the junior-senior prom when in high school. We (the juniors) sold spirit ribbons every week (ten cents for a ribbon that one did not want to be without) celebrating out sport team (football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring) with a catchy phrase that told how or what said team would handle its opponents. We began planning the prom as soon as the year began – it was always held at a local “ball room”. We did everything – made the decorations (I can still recall the heady perfume of paste and newpaper strips as they melded together over chicken wire structures as well as the careful work required of silk screening murals so that colors would not run or the newly inked pieces were not smudged as they were quickly pinned on a clothesline to dry), printed the invitations, arranged the flowers on the tables, etc. And then, on that afternoon of the event, rushing to the beauty salon to get hair done (and nails for those who could afford it) before one’s date, in the family sedan if his family was a small one or if a large one in the huge family station wagon, came with corsage in hand to the front door while one looked in the mirror one last time to make sure “the dress” , hair, make-up, etc. were all perfect before descending the stairs to leave for dinner and then the prom with a local band playing the current favorites. How different from the prom that I recently chaperoned this spring! While a committee of class members selected the theme – decorating was turned over to a business that specializes in prom/party affairs. The decorations were nice (very professional) but they lacked that intimacy and appeal, I thought, of those that students almost a half century ago made for themselves. It seemed that there was nothing special – there was no real connection that the attendees had to the affair – it could just have been some club that a group of classmates had decided to go to for the evening. My point is this – when decisions are made from afar and communities have no real connection to what is decided then much is lost and there is an “automaticness” that makes the recipients not so much grateful as expectant of what is due them and it makes the giver feel used rather than uplifted.

    • cks. I remember being one of the “architects” of a large moon for a “Moonlight and Roses” party…the focal point of the event, constructed just exactly as you described. We labored for days and were so proud of it.

      My date, and I believe it was the inestimable Robert…said it was fabulous…then added “It’s a banana, right?”

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