Friday, December 31, 2010

The year of knowing how to get things done

By now you’ve seen the latest TV ad for Viagra, the little blue erection incentivizer from Pfizer: With Howlin’ Wolf playing in the background, a man age 40-plus rockets down a hot two-lane blacktop somewhere in America at dusk, driving a Chevy SS, a muscle car stripped and lean, like he is.

Vapor comes from under the hood; his radiator’s overheating. Without breaking a sweat, Manly Man pulls off the road into a last-chance-for-50-miles roadside store, buys some bottled water for himself and the radiator. In an eyeblink, ol’ Smokestack Lightnin’ is back on the road, heading for home, a well-appointed suburban manse obviously shared with somebody keeping a light on in the window.

In case we didn’t get the message, the voice-over and a graphic tell us, clearly, “This is the age of knowing how to get things done.”

Television ads are getting more and more sophisto all the time, sometimes too much for their own good. But this direct, down-home ad for an erectile dysfunction drug is memorable — both for what it says about the product (in a sly, oblique way) and what it says about the culture and the country and the world, and what we’ve been trying to do in 2010, all year long.

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We’ve had a lot of good teachers. President Obama, for one. Faced with congressional gridlock, Obama made adjustments to his aspirations, and ultimately got the Democrats in Congress to do the same. He ended the year with a string of impressive wins reflecting the triumph of compromise over conflict (or at least a temporary truce with conflict). It wasn’t always pretty — sausage-making in Congress never is — but the White House got where it needed to go, to start getting us where we need to go.

The New Orleans Saints did much the same thing. With the soul of a gambler and the nerve of a second-story man, the former doormat of pro football parlayed dogged determination, an inventive offense and the greatest onside kick in the history of the NFL into a Super Bowl win for a city that badly needed it, four years after the horrors of Hurricane Katrina.

Chile and 33 of its miners did it, too. When the news broke that the men were trapped 2,300 feet  underground after a mine collapse, we mentally wrote them off as just more victims of a second-world technology and the whims of fate. We figured they were dead as fried chicken. They knew better. For more than two months, the Chilean miners found a way to survive. With the help of the Chilean government they fashioned and improvised a world beneath our world, with a society, a routine, a collective objective: Get Out. Live. Sixty-nine days after the seeming catastrophe started, it was over, in a globally televised, emotionally galvanizing series of rescues. One for each of the 33 men brought up from the earth. Alive.

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Clearly, there’s a lot of ways to get things done. For the fifteen million Americans out of work and desperately seeking it, the current employment dysfunction in America has called on the use of improvisational skills Americans didn’t know they had.

We sign up for computer classes to get retrained to compete in an economy that’s as dependent on people living in Hyderabad as it is on those living in Hialeah. We get good at writing letters of explanation to creditors; we’ve learned to anticipate the blizzard of paperwork the banks want for a mortgage refi. We know the customer service peoples’ names by heart.

We build a shoestring home-based business out of nothing more than a good idea borne of desperately bad times, and an Internet connection.

We keep the tank no more than half-full, and hope whatever the engine light is telling us is wrong will hang in there another week, or two, before it malfunctions completely.

We drink more coffee because it suppresses the appetite, which saves money on groceries, and we quit buying coffee by the cup at the Starbucks down the street, ‘cause it’s not cost-effective. We buy it by the pound, or the half-pound. And we grab a fistful of the free Splenda packets on the way out so we don’t have to pay for it at the Safeway.

We go home, glance at the bills in the mail, boot up the Mac, troll the job sites and update the résumé for the umpteenth time. We pray and work for e-rain while the real thing falls outside.

Somehow, we get over, we make a way out of no way. Somehow, we get things done.

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And we do it in a way that points to the force of something foundational to us as a species, as human beings. It’s the power of four letters of the alphabet, four letters as basic, as central to who and what we are as the letters of our genetic code.

Those four letters are what get us out of bed in the morning. Those four letters are what we take to bed at night so we can get out of bed in the morning. They’re what drives us on the cusp of a new year — and now that we’re ending not just a year but the first decade of a century.

A, C, G and T got nothin’ on H, O, P and E. Not the presidential campaign meme, not the bumpersticker descriptor. The real thing. The real, human thing.

Image credits: Viagra ad snapshots: © 2010 Pfizer Inc. Obama: via MSNBC. Fireworks: via The Huffington Post

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