If not now, when?

One American woman. Twenty acres and a 1650 farmhouse in Tuscany. Random introspection and hilarity, depending on the day.

21 December 2005

Losing by an inch

I was raised in a crusading culture of sorts. My mother had a sit-down once upon a time with the executives of General Mills about food labeling. Then she had a sit - in on a street corner near our elementary school that needed a stop light.

Everywhere you turn there's a cause these days: Starving children in foreign countries (not to mention the US!??!), 'just pennies a day' campaigns a-la-Sally Struthers. UNICEF. Blood donation. Save-the-endangered animal/natural resource. The world, natural-disaster-o-rama recently, with relief funds tugging at heartstrings and wallets. The ribbon-of-the-month folks (breast cancer, troop support, AIDS), with the rubber wristband brigade close behind. (To the extent that everyone loves a hopeless cause to throw money at, there's always our political parties.) Then we've got the homeless. Anti-gang, anti-drug coalitions. People who do/don't breastfeed infants. Opening the medical door, start with finding for cures for the biggies ... Cancer (how is it that we live in a world that hasn't been able to fix that yet?!?!), AIDS, Alzheimers ... and moving through to those diseases most have never heard of but are no less devastating to the people affected. Things like Sudan: that make you want to quit your life and do something, not able to sleep at night if you think too much about them, so it's easier not to.

It's not the money so much as its the dizzying emotional energy. How on earth can you choose?

All that being said (and of course my year-end tax deductible contributions duly made to at least a few of the above), my unchampioned cause of the day is one that has fallen off of everyone's radar screen, no doubt because all of the aforementioned things are consuming so much daily time/energy/money/media attention that this ole' dying horse just lays there.

Don't look now, but the United States is the only industrialized country in the world that does not use the metric system as its predominant form of measurement. THIRTY YEARS AGO, the Metric Conversion Act was passed. After seven years of implementation, congress killed it.

"It was just too hard" (I can imagine whiny voices saying).
Motorists rebelled at the idea of highway signs in kilometers, weather watchers blanched at the notion of reading a forecast in Celsius, and consumers balked at the prospect of buying poultry by the kilogram. Some even cautioned that metrication was a communist plot (the fear being that Russian tanks would have an easier time finding their way around if highway signs were in kilometers)?!?!?!. Officials at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center actually sued the government, claiming that "the West was won by the inch, foot, yard, and mile." Perhaps more significantly, organized labor opposed the conversion, worried that workers would have to learn a whole new system of weights and measures. By 1982, the anti-metric forces had clearly won the battle. Ronald Reagan eliminated the Metric Board, officially putting metrication on the back burner, where it has remained ever since.

Okay. My little sister was born in 1975 and just turned 30. In that time, we have gone from rotary dial phones, "take a memo, Stella" dictaphones, turntables and vinyl, 13 channels of UHF/VHF TV with rabbit ears to having a phone/email/camera/personalassistant all in one in your pocket, 1000 channels of mindless drivel in 50 languages if you want it, through 8tracks and cassettes to CD/DVDs, and the worldwideweb at our fingertips (certainly in the majority of households in the US if not quite yet in the rest of the world.) We as consumers have learned not just a few new habits but - if you think about it - entire new technical languages in that time. Had the Metric Board kept at its work, the learning of metric would have fallen just before 'how to use a computer' in my sister's school curriculum. And, gee, we seemed to have gotten the hang of THAT part. Today, the average person is aware of, if not proficient in, file downloads, http, ftp, virus protection software, spamblockers,.jpg/.gif/.tif/, HTML, IM, VOIP ... blah blah blah. We're worried a few meters, kilometers, grams, and centimeters will bring 'American' culture to a screeching halt?

We've learned, collectively, to change our habits. Holy crap, my GRANDMOTHER knows how to email! We taught CEOs (well, a lot of 'em, anyhow) how to make their own photocopies and type their own memos. We averted "impending doom" with the Y2K computer code recognition disaster that wasn't. Most of us have changed our area codes, or learned new ones around us, or now have to dial 10 numbers instead of the old 7. All of those changes required a shift in culture; learning new ways or unlearning old ones. And we think we can't convert our system of measurement?

Sure, old habits will die hard. And it won't be an inexpensive conversion. Not just the physical stuff, but the PR drama that goes with it, like a 'Metric Man' cartoon for Saturday mornings...

But, seriously, America. If I've learned one thing even living so briefly outside the US, it is that we are raising children who are without skills to cope in the 'rest of the world' (arguably more important now that the world IS getting smaller.) Our kids are already behind in Math & Science internationally. Their global history is dismal. Our foreign-language requirements are a JOKE compared to most other developed countries. Not to mention our (ahem) politics and this pesky developing hatred the rest of the world seems to have for us. Yup, don't look now, but we're looking more seriously isolationist by the moment; the crazy old uncle who was 'once upon a time' really cool. (Apropos of nothing, it is a collection of those crazy old uncles ... congress, living in a fantasy world... who made this decision to stop the conversion. They probably couldn't imagine calling it the '45.72 meter line' instead of the 50 yard line. If we - pardon the pun - grandfather in football fields, do we have a deal?)

It would be a giant step in the right direction if we at least spoke a common language of numbers, weights and measures. We claim to be a world leader. They're all (slowly) converting to our language. The least we can do is speak their measurements. Sometimes, to lead, ya gotta know how to follow.

Let's not underestimate ourselves here. Bite the bullet, America. It's time to give an inch.

(The excerpt is from a fascinating old article on the 'Waits and Measures' situation. And if you're wondering what got me started on all of this; I've ruined two batches of Christmas candy because I can't get my #&@%*! measurements and temperatures converted right. Yeah - problems, and solutions, start at home.


Anonymous Laurie said...

ouch...sorry about the candy! I ruined everything I made here for months....Have you seen the conversion chart on the expats site? I assume you have, but ya never know. If you haven't....go there - it's a big help. (Well, not so much with the temperatures...I'm still struggling with those...a million burnt almonds for one batch of biscotti...oy!) Anyway, buone, buonissime feste e un felicissimo, meraviglioso Anno Nuovo!!!

8:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you know, I lived in Europe for 5 years an dstill can't get the temperature in the oven right when we go to St Barts! Good Luck!


3:37 PM  

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