A month or so before my Grandfather’s death, I sat and talked with him in his living room as we would often do. We would talk about sports and the “overpaid bums” on the Yankees. We would share stories of when my sister and I were young. Sometimes we would ponder deeper topics and get a bit existential. I remember many conversations with him, but I’ll never forget what he said to me that day. He said, “You know Bri, now that it’s all coming to an end I can’t help but wonder – what was it all for? What was the point? You know?” I said, “Like – what was the point of living?” He simply replied “Yeah.” All I could say was, “Grandpa – I wonder the same thing all the time. I really don’t know if there’s an answer.”
My Grandfather was 97 years old when he died. Funny thing is, he died of pneumonia in the hospital and he was only in the hospital because of pain in his leg. Had he not gone to the hospital, having no life threatening illnesses, I’m sure he would have made it beyond 100. But as he said on that day in his living room, he was ready to say goodbye anyway. He had lost his wife of 65 years just two years before and although he continued to live on his own after her death, he was lonely and he relied on my mother to help him out. Before my Grandmother’s death, he had never cooked a meal in his life.
A few days after my visit with my Grandfather when he pontificated the meaning of life, I brought my laptop to his house. I paced around his living room looking for a WiFi signal to steal from a younger and more technologically involved neighbor in his retirement community. It was rare that any of his neighbors could do anything for him – after all, he landscaped and did odd jobs for people 20+ years younger than him well into his 90’s. In fact he lied all the time about his age just so that he didn’t make a guy who could be his son feel inferior. Alas, the lady next door came through for us and I found a signal that wasn’t password-protected. I had to balance on the edge of his love seat close to the east facing window in the living room to get the signal, but the discomfort was worth it.
The reason I brought my laptop over is because he had been talking a lot about how he yearned to hear some of his favorite songs again. I figured I’d do even better than that, thanks to YouTube. He had been specifically asking to hear one of his favorites: Eddie Cantor’s “Makin’ Whoopie.” Eddie Cantor? Makin’ Whoopie? Never heard of either of them. But to my surprise halfway into my typed search, it came up as quickly as Justin Bieber would in a Google search. I clicked on the top of many hits and spun my laptop around towards him. It was like looking at a young boy’s face that had seen Santa in person for the first time. He couldn’t believe it. The music started playing and within seconds he was singling along with Eddie Cantor. “Watch his eyes Bri, watch them!” I watched as the dark-haired gentleman stood on stage and rolled his eyes, and I listened to my Grandfather crack up. “He was known for that, you know.”
When the video finished he proceeded to rattle off one song name after another, most of which had some sort of video to accompany the music. One by one, he became more and more amazed with what I could find. He was so excited that he didn’t even bother to ask how the internet worked – it didn’t matter. He was in heaven. After about a dozen songs and a lot of laughter, smiles and tears, he said, “I’ve got one. But there’s no way you will find it. It was a song on a record that I listened to in 1921 when I was 7 years old. It was not very popular, but I loved it. I can barely remember the name. You think we can find it?” I told him that it was possible, but I couldn’t promise anything. We played around with names and titles and I searched as best as I could. After about 10 minutes, he said with closed eyes “Oh well, you tried. What I wouldn’t do to hear that song one more time. But you’re not going to find this one.” And just then I found it. No video, but an audio clip. I didn’t say anything. I hit play. I’ve never seen a reaction like it. He was frozen with disbelief. He didn’t say a word, but he stared into space, I’m sure thinking of the tiny apartment in Brooklyn where he grew up – his mother speaking only Sicilian, his brothers and sisters wallowing in the squalor that they lived in. I think I did the closest thing I could to creating time travel for him. “I NEVER, EVER thought I would hear that song again. Ever.”
The next day my Mother called me to tell me that my Grandfather said that the day before was one of the best days of his life. She couldn’t remember a time when he was so happy. At first, I was surprised that out of nearly 36,000 days, something as simple as watching a few YouTube videos would result in such a high rating. But I suppose that in his deep state of thought, the feelings that he experienced were pretty powerful – feelings that could easily triumph over a fun day at Yankee Stadium or a trip to Sicily.
In his hospital bed a few weeks later with our entire immediate family by his side, just hours before he died, I typed into my iPhone “Makin’ Whoopie.” My Uncle said “What’s that?” I said “Watch.” I held the iPhone to Grandpa’s ear and he cracked the slightest smile – the best he could manage. I didn’t say it out loud because I know he was thinking the same thing. The answer to his question about the meaning of life had been answered for both of us.

-Brian Tymann

As an elected board member of a small incorporated Village, I’ve been asked by many people why we haven’t yet banned the use of plastic bags (the kinds that you use to carry items out of a store, not food storage bags), just as many surrounding municipalities have. I have one answer for them – made up of a lot of what I call “micro answers,” because, well, I just don’t ever see things in black and white.…

The answer is simply that I’m not certain that banning the use of plastic bags is the best solution to the greater problem.

First, let me state that I think that we have a major global crisis involving plastic. I also admit that there are a lot of good things that have come from plastic. But that’s a topic for another discussion. Back to the point of this blog and the many micro-answers…

Let’s start off with an important aspect of this topic. Choices. While I identify as more of a realist than an idealist, I do believe that people can change. And by that I mean that the idealist might say something like “people should…” whereas the realist might say “people do…” and even though people should skip the plastic bag by carrying the items out or bringing their own reusable bag, the fact is that most people do just take the plastic bag. Being a realist, I know that this is a reality.

So what to do? Ban stores from offering plastic bags by means of a local law? Make a law that only allows for use paper bags? Tax plastic bags as an optional item? Don’t offer any bags at all and let the customer figure it out? Offer cardboard boxes that were used to package the many smaller products that you just bought? So many things to consider. And this is why a simple “ban” might not be the best solution.

When contemplating how to tackle a “problem” or “challenge,” it’s of utmost importance to identify precisely what the problem is. It sounds asinine that such an obvious thing needs to be said, but it really does need to be said. I think most people would identify the “problem” when it comes to plastic bags is that they are “bad for the environment.” But what exactly does that mean? Sure, they take an incredibly long time to break down, they consume finite resources to manufacture them and they choke marine life to death, but what is the actual effect of them being in existence? The answer is complicated by one of the flaws that I’ve seen in the banning of their use.

Creating a law is not a simple task. Legislators need to play Devil’s Advocate and look for flaws, loopholes, inconsistencies, missing pieces, overlooked elements and sometimes even parts of the law that straight-out contradict themselves or just don’t make any sense.

In the case of the recent bans that I’ve mentioned, there’s one big flaw: the law identifies the banned products as “single use” plastic bags. What’s the definition of “single use?” Very logical question, right? In their legislation, it is defined by thickness of the bag. But who decides the thickness? This sounds so silly and trivial and typical of government, but this is a crucial part of the legislation, because guess what some stores did? They upgraded to thicker bags. Now, they’re not “single use” by definition (a discretionary and subjective decision by the lawmakers). Oops.

So now we have fewer thin, “single use” bags being used and we have a bunch of (albeit significantly less in quantity than before) “non-single use” bags entering landfills. Not great.

Some argue that this result is still better because of the overall reduction in quantity. But others counter-argue that the thicker bags are far worse because they take so much longer to break down. Also, the logic of banning “single use” bags is that they are typically only used once, whereas “non-single use” are used more than once. But, how many times more than once? Twice? 4 times? 10 times? Regardless, ALL of these bags wind up in the same place. Landfills.

So back to the original question: what to do?

As a frequent realist and an infrequent idealist, I’m also an occasional optimist. And what I’ve seen over the past year relative to the plastic bag conundrum has given me hope. What has happened in Suffolk County, NY is what I see as a blend of ideas and implementations that has made a massive difference.

There is now a 5 cent tax on each plastic bag that is used by the consumer. They’re logically very thin, making them inexpensive so that the store lays out as little capital as possible, and being so thin they break down quicker. And even though 5 cents isn’t much these days, it’s astounding how many people try to avoid it. I can say with confidence as a very interested observer, that I see 85%-90% of shoppers at the grocery store use their own reusable bags.

Where does that 5 cent tax go? Topic for another conversation.

There are a host of other dialogues on this topic that for the purposes of my blog I won’t go into detail on, such as:

  • What are the economic effects of bans on the plastic bag industry and its employees?
  • What’s the financial impact of a ban such as this on the stores?
  • What’s the financial impact of a ban such as this on the consumer?
  • What are the specific environmental impacts of plastic bags?
  • What are the true environmental benefits of plastic bag bans regionally and worldwide?
  • What are the other things that we are overlooking and/or ignoring when spending time and energy on plastic bag ban legislation?

The dialogue and considerations are endless. In themeantime, let’s all focus on what I consider by far the most important aspectof the “reduce, reuse, recycle” motto. Reducing. To be continued soon…

-Brian Tymann