Independently Speaking

Publication Date 6-24-21

I was driving between farms the other day and noticed that the wild roses were blooming, so I stopped and took a photo.

They’re a contender for my favorite flower.

Not because they’re particularly beautiful, because they aren’t. They’re a little scruffy and stunted, peeking out between the brome grass and empty beer cans along the side of the road. No, I like them because they’re tough and enduring, showing up every year with no support or encouragement, persisting despite all adversity.

We’ve gone a couple weeks without any rain, so there’s a fine coating of road dust dimming their color.

I was already writing a column in my head when the phrase “dusty rose” occurred to me and I thought, “Ivan.”

So, this isn’t a column about flowers.

When I was young, there was a men’s clothing store owned by a guy named Ivan Stern. He was a friend of my father’s and on those rare occasions when we purchased new clothes, that’s where we got them.

In my mid-twenties, I was buying a suit for some memorable occasion, which I’ve forgotten. Ivan helped me choose the suit and then we turned to the shirt rack. I was thinking white and button down, but Ivan picked out a pink shirt and held it up for my approval.

“I dunno, Ivan,” I said. “I’ve never really thought of myself as a pink shirt kind of guy.”

With some indignation, he said, “Brent, this isn’t pink. It’s dusty rose.”

Well, that made all the difference – I bought the shirt and wore it for years.

But this isn’t a column about a great salesman knowing how to frame an argument.

When I first started shopping at Ivan’s, there was, high on the wall beyond the counter, a couple of shelves of men’s hats. I’d call them fedoras, but I might be wrong.

I remember Ivan telling my dad that he could no longer sell men’s hats, in part because seed corn companies had begun gifting hats and jackets to customers to thank them for their business. 

It’s a thing. I stopped farming over a decade ago, and I still have never paid for a baseball cap or work jacket. The way I work, my inventory should last the rest of my life.

Ivan told dad, “I’m thinking of giving a bag of seed corn to anyone who buys a suit. I wonder how the seed companies would like that?”

I’m pretty sure that Northrup King and Pioneer Seeds didn’t set out to ruin the men’s hat industry.  But just because some consequences are unintended doesn’t mean that they aren’t, you know, consequences.

So, I guess this is a column about unintended consequences.

Life is full of unintended consequences. When Sam Walton was building his first Walmart, I’m reasonably sure he didn’t intend to put thousands and thousands of small businesses under. In the 1970s, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told farmers to “get big or get out” and to “farm fence row to fence row.” I’m betting his plan wasn’t to make greed seem patriotic to the point that eager farmers were stopping funeral processions to ask about the newly available farmland, not to start filling up the Gulf of Mexico with dirt and fertilizer.  As a country, we all wanted cheap TVs and computers and didn’t want to think too hard about all the jobs that left Ohio for China. The list could go on and on, of course.

We can’t do much about unintended consequences, until they happen. Human beings are fallible, and no one knows what the future holds. 

But after they happen, a grownup country would spring into action. Because that’s what grownups do. When they screw up, they admit their mistake and fix it. I can’t help but think of all the things that have gone wrong, all the unintended consequences, how hard it is to get everyone on the same page and to move beyond bad ideas, petty profits and blind selfishness.  How much that’s good in the world have we watched disappear because we didn’t want to think too hard about how our decisions affected those around us?

Just something I mulled over on a drive down a dusty road. I have great admiration for scruffy flowers that persist and prosper no matter the adversity, and whenever I see a dusty rose, I’ll think of Ivan and that shelf of hats he couldn’t sell, no matter how good a salesman he was.

Copyright Brent Olson 2021