Friday, October 26, 2012

H2O 2.0

From time to time, I drink bottled water.

And yes, I do feel silly, thanks for asking.

Yes, I know that it’s just someone else’s tap water, no matter how many times advertisers mention clear mountain springs.  I know that the only requirements for entering the water business are a case of plastic bottles, a garden hose, and audacity.   I’m aware that I’m paying an 88 billion or so percent mark-up.  I realize that I’m adding to a growing pile of refuse that doesn't need to exist.

But when I’m out and about and I don’t want a hot drink or a waxy paper cup filled with carbonated high fructose corn syrup, when I just want something to make me not-thirsty, I don’t make a fuss.  I don’t stare pointedly at the sink in plain view right next to the stack of glasses or fast food cups.  I don’t point out that I want a drink, not a logo.  I cave in to peer pressure, to corporate pressure, to the likely disdain of the person behind the counter and lay down my money to pay for something I could have for free.

We've gotten to the stage that this is becoming a moot point.  Free water – in public at least – is very nearly a thing of the past.  Once upon a time, public drinking fountains were everywhere.  I couldn't tell you the last time I saw one.  These days, we have water coolers and delivery men with back braces with trucks full of oversized bottles, and we pay for the privilege, as if we never heard of modern plumbing. 

Even in the home, where there are no excuses, we still spring for “the good stuff” and leave the sink for washing dishes.  Or we run perfectly safe and clean tap water through a filter to make it gooderer, as if it’s substandard, as if it’s not suitable for drinking unless money changes hands. 

So I play along and I buy the stupid bottle, the one that might as well say “Free water inside”, because I’m not buying a drink.  I’m buying a brand name. 

I’m an idiot, but for whatever it’s worth, at least I’m not a thirsty idiot.

Monday, October 22, 2012

This One's For You, Donn

I met Donn at my father-in-law’s funeral.

When you’re an ex-pat, it becomes impossible to avoid eavesdropping on your native accent.  That familiar twang cuts right through the murmur of the local crowd and parks itself right in your ear.  So when I heard that American accent behind me, I couldn’t help but listen in. 

He was chatting with another of my father-in-law’s friends who happened to be in the insurance trade, asking about the ins and outs of driving in Ireland.  Did he need to get an Irish license to drive over here?  Did he need to get a license to buy a car over here?  Could he get insurance on a US license?  Questions met with little more than head scratching and brow furrowing from a man who didn’t come across much in the way of transatlantic business. 

Naturally, I chimed in.  I’d asked the very same questions not that long before, after all.  So I was able to give him some solid advice and confidently answer all the follow-up questions.  We got to talking, after the funeral, and again when we decided to meet in the pub the following day.

Donn first met Padraic (that’s PAWrick, my father-in-law) years before thanks to a shared love of Irish history.  In particular, Donn was interested in Sean MacEoin, and when he found a book by Padraic on the subject, he decided to reach out to the author.  It was the beginning of a great friendship, a contagious friendship that drew in their wives, children and even grandchildren. 

I’d heard about Donn and his wife Susan, knew about their regular trips to Ireland, trips that included visits with my in-laws, but I never had the chance to meet them while Padraic was alive.  And of course, I never heard any of this from Donn’s perspective. 

When we met at the pub, Donn came armed.  He was loaded with pictures and books and documents, each with some connection to Padraic.  Each was an artefact, a record of some profound moment in history – national, personal or otherwise – and he recounted the story behind each with unguarded, wide eyed enthusiasm.  And when he came with me to visit my mother-in-law after, he told the same stories again, with the very same passion and excitement.

Donn was, perhaps as much as anything else, a packrat.  He collected memorabilia, books, letters, photos… things.  More than that though, Donn collected stories.  He treasured the significance of objects, the human connections, the story behind the story.  This was the passion he was so eager to share with us, that day and in the years to follow. 

Donn and Susan continued to make annual visits to Ireland, visits that always included us.  I never saw Donn more than once a year, and when the timing didn’t work out, we wouldn’t see each other at all that year.  But I always looked forward to their visit, always wanted to spend the day in what was invariably great company and great conversation.

Their visit this last time was especially poignant.  It was the first since my mother-in-law died last spring.  It was also his 65th birthday, and it was a brilliant night.  We ate and drank and yammered away the night, and even though they stayed later than usual, the end came too soon.

Donn passed away this weekend.  I miss him.  I wasn’t expecting to see him for nearly a year, but I miss him. 

I wish I had words for Susan that could help, that weren’t so uselessly trite.  I wish I could put a bow on this, offer some perspective, some comfort, some way of making his absence less of a hole in the world. 

Maybe the best I can manage is to take a leaf from Donn’s book, to revel in the connections, and to tell this story the best I can.  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Humans Need Not Apply

Remember all those World’s-Fair-Home-of-the-Future-brighter-days-techno-daydreams? Those black and white sci-fi B-movies where some reassuringly Brylcremed gentleman who kept his cigarette case in his lab coat pocket described a new utopia where technology paved the way for a life of peace and leisure (usually just before everything went all monster shaped and spoiled the whole afternoon)?  These were already the stuff of nostalgia by the time I showed up, but the dream lived on, and you know what, gang?  

We did it.

Welcome to the future, kids.  Hope you brought something to do.

The dream came true.  We've taken huge strides in our pursuit of the easy life, a life free from labor.  We work faster and with better results than at any time in history, all because we've done our level best to make work a thing of the past.

I can remember hearing nervous rumblings of now-what worry as far back as the 70s.  Robotic assembly lines worked faster and more reliably than people, without coffee breaks, sick days or those pesky human rights to contend with.  Unions weren’t exactly abuzz with possibility.  They were scared for all those manufacturing jobs, and as it turns out, with good reason.

That was about the same time someone figured out that people were willing pump their own gas if it meant saving money, that cheap beats good as sure as rock beats scissors .  No-frills labels started showing up in the grocery stores.  Superstore savings won out over Mom and Pop service-with-a-smile.  Everyone was looking for new ways to shrink that price tag and pump up profits.  

Turns out one of the easier corners to cut is man-hours.

Skip ahead.  These days, online shops are beating old school retail bloody, and store clerks are an endangered species.  If one central customer service center can handle those few customers unable to make their purchases, if one warehouse can ship anywhere in the world, why would anyone want to mess with all those retail outlets and all the headaches of stocking and staffing the same shop over and over again in town after town?

We're not losing every job out there.  We aren't becoming slaves to our robotic masters.  That’s not where this is leading.  There will always be some need for some human effort and oversight, but we are getting much, much more efficient.  We can meet higher demand with fewer man-hours, and we're only going to get better.  That means that, as we go on, jobs are going to get harder to come by. 

The upshot is that manpower is cheaper.  There are more man-hours available for sale than there are jobs to fill those hours.  Great if you’re running a business, not so much if you’re running a household.  It takes more time at work to pay the bills, never mind disposable cash or savings.  When there just isn't more work available, folks have to make do with less. 

Business owners are likely to tell you that labor is still too expensive, and it may very well be that the price of hiring someone has gone up where you live.  To be honest, I haven’t the faintest, and that’s not what I’m talking about.  

I'm not talking about what the employer pays out.  I'm talking about what the employee gets for an hour of his work, about how many hours it takes to fill the fridge and keep the lights on, about how many hours it takes to stay afloat.

Once, families were able to live comfortably on the sold time and effort of one family member.  For most of us, that’s never going to be possible again.  It takes more hours these days to meet the bills, never mind disposable income and savings.

And since we’re talking about a consumer-based system, fewer man-hours means less money in consumer pockets, which means less demand.  It’s going to be harder to keep the system ticking over as we go on.

This has been building for a while, but we've managed to keep this trend at bay by creating new demands (cell phones, anyone?), and with a reliance on disposable goods (cell phones, anyone?), but we can’t rely on new gotta-have-‘em trends to keep feeding the system forever.  How many times do you honestly think the public will be willing to repurchase the same song in a new format? 

It seems unlikely to me that this trend will reverse.  Business owners will only create jobs if they can’t meet demand with the workforce available.  That demand requires customers willing and able to buy.  If we strip mine the workforce, taking maximum production for minimum cost, that population won’t be able to fuel a consumer market.

We’re heading for a post-employment world, where time and effort no longer have enough value to draw a livable wage.  We’re coming to a place where we need to find new ways of valuing ourselves, ways that don’t involve trading cash for work.  I have no idea what form that new system will take, but I do know the current system can’t hold on forever.  

For what it's worth, looks like we'll have plenty of time to figure it out.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

That Nameless Dread

Oh, hi! It’s . . . um, you.

Okay, I have a confession to make. I have no idea what your name is. 

Not an inkling.

Yes, I’m aware that you introduced yourself ages ago. I know we spoke at length, and as I recall, two people greeted you by name as they walked by. I know you had that rhyme, or that little alliteration thing, very clever and oh so catchy, making your name nigh impossible to forget.

I got nothing.

For what it’s worth, you’re not alone.  I forgot just about everyone.  I remember maybe six names from high school.  Tops.  I’ve worked with people side by side for years without ever learning their names.  A few good friends managed to stick, maybe a face or two from this job or that town every few years.  That’s it.  If you’re not one of those people, I have no idea what to call you.

And believe it or not, most people never notice.  

You talk with folks, say hi, chat about the weather or the kids or Sports Team X. Maybe you say the other person’s name, but if it doesn’t come up, who’s going to notice?  I’ve successfully gone years without anyone realizing I just don’t say say names.

Once in a very great while, someone works out that I never picked up that name years ago when introductions were first made, but most often, people come and go out of my life none the wiser.

I don’t know why names in particular refuse to lodge in my memory, but I do have a theory.  You see, I bounced around a lot over the years.  

A lot.  

Currently, I'm living in my thirtieth home and my third country.  Before I finally settled here, my record in any single residence was three years.  Come to think of it, I think my record for any single town was three years.  It took me over thirty years to put down roots that took hold, and even then, there was still plenty of bouncing around on the work front.

So every few years, my life gets a brand new supporting cast.  Maybe a few familiar faces stick around for continuity, and there might even be a surprise cameo from way back in Season 2, but for the most part, it’s a reboot.  New place, new people, with next to no connection to the past.  

Maybe I just filled up on my quota in my youth, meeting all those kids, classrooms at a time.  Maybe you can only hit the reset button so many times.  

I’m not trying to make excuses, but I really do want to understand how this blind spot formed.  Generally speaking, my memory’s pretty good.  I can pull some pretty arcane trivia from Whence the Sun Don’t Shine.  Quotes, useless factoids, pop culture references.  That sort of thing.  But it seems that my brain stopped trying to hold information that - judging by all previous experience - will be irrelevant in a few short years. Maybe even less.

And so, sorry, but I probably don’t remember your name.  

Unless of course, we’re online. I'm actually pretty good at remembering names when they're staring back at me in Facebook blue.