Sunday, January 28, 2007

Update: Worker Bees

These people
have the right idea.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Worker Bees

This morning I had my semi-annual visit to the dentist, or rather, the dental hygienist. I dreaded the thought of that fingernail-on-chalkboard scraping sound against my teeth, all that jabbing with sharp instruments. But I can remember the day not so long ago when I worked at a PR agency and actually looked forward to time spent in the dentist's chair. I was working so many hours that taking time to go to the dentist was a brief, tantalizing taste of vacation. One day in particular, I woke up ecstatic to realize that I -- I! -- was the lucky one that day! My root canal appointment would save me from attending a meeting everyone else on the team was hoping to avoid.

Relaxing at the dentist's, listening to the jolly Van Morrison playing on the office sound system, untethered from email, being numb and forced to remain silent for hours afterward, was a liberating experience despite the accompanying discomfort of having my tooth sawed open down to the pulp. Back then I was so chronically exhausted from juggling multiple positions -- a star "worker bee" in agency parlance -- that I could almost sleep through the dental pain just as long as they kept me quasi-horizontal. As Van sang "What's Wrong with this Picture?", I started planning a change.

So when I read in last week's Financial Times that the European Union is now increasing worker productivity faster than in the U.S., I became glum. Okay, okay, some of those French workers have it really easy, it is true. But it saddens me to see the gradual end of the Italian midday riposo, the whittling down of the Spanish siesta from four hours to something less, the opening of stores on Sundays in Germany for the mere sake of convenience, the decline of cafe society in Nordic countries. People, you are on a slippery slope!

Take it from the U.S. Decades of increasing productivity and what do we have to show for it:
* a diabetes epidemic (may I remind everyone it is not an infectious disease, and yet...) from junk food slammed down during "lunch break" at your desk
* high heart disease rates from stress, lack of exercise
* increasing divorce rate
* increasing rates of insomnia (sales of Ambien, Lunestra and like pharmaceuticals can attest to the trend)
* increasing trend in teeth grinding, which incidentally was the root cause of my root canal of yore
* rich Republicans and increasingly poor everyone else

Yeah, that's right. Who are you working so hard for anyway?

Saturday, January 20, 2007


I've been thinking about my carbon footprint, as I do every time there is another freakish, freaking reminder of global climate change. This means I've been thinking about it a lot lately.

I thought our family had already done quite a bit to reduce our footprint, and compared to most Americans that is probably true. Little consolation, considering our spendthrift ways as a nation compared to, say, Japan. The three of us live in a 1700-sq ft house, which is small by bourgeois American standards, and by so doing we conserve energy. We also save money, which we then use to travel. But, it turns out, that by taking one airplane trip a year we eliminate, by far, everything we've done otherwise to reduce our carbon consumption.

This includes driving a hybrid, taking public transportation at least twice a week, buying organic, using non-toxic detergents, and -- a biggie -- working from home three times a week and leaving the dang car in the garage except for the grocery run.

So I was intrigued by the New Yorker's profile this week by global climate change maven Elizabeth Kolbert on Amory Lovins, which explains his coinage of the term "negawatt." A negawatt is "a watt of electricity that does not have to be generated because an energy-saving measure has obviated the need for it." That puts a positive spin on it! I can now honestly say we produce lots of negawatts a day.

Seriously, because this is a positive and not negative way of addressing what people can do, it could result in people actually listening. Next they might do something. Particularly if products, for example compact fluorescent bulbs, could be packaged with the term "Produces 61 Negawatts".

And, it's time for Boeing to start building hybrids.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Pioneer Place Seagull

Today, a weird, unsettling odor crept over parts of New York City. Dozens of birds dropped dead in downtown Austin. Despite the season, eight homes burned in Malibu. The U.S. bombed Al Qaeda in Somalia.

And at my client's office, where I worked all day today, a seagull peered at us curiously through the third story window. Was he thinking it was time to get out of the cold? Was he suffering an identity crisis? Was he trying to tell us something?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Mexico & Us

There hasn't been a trip to Mexico that I haven't enjoyed. Mexico City, notwithstanding the pollution and hassle, for its beauty, culture and vitality; Cuernavaca for its color and serenity; Taxco set in those improbably steep hills; the tiles, mole and bodegas of Puebla; the pale green of the Caribbean in the Yucatan and the quotidian hustle and bustle of more ordinary Mexican towns that always appeals to the inner cultural anthropologist in me.

Visiting the colonial heartland around San Miguel de Allende at the end of 2006, I was again struck by the powerful symbol of symbiosis between Mexico and the U.S. that Coke represents.

Coke seems embedded in the Mexican psyche. Logos and signs come in various shapes and sizes, but are never loud and in-your-face like the Pepsi ads. Apparently, they don't need to be. Instead, the Coke image impinges on brain obliquely but more pervasively and therefore more deeply.

A perfect example of this was the Indian washer woman we saw mopping up the floor of a cathedral. Her bucket was red and across it was that Coca-Cola logo.

The Abarrotes mini-store next to our rented house sold Coke in bottles shaped like Christmas tree ornaments -- big and round and adorned with festive images. The words Coca-Cola appear in small print.

So often an abarrotes will announce itself to its neighborhood with a single sign, and it will be Coke. The sign sometimes is just a plain red board with a white silhouette of the iconic bottle. My opinion is they don't even need to spell out the words at the bottom of the sign. Everyone knows what it is.

Coke needs the Mexicans. It started pitching the drink to them early in the 20th century. So Coke is about as inseparable from the relationship between Mexico and the U.S. as the image of Christ is to the crucifix.

In fact, some say Coke is Latin America's second religion.

Just as Coke economically and culturally colonized Mexico, so Mexicans have irreversibly impacted the U.S. Ads today don't depict the idealized blonde homemaker of recent years. More often, she is brunette. A restaurant menu is incomplete without at least one dish with chilis or hot sauce. Without the annual migration of Mexicans to the U.S., we would not have anyone working in our restaurant kitchens, landscaping our yards, constructing our homes and cleaning our homes.

In our very Mexican, non-gringo neighborhood outside San Miguel's centro, cars bore license plates from Washington, Illinois, California, Nevada. At a shop a salesgirl heard me saying to my husband "This won't work in Lake Oswego..." and she exclaimed "I'm from Tigard!". Every cab driver spoke fine English from years of living in the U.S. Listening to mariachis serenade a bride and groom outside the Dolores Hidalgo cathedral, a cowboy-booted, straw cowboy-hatted Mexican man told us he was from Oklahoma. Another told us he was from Texas.

And thank god for them. The myth of the sleepy Mexican should be banished from the U.S. mind once and for all. Wherever they live, these people work hard every day of the week. This makes them so much like us, we should be welcoming these people above all others. We share a continent and an intertwined history and more and more a culture -- why put up a wall now when we need friends more than ever?