Today is my birthday. As birthdays go, it hasn’t been in the top 5 all-time. I’m in NYC, and my flight home has been repeatedly — and incrementally– delayed. Every half hour or so my phone buzzes and another delay is announced, always with “apologies for the inconvenience.” I’m now looking at a departure time that is more than three hours after the scheduled time, and I’m wondering whether the next announcement will be an outright cancellation.
All in all, it’s not the best way to celebrate a birthday. Fortunately, birthdays don’t mean that much to me.
When I got to my room at my hotel in NYC last night, I discovered it was one of those places that has random quotes printed on the walls.
In this case, it was the above quote attributed to Andy Warhol — although some contend it actually originated with Marshall McLuhan — helpfully placed right next to the bathroom. For good measure, the mat on the desk has a quote attributed to John Steinbeck: “People don’t take trips, trips take people.” (This is a paraphrase of sorts of a line from Travels with Charley: In Search of America that reads “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”)
What’s the point of quotes on the walls and on desk mats? I’m guessing it’s supposed to convey a certain erudite edginess, like you’ve suddenly found yourself in some intellectual artist’s loft in Soho, rather than in a stodgy hotel. But in my view, the wall quote places are really more alienating than the standard generic hotel room. After all, I didn’t pick the quote — and in fact I don’t think I’d ever print any quote upon my wall, even if it were some deeply meaningful quote from the Gettysburg Address rather than a vapid observation about gullible art critics. So when I wake up and see the quote on the wall, it immediately tells me that I’m in a strange room. It doesn’t exactly convey a “make yourself at home” feeling.
Everybody seems to be big on quotes these days, although many of the quotes you see are actually fake. It’s as if the message is that there’s no original thinking yet to be done, and we should just sigh with appreciation at the wisdom of the ancients — which is an approach I heartily disagree with. But even if you are a big fan of quotes, what does a quote from Andy Warhol about art have to offer a weary traveler? My guess is that Warhol himself would find the fact that his quote appears on a hotel room wall to be a hilarious commentary on the wannabe state of modern society.
This morning I took an early morning lap around Schiller Park — because I’ve been on the road, the first such lap in a while — and as I circumnavigated the park I couldn’t help but notice a distinct fragrance in the air.
You might call it that growing scent. It’s something you smell every spring — a heady mixture of mulch, fertilizer, damp soil, growing grass, buds, newly sprung leaves, and everything else that seems to be popping as the weather warms and the rain falls. It’s spicy and earthy and a bit intoxicating, and very much welcome.
We didn’t have a bad winter this winter, but it’s always glorious when you detect that growing scent and know that spring has come.
Here’s an amazing fact: Japan is, only now, looking to limit how much overtime employers can ask employees to work. And, even more amazing, the first-ever proposal to limit overtime would set a cap at 100 hours per month.
Japan has long had a curious tradition of a slavish work ethic, with some employers measuring employee hours not by productivity — where Japanese workers trail Americans and others — but by raw hours worked, which the employers associate with qualities like loyalty and dedication. So even though Japanese law has instituted a 40-hour work week, it is commonplace for workers to spend far more time than that at the office and on the job, with no governmental limit on how much “overtime” employees can be expected to put in. The social pressure to commit to working crushing hours has even caused the Japanese to coin a word — karoshi — to refer to death from overwork. Every year, hundreds of deaths from heart attacks, strokes, and suicides are attributed to karoshi, and a recent government survey determined that one in five Japanese companies have employees whose tendency to overwork puts them at risk.
It was a recent suicide, of a young employee of an advertising firm, that caused the Japanese government to propose the first-ever limitation on overtime. But those who advocate true reform of the Japanese work culture scoff at a 100-hour-a-month limit as almost as outlandish as having no limit at all, because it means employers could routinely require employees to work more than 60 hours a week. That’s ten hours a day, six days a week — not exactly the kind of restriction that is going to prevent people from suffering the mental and physical health effects of constant overwork.
The Japanese problem with karoshi is an example of how cultures can develop in radically different ways, imposing expectations that would be unimaginable elsewhere. How many countries and cultures have a problem with people routinely working themselves to an early grave? And part of the problem is that there remain thousands of Japanese workers who accept the culture imperative to work like a dog and try to satisfy its demands, rather than just rejecting the unreasonable expectations and going somewhere where the work-life balance is a happier and healthier one. You can impose government regulations, but at a certain level individuals have to stand up for themselves and act in their own best interests — cultural imperatives or not.
Lately I’ve eaten a lot of dinners in airports. It’s not a good thing. Airport food has definitely improved over the years, but it’s still significantly burger/pizza/chicken-centric and often loaded with sodium, and eating a heavy, salty meal doesn’t exactly sit well when you immediately stumble onto a plane and then sit on your butt for hours.
So, I’ve started looking for these do-it-yourself yogurt/fruit/granola combos when I’m required to eat an airport dinner. They seem reasonably light and reasonably fresh, they’re relatively low in calories and sodium, and they don’t leave you feeling like every ounce of moisture has been sucked from your mouth and a lead ball has been lodged in your stomach.
As airport dinners go, those are pretty high standards.
Later this week I’ll celebrate another birthday. It will be one of those “decade” birthdays, where the first digit in your age moves up a notch and the last digit in your age cycles to zero again.
Let’s face it: decade birthdays are somewhat annoying. Just because our culture long ago settled on a “base 10” number system — presumably because the ancient Egyptians realized that we’ve got ten fingers on our hands, and chose to build mathematics around the concept of ten as the path of least resistance — doesn’t mean there should be any special significance to celebrating a birthday when your new age divided by ten produces a whole number rather than a fraction. It’s just another year added to the ledger, and the turn of the calendar page doesn’t mean you should feel or act any different.
And yet, everybody treats the “decade” birthdays as if they are some hugely significant milestones. Sure, 13 and 18 and 21 have their own special elements, but the decade birthdays can actually define you as a person. Suddenly you’re “in your twenties” or “in your thirties,” and people expect you to behave in a certain way. And as those decades creep upward, the age-related expectations tend to become even more fixed.
So I’ve got another decade birthday coming up. So what? The decimal system doesn’t define me. In fact, I’m going to pretend that we’ve got a base 8 culture and ignore it.
This morning the news is all about the Cleveland “Facebook killer,” who filmed himself killing an elderly man who apparently was chosen randomly, bragged that he had killed a number of other people, and then broadcast the video footage on Facebook. Police are currently looking for the killer.
It’s just the latest disturbing link between social media and people who commit bad acts. How often recently have we read about people engaging in live social media broadcasts of beatings, or rapes, or suicides? For many of us, Facebook and other social media outlets are all about keeping track of other people’s birthdays, kids, puppies, and meals, but for some sick segment of society, social media apparently is seen as a simple, immediately available opportunity to achieve notoriety and display their violent criminal activity to the world.
It raises the chicken or egg question: what comes first, the impulse to engage in the bad acts, or the desire to be broadcast doing it? If it weren’t possible to easily upload a video or stream a live broadcast on social media, would the crimes still have been committed, or is the ability to display video evidence of the bad acts to a presumed audience and obtain a few minutes of depraved fame the ultimate triggering factor?
There have always been predators in our midst; violent criminal acts have been part of human history since the dawn of time. Still, for some people there seems to be some basic and grotesque connection between social media and wrongdoing, and we are left to wonder: would the poor man murdered by the Cleveland killer still be alive if the social media outlets weren’t available to be misused?