Friday, May 4, 2012

Behind the objects

Look around you for a second and take in all the stuff on your shelves, floor, bed, wherever. All the doo-dads and whats-its, the baubles and thing-a-majigs that you generally overlook. Even when they're part of your daily routine, you probably forget they're there when you're not using them.

I can be really shallow sometimes. Most of my life I've spent gathering up useless ephemera and purchasing items that end up becoming artifacts of my childhood and my teenagehood. I associate them with memories and experiences, with people I know and love, with ideas that they spawned or helped to facilitate. But when do I ever think about where they came from?


Well, not never. But not much. And certainly not as often as I should.

Then I had a really deep and philosophical moment. Either that, or a really ditzy and stupid one. It's up to you to decide.

I was sitting at a dining hall table eating breakfast, when I looked at a salt and pepper shaker and said something like "I never think about who makes these."

Think about it. While so many of us aspire to become novelists, rollercoaster engineers or marine biologists, it's someone's job to figure out the details of constructing a salt or pepper shaker. "What would someone's title be if they made salt and pepper shakers?" I asked, still in a dazed stupor after getting up only 15 minutes earlier. But the question was legitimate.

My grandma used to work in the Honeywell factory in Torrance, California. Though I've never asked her for details of the job, I'm quite sure she worked on some assembly line.

It hit me pretty soon after the slightly eccentric conversation about salt and pepper shakers, that the people behind these every day objects are just as important as they are overlooked for the objects they make that contribute to the daily functioning of our lives.

I put a lot of weight in the presence of certain belongings in my life. I love my clothes and my shoes. I can't walk anywhere without at least one earbud of my iPod in. If I don't have a case for my contact lenses, I go crazy.

All of these things are just a quick walk away from my dorm. There's an Urban Outfitters less than a 15 minute walk from me. A CVS is only 10. The student center where I can buy a new iPod and earbuds is probably 5.

But the places where the things I so covet are made are miles and miles away from me, by people I've never met. And I guess it takes having a grandparent be an assembly line employee to remind you that sometimes those people do deserve credit.

My grandma is one of the most amazing, strong and admirable women I know. She raised a daughter virtually on her own after her husband left her, juggling jobs from newspaper writing to cooking sukiyaki at a local restaurant to working at the Honeywell factory. She saved and she had success, and through the toils of her efforts she managed to create a wonderful retirement for herself.

And the people behind the assembly lines, behind the computers where the 3D models for the salt and pepper shakers are made, they all have their own stories too.

It's weird to think that even those little things that we associate with ourselves have histories way beyond their presence in our lives.

Just today, I was working in the Archives at my school flipping through some papers to try and "accession" them, as the process is called. I set to work with a pad of paper, a pen and two huge boxes filled with books and paper materials.

As I fumbled through all the boxes' contents - among them books from publishers worldwide spanning various eras, magazine clippings, etc. - I realized that after I've taken all the junk in these boxes and put them into separate boxes with labels, after I've input all the information into a computer catalog so that people can later find these materials, after I've stashed them away in some remote corner of the library storage one will know.

For all intents and purposes, the middleman need not have existed. My name will in no way be attached to the boxes. No one will associate me with all the effort I put into their correct attribution and labeling. For all anyone knows, I never existed.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not much of an existential nihilist. I don't assume that everything I do in my daily life has no meaning.

But it's those moments, when you're working your butt off to try and get a task done, that you realize that once the task is done, it's behind you - not only because you've finished it, but because you're not present in it in any way.

And that's how a lot of the "stuff" we have is for the people who made it.

We look at a lamp, a sweater, a purse, a cell phone, an umbrella and we don't see anything but the object itself. But it took people, probably from different parts of the globe - and definitely from different ethnic backgrounds, different walks of life and different ages - much of their time and effort to make that silly little object we toss into the corner of our room.

If someone's lucky, they get to put their symbol on their work somehow. But for the factory workers like my grandma was, and even the higher-ups who maybe don't own a company but contribute to the methods of production, the only remembrance is what resides in the mind.

It would be dumb to suggest that everyone should pay every object in their life a second glance to consider its life before it arrived in their hands. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, though.

Every once in a while, just for a second, I like to think about how things came to be. In a restaurant, I consider the people in the kitchen making my food, in the dining hall I consider the people in the washroom power cleaning all the dishes, in a hotel I think about the person who is tidying up my room in the mornings. But it's even more nebulous than that.

There are people that do tasks related to what we own that we are wholly unaware of. People like my grandma who started the days of their middle ages assembling who-knows-what on an assembly line for Honeywell, came home only to go back and repeat the task. The only people who know about these people are those who love them. But everyone deserves to be appreciated for what they do - these are people who contribute to society, regardless of whether or not their name is associated with what they create.

To those who have done tedious and unrewarding work - like sorting through papers or putting together an appliance on an assembly line - I'd like to pay some respect. My thoughts, if only for a moment, are with everyone who facilitates the ease of my life. In salt and pepper shakers, in shoes, in clothes, in iPods and headphones, it's those behind the objects that really matter. And they shouldn't be forgotten.

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