Friday, April 18, 2008

Dayton Ohio 1903

“Would you like to come over for tea, with the Missus and me ?

It’s a real fine way to spend the day in Dayton, Ohio

On a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1903.”     Randy Newman



I was at a light this morning checking my e-mail on my phone. I had to check it at the light because if I did not I would not have been able to check it until I got to work four or five minutes later, and I had not checked it since I had started my car at my house two to three minutes before. At the exact same time, Newman’ song “Dayton, Ohio” was playing on my car stereo. For some reason it never hit me until this morning that Newman’s song of a nostalgic invitation to a tea party was really so full of irony. Dayton, Ohio was where the Wright brothers were from. On a “lazy Sunday afternoon in 1903”, just as the tea was being poured in Dayton, Orville and Wilbur were making the first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk. There would never be another truly lazy Sunday afternoon.


That Sunday in December of 1903 is as good a place as any to mark the end of life as it had been lived for thousands of years by billions of people. We can trace a direct line from that three second flight to my sitting at a traffic  light punching at a small phone, desperate to get information before the light turned green. Information that would have meant exactly the same thing to me if I had waited to get it for a few more minutes, or a few more hours, and probably a few more days.


Every advance in life is a trade off. The reason that Sunday afternoons were so lazy in 1903 is that everyone was asleep. A working man in 1903 averaged 60 hours a week over six days at work. He was the lucky one. His wife probably worked 50% more. It was nice to be able to rely on mechanization to get us down to a forty hour work week. That same mechanization which now makes it possible to always be at work. We don’t drink tea or even  sleep on Sunday afternoon now because we are checking our e-mail . Sometimes we are flying off to a Monday morning meeting , kudos again to the Wright brothers. The nature of capitalism is such that every labor saving device invented ultimately makes it possible to work harder. If you invent a widget that lets you produce something in two hours that used to take you four hours to produce, you produce twice as many of them ! The fact that there are now twice as many of them makes them worth a lot less on the market place so you have to produce more to make up the difference ,and so on, until you have chased your tail into exhaustion or bankruptcy. Usually both. I never knew a bankrupt (and I have known many) who was not exhausted. Bankrupts are seldom lazy, they are almost always the hardest of workers who do not have the best of sense or  have perfect timing for their idea


The true irony in the Newman song is that there is no irony. There never was a lazy Sunday afternoon in Dayton, Ohio. What the Wrights wrought was just a different way of wearing out the body and soul. You don’t load 16 tons today, but you probably bill 16 hours. But at least, if you are lucky, you get to do it in the air-conditioning.


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11:12 AM  

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