Where Memory Counts: Bound for the Deserts, Volcanoes, and Mountains of Northern Chile

I’m going to the deserts of Northern Chile.  I’m bringing with me a small backpack with some clothes, shoes, and a few books to read.  I’m going because I want to take a break from this chaotic world where anyone can access me wherever I am at any time of day, where with a click of a mouse or a tap on a touch screen, I can find out the GDP of Turkmenistan or read about the manias of Charlie Sheen.  I’m leaving this world where memory counts for less and connectivity counts for more.  Who cares to know about the ravages of World War II when you can look them up online?  Why carry around encyclopedias of knowledge in your head when you can turn to the all-knowing hive mind for whatever bit of information you may seek?

In the digital age will the younger generations lose touch with the massive effort and commitment that went into unearthing the information they google, writing the stories they read, and filming the movies they watch on their smart phones as they sit silently with their families at the dinner table?  Will the products of human ingenuity (and stupidity) in general become detached from the monumental efforts that went into forging them?

I worry that the young live in a world in which everything is a finished product, tailored to their wants and delivered to them on demand.  I worry that the connection we once had with the earth, our understanding of the relationship between labor and survival, weakens further as our creations become separated from the long and difficult processes that yielded them: the collaborations, the face-to-face conversations, the brainstorming sessions, the trial and error and repeated failures.

If the young live in a world of finished products, how will they learn to labor toward their own goals?  How will they know that the act of creation costs, draws energy, demands toil; and how will they know that such efforts, in order to be undertaken, must be compensated?  Ideas originate in the mind.  They may benefit from access to the hive, but for them to form in the first place the mind must swell with experiences and information and wisdom, and the connections that emerge from this rich inner-world.

I’m going to Northern Chile because I want to be in a place where memory counts.  The high deserts, the snow-dusted volcanoes that ring them, the Pink Flamingos that wade in shallow turquoise lagoons and stir barely a ripple, the Andes that stretch toward infinity to the north and to the south so that one might imagine that they wrap around the entire planet and hold it together like an unbreakable chain with a million colossal links —the whole scene is a window into the earth’s memory.  It contains knowledge dating back millions of years.  Stories flow out this parched landscape as from the mouth of a planetary Shakespeare.

I want to stand atop one of these mountains and listen to the earth as it tells me its story.  Speak to me, earth, of cataclysms, asteroid impacts, floods, and eruptions.  Tell me of braids of water that flowed into this desert long ago and carved out the wrinkles of its dessicated skin, revealed its many red, yellow and white hues.  Speak to me, earth, of dinosaurs, birds, and squirrel-like mammals that frolicked and died in your hands, and of societies that found sustenance in your soil and beauty in your cracked, age-worn face.

*Note: I should say that overall I think our world is better than it was not that long ago.  We’re more tolerant, etc.  I’m not all apocalyptic.  I just think we’ll have to learn to deal with the world we’re creating, and as always, that will be a challenge and we’ll never quite get it JUST right.

“Would You Like Whipped Cream, Nuts, and a Cherry?” Thoughts on First Jobs

I remember it so well.  I interviewed at the Baskin Robbins on Stassney Lane, in South Austin, wearing navy blue shorts and the first white polo shirt I had ever owned.  I was fifteen.  I didn’t know how a person was supposed to conduct himself in an interview, and it didn’t matter that I was seeking a job that involved little more than scooping ice cream and blending shakes.  It would be my first job, and that fact alone made it the most nerve-wracking interview I would ever endure.

I got the job.  Whatever I was supposed to do to come across as responsible, earnest, and hard-working, I did.  I had worked for a mere two weeks when the manager foisted upon me the unwanted responsibility of closing the store with another employee, Candace, who had been hired the same day I was.  The owner, Boyd, told me I was supervisor for the night.  Candace and I proceeded to leave the store in pristine shape, only to mess up arming the security system, thus triggering the alarm, an automated midnight call to the owner, and a groveling apology from me to him.  “It’s OK,” he told me in a cracking voice.  “This is how you learn.”

I loved working at Baskin Robbins.  I’ve had lots of jobs since then.  For one summer in college I worked at Yosemite National Park, checked people into tent cabins, and hiked to my heart’s content.  I tutored elementary kids in Austin, substitute taught, and finally taught high school in the suburbs of Houston and Dallas.  But none of these jobs brought me the exhaustive satisfaction and sense of mastery that I enjoyed while working at Baskin Robbins.

What did I love so much about serving ice cream?  I loved giving people something they yearned for and that made them happy.  In few jobs do you see the immediate results of your work, but when you serve ice cream the reward comes the moment you hand a little boy a chocolate covered ice cream cone with a fat scoop of Rocky Road balanced on top.  He smiles at you, thanks you, yanks the cone from your hand, and scurries away to join his friends at a table where already they’re making a spectacular dripping mess.  So that’s one thing I loved: instant reward for providing to my customers instant gratification.

I also loved the job because it was perfectible.  If I could master the routines that sustained the store, learn by heart how to prepare every item on the menu, memorize the prices plus tax, and assess the quirks and needs of each customer who walked in, I could achieve perfection.  I knew which customers wanted a server who smiled, which ones wanted efficiency and nothing more, and which ones needed someone to talk to and had actually come for conversation more than for ice cream.

My favorite customers were the regulars.  One man, with a long grey beard and tired eyes, came in every day and ordered a single scoop of vanilla ice cream.  And every day, with those tired eyes, he asked me to ask him a question that would yield a story from him, maybe about how when he was a kid his father used to come home early from work every Friday and treat him to a single scoop of vanilla and a movie.  He wanted me to cheer him up and coax out reminders of the happy boy who still peered out at the world from behind those tired, lonely eyes.

One woman, who wore elegant business suits and huge glasses with thick, rectangular lenses, came in every Friday after work.  She ordered the same banana milkshake every time, and she said hardly a word to me or any of the other teenagers who worked at the store.  But though she was quiet, she smiled uncontrollably—and sometimes, even giggled—when we asked how her week had gone (to which she responded with a hushed, “good.”) and wished her a good evening.  When she skipped weeks and failed to come in, we worried about her, and we told her so the following week when she kept her appointment with our store.

Of course, I wouldn’t do this now, being much older and more mature (ahem), but as a teenager I also knew when a girl wanted to flirt, when to embellish my scooping skills and technique with unnecessary flexing of my (admittedly) skinny forearms.  Thank goodness standards for strength and physique were different when I was a teenager.

I scooped dutifully.  I didn’t steal.  I mopped floors, scrubbed dishes, replaced three gallon bins of ice cream by the dozens every night.  I secured the day’s earnings in the safe, armed the alarm, and made sure every counter in that ice cream shop was spotless before I left each night with my fellow employees, knowing with near certainty that we could not have done better and that the owner would walk into perfection the next morning.

First jobs teach us a lot about people and life.  Service jobs in particular confer on us the privilege of seeing every day a slice of a thousand different lives from a thousand different walks.  The people who live these lives come from poor, middle class, and rich backgrounds.  Some are happy, some are sad.  Others literally walk to your store from a nearby mental hospital.  In such jobs we work with teenagers who attend different high schools and run in different social circles, older veterans of the service sector who have gotten by on low wage work for most of their lives, and owners who have toiled for decades to create their idea of the perfect business.  I would rather not imagine how impoverished would be my understanding of people had I never worked at Baskin Robbins.

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