What defines this modern civilization? Speed, I think. More than any other quality, speed, the need to get things done and to get them done now, and then move on to the next thing, dominates the modern world. In such a world traditional ideas of right and wrong, of what constitutes the good life, the role of the sacred, and the once firm foundations of a culture based on customs stretching back into the past, shrivel under the constant pressure and then are brusquely shoved out of the way as impediments to the ever relentless forward thrust of modern life. In such a world, slowness and inconvenience, which were the standard operating modes of humanity ever since that guy in the monkey suit bludgeoned a warthog for breakfast to the tune of Also Sprach Zarathustra, now constitutes the modern equivalent of deadly sin, a mala in se as deadly as pride, as contemptible as sloth, and as irritating as that kid with the wet diaper three rows behind you who insists on screaming in your ear while you are trying to watch the movie. It is this comfort with speed and rapid change that renders American culture particularly well-suited to cope with the demands of this new modern civilization and makes the United States the world’s first hyper power, as one French politician put it, although someone with enough time on their hands could make the case that any group of people as heavily caffeinated as Americans are at ten o’clock in the morning are less a hyper power than simply hyper; the mass ingestion of stimulants will do that, you know.
With a people so used to the swift pace of modern life, a society geared to accept and profit from the ever-increasing velocity of societal and technological change as they surge through all of our lives, the idea that it could otherwise is profoundly shocking, almost heretical, in fact, and draws the most intense sort of reaction from people you would not think would react in such a way. I bring this up because it is increasingly clear that many people in the new integrated global economy are simply not on the same page as the rest of us.
The reason for this very roundabout way of getting to the whole point of the matter is that globalization has its malcontents, and one of them is our children’s librarian. For the past several weeks the staff of this egregious mold pit has had to listen to her rant about the incompetence of mechanics, the boneheadedness of auto dealers, and the vagaries of modern communications, when it is abundantly clear that all she wants in life at this point is for someone to fix the air conditioning unit in her car. Now, I should point out that this behavior is not the norm; the children’s librarian is a lovely woman who genuinely enjoys working with children, as opposed to some of our staff, me, in particular, who regard the idea of working with children with the same enthusiasm most people regard the idea of ramming a red hot fork into their left eye, but for the past month or so her car dealer and his attendant mechanics have driven her to distraction with reasons why they can’t fix the air conditioning in her car. At the moment, the main reason for the mechanical inaction is the lack of a part, this part not being in stock anywhere in the United States, Canada, or Mexico. In point of fact, this part is not in stock anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. From Point Barrow, Alaska, to the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego, the Americas are singularly devoid of this part, except for those parts already installed in other cars of this make, whose owners know how rare those parts are and will not surrender them no matter how wonderfully our children’s librarian works with their children.
The one place in the world that has an excess of this part, a place burdened with more air conditioning units that running them all at the same time is prohibited by law lest blizzards occur in the middle of July, is a small city about a hundred miles north of Shanghai called Eggs Phooey No; at least, I think that’s the correct Romanization of the name—it was breakfast time and I was trying to translate and give the waitress my order at the same time, so I may have lost something in the translation. But Eggs has air conditioning units and the parts thereof for every manner of motorized transport from go-karts to main battle tanks. The city fathers are happy to let anyone anywhere who evinces even the slightest interest in the subject of automotive air conditioning and even those who don’t care one way or the other know that you can get anything you need in the automotive air conditioning line right there in Eggs; they’ve been known to forcibly detain tour buses in the city just to make sure that everyone on board has an opportunity to find out about the great bargains on automotive air conditioning units and their parts in Eggs and to hold prolonged philosophical conversations with the detainees about the importance of automotive air conditioning in the modern world, in much the same way that your brother—in—law will go on and on and on at Thanksgiving about how things are going in the restaurant supply business and you thank whatever higher power you pray to that Thanksgiving is only once a year because whatever else in life may be true, the one thing you can absolutely certain of is that you have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the restaurant supply business and how it is doing these days.
Now, you may be thinking, what’s the problem here? Have the dealership order the part and have the folks in Eggs ship the part; why the prolonged wait? Because they’ve done that already, but the part is in China and our children’s librarian is ensconced here in our happy little burg, and East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet without the prodigious consumption of antacids drunk straight out of the bottle. Having ordered the part, of course, is only the first step of this story; actually getting the part before the children’s librarian begins melting like the Wicked Witch of the West in the movable sauna she drives to work every day is another thing entirely.
The good people of Eggs have heard of the many businesses that swiftly ship goods around the world when those goods absolutely, positively have to be there overnight; they just don’t use them much. No, the folks there in Eggs are traditional people, not much for new-fangled foreign ways of doing things. They didn’t like the old-fangled Chinese way of doing things, either; they just didn’t like fangling, new or old; it seems too much like doing the tango, and has there ever been a great Chinese tango dancer? Can you think of one right off the top of your head, really? I didn’t think so.
The part is on its way, of course; they have assured my co-worker of that on numerous occasions, but given the old fashioned way they do things in Eggs the part is on its way here in the old fashioned way: via camel caravan over the Silk Road. As you read this, there is a camel with an air conditioning unit strapped to one of its humps slowly, and I mean very slowly; a camel can go from 0 to 30 miles an hour whenever the beast feels like it, but it seldom does, which makes me wonder why camels are not as big a presence in the civil service as they could be, seeing as how they already have the correct attitude towards their work; (VERB ALERT!!!: The main verb of this sentence is about to appear; please remain calm, speak softly, and set your cell phones to vibrate. Please remember also that taking flash photographs of the verb here in its natural environment is against the law) winding its way across the desert sands to fabled Samarkand of the blue tiled mosques and the red tailed mosquitoes. There, in the shadows of the minarets, sharp-eyed Armenians will buy and sell, trading with equally sharp-eyed Uzbeks and Uighers and Kazakhs, and the occasional none too bright Mongol who wants to install some air conditioning in his yurt. From Samarkand the part will make its way, providing that there are no sandstorms, bandit attacks, and American air strikes, towards the West while the children’s librarian, usually a level headed woman not easily upset by life’s travails, goes into an extended five minute rant about how this stupid part is constantly causing her hair to frizz up. I am not certain of the details of this; I have arrived at that point in my life where I am glad that I still have a (mostly) full head of hair; if it frizzes up, I won’t complain—you’ve got to have it to complain about it.
And that’s about where things stand now. The part is still somewhere out on the Silk Road somewhere between God only knows and no damn clue, and the children’s librarian has taken to reading the scary sections of the US tax code to small children, thereby traumatizing them for life. She is now thinking of renting her car out as a weight-reducing machine, or of tossing some sand and a bottle of water and telling everyone that she’s got her own beach now. She is basically an up person who thinks that when life hands you a lemon you take it back to the dealership you bought it from. It won’t get that damn part here any quicker, but I imagine it makes her feel better.