The Decline of Civilization

At work, the folks on my floor have access to a perfectly good drip coffee maker. It sits in the kitchen with the microwave, the filtered water dispenser, the refrigerator and sink, and sundry dishes and supplies.

So I was puzzled by the sight of Ms. Biblio, a co-worker, brewing drip coffee in the water dispenser. She’d put a torn bit of filter paper atop her mug and loaded it with ground coffee.

I found her hunched over the machine, goosing the hot water button in short bursts so as not to overwhelm her crude filter. I didn’t understand why this was necessary.

“Why don’t you use the coffee maker?”

“I’m in a hurry.”

“There’s some coffee in it already.” The pot held three of inches of dark fluid.

“Oh it’s old. They probably made it hours ago. I’m sorry to hold you up.” I had come to the water dispenser to simply… get water.

“Oh, no problem, go ahead.” Eventually she filled her mug and walked it carefully away.

Over the next few weeks I noticed that almost no one used the coffee maker. The three inches of brown fluid in the cpffee pot, wretchedly aged, remained untouched for days. The coffee drinkers in our office, it seemed, each made their own coffee with their own equipment and their own supplies.

“There’s no system,” explained Ms. Canadienne. She was feeding hot water into her mug through a single-cup black-plastic drip coffee maker. She’d heated the water in the microwave.

“We don’t have a setup for buying coffee in common, or making it or sharing it out. it’d be really great if we could send an envelope around to buy supplies like they do – upstairs.”

“Upstairs” is the promised land. “Upstairs” possesses receptionists who can be assigned to send around regular donation envelopes for “the coffee club,” and buy supplies. They even make coffee for all on the communal coffee maker when “all” can’t get around to doing it for itself.

It’s a big beautiful world of service “upstairs.” But downstairs, we were wretched egalitarians. We had no receptionists to administer a coffee system for us. The fancy coffee maker remained idle because nobody wanted to take one for the team and collect coffee money or make coffee for everyone else on their own dime and their own time.

So the coffee drinkers struggled along in awkward self-sufficiently. Call it coffee survivalism.

I do remember when there was more time to organize the niceties around the office: not just coffee funds, but potlucks, parties, birthdays, get-well cards, and contribution envelopes.

But most of that has ground to a halt, or is grinding. Workloads increase, staffing does not, or not enough. We’re all too busy to keep the workplace human. Even the fifteen-minute conference-room birthday party is a thing of the past. Somebody just had a child, and the email went out that you might go to the reception desk (“upstairs”) and sign the group card. If you wanted to. If you had the time.

I didn’t bother. I was too busy.

Like everyone else, I’m worn down. People have too much to do and don’t know how to do it. I help them; training and supporting co-workers are two of my duties, but I have others that would make a full-time job in themselves. And sometimes I make mistakes. I blew somebody off last week, unwisely. I was too stressed to handle the situation well. It’s going to take months to rebuild that relationship.

But I persevere; unless my composure fails me, I try to find time for everybody who needs help. And when there’s panic in their voices, or fear, I try to go above and beyond. Not because I’ve got a head full of rainbows and sunshine and pink unicorns; thunderheads and feral cats would be more like it.

No, I keep trying because anybody who thinks a well-functioning business is all about org charts and workflows has got their heads up their anterior orifices. Work is social; when you got out of your way to help somebody, you can mostly count on help in return, down the line. Or at least some slack. No matter what the org chart says.

My job would be a lot harder without people doing things for me that they don’t strictly have to. Or forgiving the occasional error instead of running to management. The Old Boy Network is the only one that never crashes. Pity the fool who can’t log in.

They’ll tell you that work life and social life are separate, and should be kept that way. But that’s bullshit and always has been. Everything people do together is personal, social: work together, yes, but also learn together, plan together, heal together, celebrate together, mourn together. And ceaselessly exchange information.

it’s an endless web of obligation, repayment, and further obligation. The bookkeeping never ends. It can’t; it holds societies together. And workplaces. And the occasional gift card or bottle of wine at the holidays is much appreciated.

The corporate model of the worker as self-sufficient machine? An entity with no need to interact with anything but a workflow? That’s a slave-holder’s vision, from a vile subculture which holds that the one vital interchange between individuals is the passage of money.

So it bothers me when work becomes less social. Besides, we wage slaves have little other chance to be social at all. When the workday’s done, and chores, there’s little free time left in a day. And it’s too easily spent in front of the tube, the tablet, or the screen.

I fear that the humanness is being drained out of society. Drain enough of it, and we devolve into a mass of disconnected individuals communicating through cash flows and social media. This is the future that the news media shows us. And even seem to favor.

But perhaps the end is not nigh; not yet, at least.

On Friday I walked into the kitchen at work and found Ms. Canadienne making coffee. On the coffee machine.

“What happened? You’re making a full pot!”

She grinned and pointed at a small sign on the wall. “They’ve got it all set up now.”

The sign laid out the rules for the new coffee service; an envelope would pass around monthly, contributions would be made, the minions from the Land of Upstairs would stock the coffee and supplies. And everybody who contributed would have coffee. And damned well make a fresh pot for everyone else as needed.

Civilization, and society, staggers on. After all, caffeine is important.


4 thoughts on “The Decline of Civilization

    1. admin Post author

      THanks, Gnome. Been a little too busy to post lately. But I’ve got another one or two in the can, or nearly; coming soon.

  1. Otepoti

    I can’t wait for the next wonder-food fashion to hit. It would be ideal if it were a food sourced solely from New Zealand; and this time, we won’t make the mistake of selling the equivalent of the kiwi-fruit vinestock to all and sundry and especially the French.

    I know – puha! Enjoy delicious puha. It’s – green and very slimey, actually.
    Best to you and Rhumba

    1. admin Post author

      A quick search turned up a recipe for pork bones ‘n puha — I’ll bet it really does taste as good as it sounds.

      It would probably grow here, too. With a little bit of showmanship — “fabulous Puhu, New Zealand’s secret wonder food!” — you’d have them lining up around the block to buy the stuff. That it’s green and slimey would only add to its authenticity. We just wouldn’t tell anyone that its English-language name is sow thistle.

      And that would last until it got loose and ended up in everybody’s back yard along with the oxalis and the wild geraniums.

      Good to hear from you. Best to your and yours.


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