I was stirring my morning coffee, that deliberate motion that is part necessity and part subconscious effort to delay the start of another arduous day, if only by a few seconds. That’s a time when the brain, not yet steeped in caffeine, teeters between the necessary and the whimsical.
Mid-swirl, my mind went out to the stirrer between my thumb and index finger: a thin plastic stick, brown, hollow. I thought of the process by which it was made—most likely an extrusion method whereby molten plastic is drawn through a mold, then mechanically sliced into uniform lengths to be packed by the thousands. I thought of the engineering that went into that stirrer: drawing up specifications for the plastic; sourcing the raw materials; fabricating the dies and mechanisms to extrude the stirrers; designing, printing and assembling the cartons; installing the conveyors, automated equipment and logistics systems to get everything from fabrication to warehousing to store shelves. All for me to be able to swish it around in a cup of coffee, then toss it in a trashcan.
What an absolute waste of resources. All that effort and expense for what—so I can avoid picking up a spoon, swirling in a cup for five seconds, then running it under a stream of water for another five seconds before placing it in a dish rack? A very expensive savings of five seconds indeed.
I get it. In a public setting such as a fast-food restaurant or a business conference, making sure spoons don’t walk or aren’t tossed out is more than worth the cost of a spoon proxy. And I’m sure that factories that produce coffee stirrers use their equipment for more than just that. But still—all that for something that has a useful life measured in seconds!
Which got me to thinking (in another not-so-subconscious effort to delay the start of my day). What object has the absolutely shortest lifespan? What else has man created that exists for no other reason than to save him seconds, no matter the expense? I decided that this would be a good topic for me to mull while driving the car, walking my puppies or anytime else I would want to kill some time, like, perhaps, between bouts of productivity in the office.
First, some ground rules. “Lifespan” would be defined as the time elapsed between someone reaching for an object and tossing it away. Storage doesn’t count. After all, that hapless coffee stirrer that started this whole rant may have sat on a store shelf or on our break room counter for months before its five seconds of glory.
So, who were the candidates? First up, I thought of the stalwart and ubiquitous match, whether the book or stick kind. Yep, its life is short, unarguably shorter than that of a coffee stirrer. A stirrer’s life is dictated by the personality of the, um, stirrer him- or herself: the more obsessive compulsive, the longer the swishing. A match has a very defined lifespan, the end of which is signaled by a rather pronounced pain of the fingers.
I thought of movie tickets, paper napkins and a whole range of medical equipment, or more correctly, medical equipment protectors, that qualified as candidates. For the latter, a doctor slaps a thin plastic cover over an ear canal examination thingy scope (that’s the official medical terminology, by the way), jabs it in your ear, and in a mere second determines that you are not worth filing lengthy insurance forms. The plastic cover, like a high tech ear canal stirrer, gets tossed.
I can make a parlor game out of this, for those times when either too much or not enough alcohol at a party demands drastic measures. Or I could use this as a quick conversation stopper among co-workers to teach them that killing work time with Bo has its consequences. I highly doubt if more than a sorry handful of people have ever pondered this weighty question.
When I was a kid in the Bronx, the Fourth of July was an important holiday marked by Older Kids setting off the firecrackers and “Ash Cans” that they had somehow illicitly acquired. The really cool kids had Roman Candles; hangers-on like me made do with sparklers and cracker balls, pea-sized colored bomblets that made a satisfying crack when hurled onto the sidewalk. I came across some of those not too long ago, different in shape, but still the choice of the pre-matchbook set.
Until someone convinces me otherwise, I decided that the winners of the Short Life competition were those gaily colored little grenades. Reach into your pocket, draw one out, sneak up on an unsuspecting kid and “Bang!” Life over in the blink of an eye. No contest. Matches, stirrers and napkins go vie for second place.
So that was that. My coffee-stirring rumination over, my quest accomplished, it was back to the mundane world of the concrete and meaningful. Sometimes, in the time-killing spectrum, a short lifespan is not necessarily desirable. This little thought exercise straddled the border nicely between useless and wasteful. Stolen moments of a day are often more satisfying when stirred slowly, not hurled away with a bang.