Saturday, February 12, 2011

America

My father was born in New York, so I guess I've always had some kind of affinity with America. My grandfather and my grandmother had both arrived in the US at Ellis Island in the early part of the last century, coming here from Lithuania and Latvia to seek their fortune. Things didn't work out so well in the end, thanks to the depression and then my grandfather dying when my father was only 10. Dad emigrated out to Australia with my grandma in 1947 when he was a boy of 14.
The first time I came to America was more than twenty years ago now, on an eleven week training course for Tandem Computers. 11 weeks! All expenses paid. With a car. On the two occasions when all the north Americans on the course went back to their home offices to do some work, it was considered too far and too expensive for me to go home. That meant I had two separate one week-long all expenses holidays in New York city and San Francisco respectively. They still remain my two favorite cities in the US. Since that first visit I've done a road trip across the country from San Francisco to Miami, discovering along the way that Bugs Bunny was right and I actually should have turned left at Alburquerque. I've staggered in uproarious laughter around Mardi Gras in New Orleans taking in the amazing parade of bizarrely costumed people and then played a gig on didgeridoo with Muslima the voodoo priestess, her python and a gang of drummers on Mardi Gras eve. Got remarried to Tori in Vegas in a wedding ceremony conducted by Elvis. Saw Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant go toe to toe at the Lakers' stadium in LA. Seen shows in New York. Gigs in Austin. Cycled across the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. Skied at Tahoe. Hung out in Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Park. I've stayed in all sorts of accomodation from luxurious hotels at the top end, to hotels so dodgy that they were more often rented out by the hour than for the night and you couldn't step in to the bathroom for fear of coming out dirtier than when you went in. I must have been here to the US more than 20 times now.
This trip to southern California started well. I met up with Sean, Dan and Ian from the UK and spent some time wandering around Venice Beach. I discovered that marijuana is effectively legal now here in California. All around Venice were signs advertising doctor appointments to get a medical marijuana card. I was told that if I paid $150, I could see the doctor, explain my ailments and chances were (about 99.99999% chance I put it at) that the doctor would be sympathetic to my plight of suffering from insomnia/back ache/depression (select one or more) and that I would be given a card that was valid for 12 months. I could then go into the hash bar down the road, or one  of the many other such local establishments, where I could buy my "medicine" to consume there or take home. Having explained that I was only in town for a week, the pretty young stoned girl on the desk told me that for a week, the fee would be a LOT less and that the doctor would be just as accomodating in helping me out. There was a time in  my life when I would have jumped at the opportunity, but my back wasn't too bad, I was sleeping half ok and my disposition was upbeat. Damn! If only I had one of those symptoms perhaps the doctor could have helped me.

 I went to a super bowl party at Steve's house and had a nice time not really watching the game. Just chatting to people I hadn't seen for a while and meeting some new folk, while simultaneously gorging on barbecued food and downing a few beers. It's always amazed me when I come here, how dominated this country is by the corporations. Not just in terms of their financial power (which is the case pretty much everywhere), but the way they are truly held up as the kings of the land. The commercials that are broadcast during the tv coverage of the super bowl get more attention than the game itself. The day after, the tv stations and newspapers all feature the top advertisements, which are seemingly more important than the teams who played. I heard more conversations about the ads than about the game. In fact, I don't know why they don't just get rid of the game altogether and just let the corporations put on one big competition to see who can produce the most hilarious effort to convince us to give them our cash.

After the fun of the weekend, the rest of the week involved underwhelming days at work with the evenings spent, more satisfyingly, in the hotel bar.

With my first trip to the US being thanks to Tandem, I often think back to those early days of working there in the 80's. It was so much fun. It was a place that genuinely cared for the well being and equity of it's people. Every Friday in all Tandem offices around the world, the company was obliged (by the CEO and founder Jimmy Treybig), to put on beer and food for the staff on company time. The company took all Australian employees away for the weekend to the Snowy Mountains one year and to the beaches of Wollongong the next. All the Asia-Pacific support staff were flown to Singapore for a few days of regional bonding. People were treated with care and with respect. Over the years I watched it turn from a place that had a motto of "we develop people not systems" to one where friends and colleagues faced the brutal corporate axe, swung dispassionately by a man who had been brought in by the hierarchy to increase the bottom line. Profit and growth were the only consideration. Colleagues were turned on each other by the mechanations of the corporate machine, forced to cower for their own survival. It was like the soul of a once glorious place had been ripped out. There were graphs and spreadsheets to show everyone how well things were going. Morale dropped among employees. Eventually Tandem disappeared, swallowed up by the bigger corporation of Compaq. Which in turn was swallowed by the even larger HP. All that was left of Tandem was a memory of what had been. That seems to be the cycle of real corporate life. I don't recall seeing this in any side-splitting super bowl ad.

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