26 September 2010

A Soap Story

This week I achieved perfection for the first time. It was an amazing feeling to accomplish something so difficult after so many years of effort.

For someone who grew up in a cost conscious environment with parents’ attitudes shaped by The Great Depression, it was the ultimate achievement. For believers in “A penny saved is a penny earned,” it was winning the lottery. And for those of us who were lectured to ‘clean our plates’ at dinner because of the starving children in Indian and China, it was a moment of celebration.

For someone who worships efficiency, it was the Holy Grail. If you believe in environmental conservation, it was the ultimate “green” moment.

First, I should provide some context.

For my entire life, I have used bars of soap to clean myself. As a baby, my mother used soap in my baths. As an adult, I continue to prefer bars of soap when showering or bathing.

I feel very much in the minority in this regard, however. My sons use bath/shower gel; my ex girlfriend used a particular and expensive gel; my gym only provides gel (the bulk variety with a heavy dose of artificial scent). When I stay in hotels, they often provide miniature soap bars but multiple bottles of bath and shower gel. The consumers appear to have turned to gel and abandoned soap bars.

I am not sure why this has happened. To me, gel is like shampoo. I shampoo my hair but why would I want to shampoo my body? Years ago, I regularly shampooed the family dog; but he had fur. He also did not appreciate it and went into escape mode whenever I approached with the shampoo and a bucket of water. I tried to shampoo the family cat one time; it took weeks for the claw marks on my hands and arms to heal.

I prefer plain soap. Most soaps have many added ingredients. Some make you smell like strawberries or other ‘pleasant’ scents. I do really not want to smell like a strawberry. A friend gave me a present that included a few soaps. One makes you smell like cucumbers. I don’t want to smell like a cucumber either.

Only mad scientists can understand other listed ingredients in soap. One of the gift bars has ingredients like hydrogenated rice bran – sounds like I should be eating this instead of washing with it. Other inclusions are: coconut stearic acid, glycerine, sodium hydroxide, zinc oxide, citric acid, and perfume. What happened to plain soap?

After an extensive search, I found a relatively plain soap. The actual brand is called ‘Simple Soap.’ I just do not understand why simple soap costs more than complicated soap. Maybe they put all the ingredients in the soap and then take them out. It is confusing.

The increasing consumer preference for gel may make my accomplishment increasingly rare in society. Maybe it will stand as an eternal record.

Perhaps, I overstate the importance of my feat. It is not a miracle. An image of the Virgin Mary did not appear in my soap bar. My soap did not wash away poverty or feed anyone. I still tend to sink when I swim too many laps at the local pool. The accomplishment is much more modest; it is just remarkable to me within the narrow confines of my daily experience.

Everyone who uses bars of soap understands that the bar slowly decreases in size as it is used. Eventually, the remaining piece of soap becomes too small to use practically and is discarded. The challenge for all of us soap bar users is when to discard the diminishing residual bar.

Soap does not cost much money, especially, if you buy the perfumed variety. So continuing to use the ever-vanishing bar is not just a money saving technique. It is more about being efficient and not wasteful. Perhaps, it is a moral statement committing to use environmental resources wisely. Or maybe it is the legacy of the Great Depression, or maybe something else. Regardless, the challenge of washing with a residual fragment of soap is, for me and fellow bar washers, a common occurrence.

Eventually, I discard the residual soap fragment and start over with a new, full sized bar. Sometimes, I drop the fragment on the floor of the shower and it disappears down the drain. Occasionally, I will toss the fragment in the toilet; that requires walking from the shower carrying wet soap and then rinsing my hands of the offending soap. It is usually easier just to leave the soap in the soap dish and let the fragments just accumulate; after a year or two all are discarded when I throw out the disgusting soap dish.

But today the “miracle” happened. I used a bar of soap until it was no more. 100% used; no soap fragment remained to be discarded. I looked in disbelief at my hands as I stood in the shower that morning. I looked at the shower floor; I looked at my body to see if a fragment had latched on to a leg or arm. The bar of soap had completely dissolved with no trace remaining as I finished my shower. I had achieved perfect efficiency with no waste. The starving children in India and China will be pleased.

04 September 2010

Emails Forever

I receive a couple hundred emails a day. I cannot ignore them; I cannot escape them; I cannot hide from them. Sure I can leave an automated response that I am in Siberia, but they will just keep coming and piling up like winter snow in my birth city of Chicago.

I appreciate the instant communication emails provide. Just this week I received an email from my sister-in-law in the US that my brother was hospitalized and I was able to call him when I awoke in the morning. Emails make me much more productive at work and allow me to keep in touch with the relatives back home. But emails do have drawbacks and consume incredible amounts of time; I have this periodic desire to escape the electronic reach of my blackberries..

I have a trip planned to Darwin soon and thought I would take a day and go bushwalking in a remote area of the Northern Territory. Surely, there is no email reception there (actually I have been to Siberia and there is email there). Alternatively, a colleague told me I should take a 4-wheel drive trip through the Kimberley where there is no email or mobile phone reception.

But that would mean I would have a couple thousand emails waiting for me when I emerged from the wilderness. Emails do not expire like the biodegradable bags that are popular today but are useless in holding heavier groceries – they seem to degrade before I arrive home.

I have 7 email accounts, which eagerly fill up every day with various missives. Why so many? Well, I have an email address at work (that is one). Then I have my email address for my consulting firm which is inactive but registered with various government agencies and investment companies (that is #2). I have a personal email account from the US (#3), and when I moved to Australia Telstra gave me an email account when I signed up for Internet service (#4). Only I did not like the Telstra email name and they would not let me change it (I know because I talked to about 15 guys in India and finally gave up), so I added another Telstra email name that I can actually remember (#5). And then there is my old AOL email address (#6) I had for years before my ex wife took the email account with her as part of the divorce. Then she found out she could not change the email address of record with AOL (they must have a relationship with Telstra), so she has to keep my old account active as long as she wants to use her account. I still receive occasional emails from old acquaintances that do not have any of my other 6 account addresses. Finally, my blackberry comes with its own email address (#7). Now if I could only remember the passwords.

To keep track of my emails, I need 2 blackberries. One is for work and the other consolidates the other 6 personal accounts. Now if I could only remember the blackberry passwords too.

I always respond to personal emails; it is important to me to acknowledge when someone takes the time to send me a note. I do not respond to junk mail or the letters from Nigeria informing me they are holding $100 million for me but they are having trouble sending it to me. But I do respond to other copious emails each day.

The other day I sent an email to a woman with a request to meet for coffee. She, like me, responds to emails even if she is not interested. So she sends me a nice email declining the invitation due to a conflict. Since I respond to all personal emails, I sent her an email thanking her for responding. Since she feels compelled to respond to emails too, she sent me a note thanking me for responding to her response. I am getting ready to respond to her response to my response.

This could be a good story. Two people who have nothing in common other than they both feel it is proper and courteous to respond to letters and emails are caught in eternal email ping-pong. At first, they were irritated to respond so often to spurious emails, but eventually they came to look forward to the routine and familiar comfort from regular contact. After 25 years, the emails ceased. The system of email had been replaced by thought mail – you think something and the thought is transmitted. Unfortunately, he could not adjust and his attempts and sending thoughts often went awry. So he finally gave up, and the emails ceased. But they were fun and comforting for years.

Back to reality. I am uncertain what to do with the deluge of emails. I am reminded of a former US Senator who replied to various constituent letters by saying, “Dear sir, I thought you should know that an idiot has been sending me correspondence and using your good name.” Unfortunately, I would still need to read all the emails before I could identify the undesired senders. so this does not work either.

For junk mail and marketing solicitations, I used to “unsubscribe” to the sender’s list. I have since learned that this action only serves to confirm you have a legitimate email address that now can be sold to other mass mailing services, resulting in a quantum increase in emails received.

Until I figure out a better solution, I will just keep responding to personal emails and ignoring emails from marketing services, get rich schemes, banks where I do not have accounts, and assorted other nuisances. But it is nice to know my brother is fine and the guy in Africa is still holding my $100 million.