Five Things You Need to Know: Our Microwaveable Depression
By Kevin Depew
Sep 08, 2011
1. Our Microwaveable Depression
Night after night they stood alone, invisibly, in their solitary food lines, and pressed the assigned code into the machines. Three minutes on high for some. Five minutes on low for others. A minute and a half on defrost and then three minutes on medium just for complexity’s sake. This code, commands really, sometimes varied in pattern but nonetheless managed to convey a certain level of assuredness with their simplicity. Poke holes in plastic to allow steam to escape. Do not reheat. Pull back film before heating. Do not add water. Keep frozen until ready to use. The results were blandly inevitable yet somehow conjured up the hint of a miracle, as if someone in a great laboratory had developed a secret formula to turn a single fish into a meal for millions. A poet scientist no doubt, a Jesus of genetics who was probably paid a percentage, perhaps as many as 25 or 30 basis points some conjectured, for each of the frozen derivatives he was able to slice and dice from a single whitefish, which most people assumed was cod but which was actually Alaskan or walleye pollack because it was cheaper and not yet considered endangered. Night after night they stood alone, invisibly, and pressed their assigned code into the machines.
It wasn’t always so. History said the Great Depression roared in amidst a mammoth cloud of dust and lingered for months as a murderous dry and waterless haze that killed crops all the way from Kentucky to California, as far north as the Dakotas and all the way down to Texas. That was the beginning of the thing, history said. And when the dust finally lifted everyone stood up, took a deep breath and exhaled in relief, glad for all that to be over with. Many years later, hardened by the decades that had since passed, someone would look back coldly and admit, “Just when we thought it was over, it was really only beginning.”
But this our current state, our modern depression, arrived unannounced and so it remains unnamed. It’s scattered, decentralized, obscured by a string of loose affiliations, freelance assignments and unenforceable contracts. There are no food lines for people to point to in grim recognition of our plight. There are only the machines, invisible in their ubiquity. No one even really knows when it began. Was it in the rollover from 1999 to 2000 when we feared our machines would fail, sad victims of a single missing digit, a deserving exclamation point to our human fallibility? Or did it begin when our dot-com dreams crashed? We were going to change the world, compress it, bring impossible distances together through virtual travel at unimaginable speed. And we did. But it wasn’t enough.
“A Depression doesn’t run hot and fierce like some crazed meth burner. A Depression is methodical, purposeful, patient. It will build a shelter out of tree branches and newspaper, light a small, well-contained campfire and wait you out, brother. While you feed on the empty calories of denial and popcorn, it will quietly gather shards of broken dreams and fashion them into a terrible weapon of blunt force reality.”
The reality is that once it settles in, it matters little when it arrived. It’s been coming for so long. For the men in America, our wages have been eroding since the early 1970s. We compensated by transitioning from single, head-of-household-employed families to multi-employed families, adding an extra income to mask our declining wages. According to Bloomberg-BusinessWeek, the number of men holding a job, any job, full-time, part-time, any job, is at its lowest level since the end of World War II. Between 1969 and 2009, and adjusted for inflation, the median wages for men in their prime earning years (30-50) fell by nearly a third. After decades, this finally matters.