Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Schlep Factor

I have read that it is generally preferable to use words of Anglo-Saxon origin when possible, ignoring of course those concerned with procreation and elimination.  Words of Anglo Saxon origin tend to be less pretentious or you might say stuck up.  Also, they tend to be shorter.  The core of English vocabulary is an artifact of the Norman Conquest.  High status fancy words come from French, the language of the conquerors.  Down to earth words tend to come from Anglo Saxon and Celtic, the language of the conquered.  The word for an animal (e.g. sheep) is nothing like the word for the meat from the animal (i.e. mutton). 

A lot has happened since the Norman Conquest.  Among other things English has diverged somewhat so that even only considering “standard English” there are differences between the USA and the UK (e.g. elevator v. lift).  More significantly many foreign words have been incorporated post 1066.  One of the reasons for this was the 120,000,000 people (more or less) who moved from Europe to the Americas in the 19th Century.  It was the greatest movement of peoples in the history of the world.  Many came to the USA, the overwhelming number of them not from England.  Those of Celtic origin arrived already speaking English, more or less, others not at  all.  Learning to speak English was part of the process of assimilation. Assimilation worked both ways.  Words from the immigrant’s vocabulary worked their way into the language either because they described something previously unfamiliar (e.g. lasagna) or they somehow added an additional punch that was untranslatable.  The immigrants didn’t give those words up and the rest of the culture adopted them. (There are a host of other complications.  Spanish, some French, Dutch and the language of the indigenous peoples have a different, often less happy, route into English.) The implicit deal was “You learn to speak English.  Close to 100% if you want to get anywhere, but all of us will learn a tiny bit of your language.)

One language that has given us quite a few words that are valued for their punch is Yiddish.  There are other words that might be used, but for some reason the Yiddish word works very well.  There are a couple of levels to this.  Presumably there are people around that are fluent in Yiddish.  Then there are American Jews who only speak English.  Every once in a while a word will slip in.  You may be able to figure it out from context.  You may let it pass by or, being willing to show your ignorance, ask what it means.  I have never gotten anything but a positive response from asking.  Occasionally, someone might ask you if you know what_______ means.  If you don’t, they explain it, before using it in a sentence.  Clearly using the Yiddish word communicates emphasis.  The “Do you know what ________ means?’ is sometimes a rhetorical device.  They want to explain it regardless of your previous knowledge.  It makes the point stronger.

Finally, there are words from Yiddish that have become part of Standard English or are well known enough to be part of the vocabulary of  a very large group of English speakers (such as New Yorkers).  Some of them such as “mensch” are commonly known to have originated in Yiddish.  Others are less obvious such as shtik and nosh.  Nosh has been thoroughly Americanized.  If you asked the average person where the word nosh came from, he is more likely to say Chinese than Yiddish (That would have been my guess anyway). 

All of which brings me to one of my favorite words from Yiddish.  Schlep, also spelled shlep.Schlep, I think falls somewhere between “mensch” and “nosh”.  It might be considered a New York expression, but that could mean that it came from Dutch, like stoop.    Why when you could accurately say “I was going from here to there and there to here”, you might choose to say “I was schlepping back and forth between here and there.”  Going back and forth means that you were in motion beginning at one place, ending at another and returning, in an amount of time that is greater than instantaneous.”  Schlepping “ communicates that besides the movement there was aggravation (or possibly “tsures “ and hardship

The original meaning of schlep involved dragging, so that to say you were only schlepping somewhere if you were carrying a heavy burden.  At least in my experience, it is not necessary to be transporting anything other than yourself to consider the journey schlepping.  What distinguishes schlepping from mere traveling is the implied frustration with what geographers call the friction of space.  I believe that it is possible to measure this phenomenon.  Certain forms of movement have the potential for being considered schlepping.  For those forms of movement we can compute a Schlep Factor.  Whether the particular movement constitutes schlepping or in the more extreme cases “really schlepping” will be determined by its schlep factor exceeding a certain value.  That value will vary from person to person based on three other criteria, one easily measured and the other two fairly  subjective.  The objective factor is the total amount of time spent schlepping there, being there and schlepping back.  Generally this will vary inversely with the tolerable schlep factor.  The hardship, difficulty or unpleasantness of the schlep is the next factor.  The schlep threshold will vary inversely with this also.  Finally there is the degree of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with “being there”.  This will affect the schlep threshold in many cases.  This will vary from person to person possibly based  on character.  The sign of this value will not have an effect, it will be based on absolute value.  That is to say, extreme anticipation or extreme dread of “being there” can blot out any impression of the dread.  It is conceivable that either anticipation or dread might raise the schlep factor, the joy of anticipation, the desire to put it off as long as possible.  It might also lower the schlep factor as in “Can’t wait to get there” or “Putting it off as long as possible”. 

One of the definitions of shlep is “an arduous journey”.  Arduous might be a bit strong in current usage.  I believe it is used for journeys and journeying that is being done solely to be at the place where something else (call it “the activity”) can be done or returning from same “shlepping back”.  The activity is viewed as something important or pleasurable. The journey itself is not. The Lewis and Clark expedition, arduous as it was not shlepping.  When you are on a cruise ship, you are not shlepping.  Non shlepping movement does not have to be of great significance   A security guard making his rounds is not shlepping. 

One of the most common forms of shlepping is also called commuting. It would generally not be used to characterize a short pleasant commute. Many forms of amusement involve shlepping, the trip to the ball game, the amusement park, the Caribbean island.  All these are shlepping.  You could expand the definition to all preparatory activities, but at that point it loses meaning.  Shlepping does not mean continuous movement.  Some of the most annoying shlepping times are those spent in anticipation of movement.  Stuck in traffic.  Sitting in the airport.

Shlepping always occurs in a context.  You could view all the journeying you have ever done as shlepping to the point where you are reading this sentence. That is way too philosophical. The “shlep” you are currently involved in is what you would answer if you were asked “Where are you going?”  It is possible to have shleps within activities and activities within shleps.  It is a matter of context.

A trip to Disneyworld might be used to illustrate the above point.  Assume you live in New England.  You get in your car and start the engine.  The shlep to Orlando has commenced, as has the lesser shlep to the airport.  You could get picky here.  Some might argue that the shlep to Orlando is complete when the wheels of the plane touch down.  Personally, I do not really feel I am  there until I have waited in line to get off the plane, rode on the goofy train, picked up my luggage, taken the bus to Alamo, become enraged at the clerk for trying to frighten me into buying insurance costing at least half the car rental and driven out of the agency.  At that point, the shlep to Orlando is complete.  The shlep back on the other hand commences with hotel checkout, even though the shlep there ended before check in.

Now I am “in Orlando”.  My measurement of the time of that activity “being in Orlando” has commenced.  Within “being in Orlando”, there will be shlepping to Disneyworld.  Within Disneyworld there will be shlepping to Space Mountain which may include the time spent waiting in line.  The actual movement through space involved in the ride is not shlepping.  The ride is pure activity.

The above journey can be used to illustrate the computation of the shlep factor.  Say for example that I spend all of Tuesday Wednesday and Thursday in Orlando.  I drive out of Alamo at on Monday.  I check out of the hotel 8:00 AM on Friday.  I left my house at on Monday and arrived home at on Friday.  I spent 8 hours shlepping to Orlando and 8 hours shlepping back.  I was “in Orlando” for 84 hours. That is a shlep factor of 9.5.  The shlep factor is the time spent shlepping “there” plus the time spent shlepping back divided by the time spent in the activity times 100.  If you spend 10 hours “at Disneyworld” the shlep factor of the activity within the activity is 20 assuming an hour each way (included in the shlepping to Disneyworld is time spent on the silly tram and waiting in line at the gate, included in the shlep back is time spent looking for your rental car; it is probably more than an hour.) 

Strolling around in Disneyworld, taking it as it comes, is not shlepping.  Heading directly for Space Mountain is shlepping.  Even if one incurs no shlep time in getting to the entrance and when getting off are “back in Disneyworld’ immediately, the shlep factor can be quite high, because of “waiting in line”, an excruciatingly slow form of shlepping comparable to “stuck in traffic”.  For a popular ride, this could easily be an hour and a half.  Allowing ten minutes “on the ride” (probably high), we arrive at a shlep factor of 900.

This brings up one of the interesting differences between mature adults and children of all ages.  When an activity is proposed, adults will note, often with dread, the shlep ratio of the activity.  Many of them do not enjoy being in an amusement park.  For them, the entire “activity” is saying to the kids, on arriving home. “Are you happy, now, you have been to Disneyworld?”, which takes less than a minute, but let us assume it is said very slowly and does in fact take a minute.  That one minute is “the activity”.  The 100 hours spent in Orlando and traveling thereto and there back was shlepping.  This creates a truly fantastic shlep factor of 6000.  There is something of an exaggeration there.  The key is that few people are entirely mature adults.  When considered in pairs, it is exceedingly rare that both of them are mature adults.  To the extent that one of them approaches mature adulthood, it is probable that the other leans toward being a child of whatever age.  More significantly, “the activity” to which ones schlep does not have to be pleasurable.  It can also be classified as “an activity” by its importance.  It is important to take your kid’s to Disneyworld.  I don’t know why, but I am sure there is a reason.  Therefore, restricting the activity to the one sentence on return is a gross inflation of the shlep

The prospect of shlepping in no way disturbs a child.  The child is focused on how marvelous the activity will be.  Paradoxically, tolerance for shlepping, while shlepping, is much lower in a child, at least overtly.  An only child will ask “Are we there yet?” approximately 50 times an hour, as opposed to 20, on average for other children.  The reason for the difference is that an only child does not have parents as well trained in either ignoring whining or dealing out consequences of more or less harshness for it.  In addition the only child is denied the diversion of tormenting siblings, one of the most surefire ways to alleviate the agony of shlepping.

Our trip to Disneyworld could illustrate this dramatic difference in shlep factor perception.  The child does not exactly want to go to Disneyworld.  The child wants to ride Space Mountain.  The child was unmoved by the prospect of 100 hours of shlepping and shlepping back required to ride Space Mountain, if riding Space Mountain was defined as the activity.  Subconsciously realizing this the child lobbies for a “trip to Disneyworld” .  By making the journey part of the activity, the shlep factor is reduced dramatically.  It may be that only the drive to the airport is accounted as shlepping from the point of view that the child is pitching.  The child has proposed an activity with a shlep factor of 2.

Bait and switch.  The only point to the trip is to ride Space Mountain.  All else is shlepping.  The child is unfazed by the prospect of a shlep factor of 2,000.  At some level the child realizes the parent’s point of view.  Somewhere deep in the subconscious is the voice of the parent “You mean we shlepped all this way, never mind the expense, just so you can go on one stupid ride”.  The child knows that there will be no adequate answer.  The diversionary tactic of arguing about the stupidity of Space Mountain will be of no avail.  The child will face the parental rage triggered by four figure shlep factors.  So we call it a trip to Disneyworld.  Heck with my first plane ride thrown in and when we drive to the airport we get to go through that cool tunnel.  Despite their own feelings parents are convinced that the child’s shlep factor has been reduced to 0.  Given that the child’s perception dictates the importance of this activity, the parents also assign a shlep factor of 0.

There are some difficulties in adequately planning the operation. There must be positive response to the tunnel and excitement about the plane.  The child is shlepping, but he can’t let on.  The parents are not shlepping.  The plane ride and experiences like harassing the bomb sniffing dog make them believe that they dove right into the activity, when they started the car.

Finally we near the moment of truth.  They run through the park to get to Space Mountain early.  The line is only half an hour.  The factor of 600 is tolerable, when applied to an interval less than hour.  Then that longed for ride with or without accompanying parents (barring a catastrophic outcome such as not being tall enough to get on the ride, or becoming frightened.  The moment of truth comes as the child leaves the ride and speaks to the parents.  Broadly speaking there are three possibilities (each can have endless variations.)

  1. Space Mountain was even better than anticipated.  We must spend the rest of the day either waiting in line to ride Space Mountain or, for a considerably lesser time, actually riding it.  Food and bathroom breaks are negotiable.

This result while somewhat annoying will probably not have a serious affect on the shlep factor.  The child acted as if he was not shlepping on the way here. It may be that only the return trip will be shlepping, which yields a factor of 8.  There is always the highly improbable chance that he will sleep on the plane

  1. Space Mountain was OK.  A schlep factor in the thousands is not justified by an activity that is OK.  There is the possibility that other aspects of the stay in Orlando are of sufficient interest to still qualify it as activity.

  1. The third possibility is that Space Mountain totally sucked and the child wants to go home right now.  There are a number of possible responses.  The most reasonable is, while the child is in the bathroom, to leave as quickly as possible.  Although establishing new identities in another part of the country will be challenging, you can rest assured that your child will grow up in a foster home with seasoned parents who won’t take the kind of crap that you do
In the military they don’t call it the shlep factor.  They call it logistics.  Not only do armies and fleets and air forces often have to shlep considerable distances to wreak the havoc and destruction for which they are designed, there is the matter of all the stuff.  Food, ammunition, fuel, cigarettes, condoms.  The list goes on and on.  All that stuff has to be shlepped to where it is needed.  Some of the more critical military events were all about shlepping.  The Battle of the Atlantic.  What was that about ?  Increasing the shlep  factor for supplies going across the Atlantic. Winston Chruchhill once commented that for some reason the fate of empires was tied up in some god damned things called LST’s.

Why did the Allied advance stall in 1944 ?  Fuel (The anti-shlep drug).  Solution.  Paratroopers.  They can be flown hundreds of miles cutting the shlep factor enormously.  Problem.  Logistics.  Shlepping them is quick, though dangerous.  Shlepping them their stuff is an entirely different proposition.

One of the most famous shleps was led by Moses.  Forty years is a long time, but in reality the shlep factor was tolerably low if viewed in a multi-generational perspective.  History is replete with similar shleps, long and ardurous, but offset by the length that future generations occupy the land.

We might want to consider one of the most ancient stories that we have.  The Odyssey.  When you hear the word used today it usually is a metaphor for some great exploratory journey.  The Odyssey of the Mind or some such tripe. Whoever came up with that metaphor doesn’t know the story, has forgotten it or is relying on the fact that most people don’t know the story The story is called the Odyssey after the main character, Odysseus.  

Odysseus was some sort of low rent king in a place called Ithaca.  There was some other slightly higher up king type that had a really hot young wife.  This other guy told her that he had a promise from a goddess that she should be his main squeeze because she was so hot.  Now is that a great pick-up line or what ?  Anyway it would be kind of inconvenient shtupping her around her husband, those ancient greeks were cool about being gay, but not about adultery.  So they run off to his hometown.

The aggrieved husband, Menalaus, goes to his big brother who is really big time king.  This is where it gets really weird.  Your kid brother comes and tells you your sister-in-law has run off with some good looking punk.  The only thing to discuss is whether he should take the bitch back if she returns.  If you're rich you get together with the lawyer to see how this affects his pre-nup.  If he doesn’t have a pre-nup, the numbskull who thinks with his dick, you figure out how to start hiding his assets.

Not Menelalaus’s big brother, Agamemnon. No.  He says we have to get her back.  Not only that, we have to start a freaking war about it.  And the other guys are willing to fight about it.  Hector the big brother of Paris, the guy who is now happily stupping the hot broad actually ends up getting himself killed over his chuckle-headed brother.  There is a moral here.  Don’t leave your Playboy magazines laying around where your kid brother can find them, so he ends up being a horny bastard and get you both in trouble.  At any rate Agamemnon, the big shot king, tells all the other little half ass kings they’ve got to go fight at the city where the babe is hanging out now.  Her name is Helen.  I’ve never seen a girl named Helen who was good looking, but that’s neither here nor their.

So Odysseus tries to convince Agamemnon that he is crazy (Like Yosarrian in Catch-22).  It doesn’t work.  When you consider what the other ones are up to you’d have a hard time proving you were crazier than they were.  So off they all go to Troy.  You know what they call the guys they are going to fight – Trojans.  Really something people named after rubbers.

Well the war goes on for 10 freaking years, until finally Odysseus figures out a trick to win it, which is not the point.  It is then that the story called the Odyssey really begins.  (The actual poem starts near the end of the story and a lot is handled by flashback)It’s all about what happening at Odyseeus’s home (talk about weird crap) and all the problems he has getting there.  And believe me there are problems.  Don’t get me started. It takes him ten freaking years (although a few of those years are spent stupping some broad on an island, but she was making him do her.  Yeah right.  Try that excuse and see how it works when your significant other finds the Trojan package in your car).

So what would the subtitle of the Odyssey be if we were being really accurate – Schlepping back from Troy.  One of the oldest written stories handed down verbally for hundreds of years before it was written down and its about schlepping.  How about the Bible ?  What’s the second book ?  Exodus.  What does exodous mean ?  Schlepping Out Of Egypt. Now there is an interesting point about this.  Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad is following a group of tourists to the Holy Land around 1870 or so.  This was one of the high points in what is sometimes called the Transportation Revolution.  It takes longer to go across the continent now than it did 10 or 15 years ago.  Whatever technological progress there is has been offset by security issues.  Still if you told somebody 150 years ago that you could get up early in the morning in New York and be in California before the sun went down and they believed you they would be impressed.  Nonetheless it was the people alive around 1870 that had seen the really big drops in travel time.  Our parents may have seen it drop from 5 days to five hours with the advent of aircraft, but 19th century people saw it go from three months to three weeks (and then to five days).  The first big drop was more infrastructure than technology..  At any rate the pre-railroad Western transportation entrepreneur was Ben Holliday whose stage coachs with regular places to change horses seemed to fly across the country.

Here’s a story Mark Twain told :
No doubt everybody has heard of Ben Holliday--a man of prodigious energy, who used to send mails and passengers flying across the continent in his overland stage-coaches like a very whirlwind--two thousand long miles in fifteen days and a half, by the watch! But this fragment of history is not about Ben Holliday, but about a young New York boy by the name of Jack, who traveled with our small party of pilgrims in the Holy Land (and who had traveled to California in Mr. Holliday's overland coaches three years before, and had by no means forgotten it or lost his gushing admiration of Mr. H.) Aged nineteen. Jack was a good boy--a good-hearted and always well-meaning boy, who had been reared in the city of New York, and although he was bright and knew a great many useful things, his Scriptural education had been a good deal neglected--to such a degree, indeed, that all Holy Land history was fresh and new to him, and all Bible names mysteries that had never disturbed his virgin ear.
Also in our party was an elderly pilgrim who was the reverse of Jack, in that he was learned in the Scriptures and an enthusiast concerning them. He was our encyclopedia, and we were never tired of listening to his speeches, nor he of making them. He never passed a celebrated locality, from Bashan to Bethlehem, without illuminating it with an oration. One day, when camped near the ruins of Jericho, he burst forth with something like this:
"Jack, do you see that range of mountains over yonder that bounds the Jordan valley? The mountains of Moab, Jack! Think of it, my boy--the actual mountains of Moab--renowned in Scripture history! We are actually standing face to face with those illustrious crags and peaks--and for all we know" [dropping his voice impressively], "our eyes may be resting at this very moment upon the spot WHERE LIES THE MYSTERIOUS GRAVE OF MOSES! Think of it, Jack!"
"Moses who?" (falling inflection).
"Moses who! Jack, you ought to be ashamed of yourself--you ought to be ashamed of such criminal ignorance. Why, Moses, the great guide, soldier, poet, lawgiver of ancient Israel! Jack, from this spot where we stand, to Egypt, stretches a fearful desert three hundred miles in extent--and across that desert that wonderful man brought the children of Israel!--guiding them with unfailing sagacity for forty years over the sandy desolation and among the obstructing rocks and hills, and landed them at last, safe and sound, within sight of this very spot; and where we now stand they entered the Promised Land with anthems of rejoicing! It was a wonderful, wonderful thing to do, Jack! Think of it!"
"Forty years? Only three hundred miles? Humph! Ben Holliday would have fetched them through in thirty-six hours!"
The boy meant no harm. He did not know that he had said anything that was wrong or irreverent. And so no one scolded him or felt offended with him--and nobody could but some ungenerous spirit incapable of excusing the heedless blunders of a boy.

I thought that that was really good point, though.  So I asked somebody about that.  He explained to me that the point of the 40 years was so that nobody born in slavery would enter the Promised Land (kind of mean if you ask me)  Anyway we could look at them not schlepping across the desert.  Rather they were wandering in the desert. Wandering, when not used ironically, is not schlepping. When you are wandering the movement is the activity.  Wandering is exploring without an agenda.

The Exodus story and the distorted view of the Odyssey provide the key to eliminating or greatly reduce schlepping.  The Odyssey that Odysseus was on was schlepping.  Every other “odyssey” has not been schlepping because the journey is the activity.  So you are not schlepping when you are on a cruise line or exploring or patrolling.  Why ?  Because the journey is the activity.

I hate to have a sappy conclusion, but the conclusion is sappy.  Life is the journey not the destination.  When you stay in the moment you are never schlepping.  The activity is wherever you are and whatever you are doing in the moment.  You are always in the activity and so never schlepping

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