Tuesday, March 29, 2016


As you get older, particularly when you have no pressing duties to perform, your mind may begin to wander and delve far back into your past. I am almost as old as my mother was when she began to display Alzheimer's symptoms; before she became incapacitated she went through her possessions and mailed various items that she thought belonged to each of us. Perhaps I'm preparing for death too, because I have been pondering the past and going through my possessions. If you look closely and remove the adult filters to which you've become accustomed, the past can be deeply unsettling.

Part of my interest in the past is simple curiosity. Although I was never close to my coworkers, I am interested in their lives and the fates of the companies for which we worked. While you are working, it is difficult to see beyond the present, but over several decades the arcs of people's lives become visible and the life cycles of industries come into focus. When I started work in printing, LP record albums were at a height in popularity, and there were large plants in Terre Haute and Indianapolis that printed record jackets. I worked at both of those plants before moving to Louisville to work at a smaller commercial printer. With the popularity of cassette tapes in the 1980's, sales of vinyl LP's began to decline, and when CD's came along the demand for LP records plummeted. The record jacket plants continued to print record jackets for several years, and they printed cassette inserts while cassettes were popular. However, the printed packaging requirements for recorded music continued to decline, and the two plants gradually switched to other kinds of packaging such as folding cartons and blister cards. My recent investigations show that the two record jacket plants and the Louisville printer have all permanently closed down. What I found interesting is that a new packaging plant has opened in Indianapolis, and some people whom I used to work with from the other three plants now work there. One of those people is John Barnes. When I knew him I was his supervisor in Terre Haute, and he was a long-haired pot-smoking hippie. He went on to become the plant manager in Terre Haute! Most of the people from that era (1979-1987) have retired or died, and I find it uncanny that some of them are now working together at a common location.

After I left Louisville I worked in an altogether different printing environment, commercial web printing, at four different plants in Illinois. Web printing constitutes a much larger segment of the printing industry, and it has also been undergoing a long period of consolidation. From that period (1987-2007), only one plant at which I worked has closed. At least four people I knew in Dixon have died since I left, but many of my former Illinois coworkers are still working. One of them switched industries entirely and now works in medical devices. My final job was at RR Donnelley, the largest printing company in the world, and it is in the process of breaking up into three separate companies.

A different part of my brain has been activated by looking at my old comic books. I still have about 200 comic books that I collected from the late 1950's to the mid-1960's. They have been sitting in bags since then, and every once in a while I get them out and look at them. Since I'm not interested in collecting comics and they've gone up in value, I'm going to sell them. One that I bought for ten cents in 1960 could be worth over a thousand dollars now. I'm in the process of inventorying them and will send them to a dealer in Massachusetts for appraisal.

It is even stranger to look at your old comics than it is to investigate your previous employers and coworkers. My mental processes have changed completely since I first read comics, and I'm not the same person that I was then. Personal identity has some basis in genes, memory and cultural associations, but the proto-you is still fundamentally a different person from the current you. In a sense personal identity is a man-made construction that we generate in the context of our cultural environments. When I return to earlier mental states, it reinforces in me the idea that I have an identity beyond the one that has been assigned to me by civilization, and this partially explains my tendency to be independent and my preference for divergent thinking.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated in order to remove spam.