30 November 2007

how the window sees the foundation and yearns to be more

There is a beauty in leadership. There is also a weight, a definite weight. But falling into bed exhausted virtually every day in the month of November has convinced me that I am called to lead some people somewhere.

I think that we have taken our leaders for granted. At least I know that I have been guilty of this.

I only now know that they go home and struggle to leave the day behind. They yearn for more for their people. They replay every move made in hopes of finding a better way. They stress over the details. They manage the minutiae. They are simply relieved when things go well, quietly thankful. They are grieved when things go poorly, stubbornly responsible.

I have seen in leading this church that there are many hurdles, many battles, and many challenges that are simply inevitable defeats along the path. More than that, they are learning experiences, keys to finding ways to lead with more efficiency, more clarity, and more inspiration.

I have seen in leading this recent team that joys are shared and failures are often internalized and owned very personally. I have seen that the smile of another is often one’s best reward, that the God-breathed experience of those one is leading is often the goal in and of itself.

Like a muse in a dream, this past month has awoken me to the potential that is within us all. To lead… Someone somewhere is anxious to follow, to learn, and grow. I am one of them.

I am also intrigued by the call to become the foundation of the church for His name’s sake. And this may have been one of the most important revelations of the last few weeks.

In the church, the temple not made with hands, our leaders are not the window dressings and carved marble pieces that draw our attention and glee. They are not the cathedral stained-glass or the vintage crown-molding. They are not the grand entrances or pleasant landscaping.

Our leaders are the foundation of the temple. They quietly bear the weight of many and they let the pillars and beams take the credit. They silently groan as stiff winds assail the structure, as the feet of many come to trample on holy ground. Occasionally, they crack and need repair, reconciliation, and reconstruction. But mostly, they do the job that few desire. They keep the temple from crumbling, providing a place for all to stand in the shelter of the Most High.

I have tasted this ever so slightly. And I can see a life lived in this manner is a life well-lived. I am thankful for those who have led me. And I pray that I might be used so mightily.

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(I caught this woman "leading" in a 100 year-old Episcopal church we snuck into. We wanted to see the beauty within and none of the ancient stones or windows could match her silent effort - diligently polishing the old, wooden pews...)

29 November 2007

the kindle (oh, the kindle)

I love to read.

And this may be the beginning of the next great advance for readers. Amazon.com has released the Kindle, an electronic way to read and store books. Basically, it is an iPod for books, with all of the tactile requirements that make book reading so enjoyable. Plus, most new books are only $9.99 on it, meaning that frequent readers can save a lot of money!!

This might as well be my official declaration that I am a nerd. But this thing excites me!!

If only it weren't $400. Sigh.

28 November 2007

can news be a christmas present?

It is almost December. Which means…

Christmas is fast approaching. We found ourselves in a mall here the other day and we were confronted by glistening Christmas trees, strings of holly, and old-fashioned American Christmas music. It was a truly bizarre experience to say the least. The weather is warming up (although today is windy in the 50s), summer is creeping in, and nothing that usually cues our brains to think about Christmas is kicking in.

One thing we know for sure is that we cannot change all of this. Christmas is coming regardless of whether we can sense it.

Today, as part of our early Christmas present to you, we’d like to share some news with you, our family and friends.

We will be returning home in March.

(Take a minute. Read it again.)

On March 6th, we will board a plane that will take us to Abu Dhabi and then on to New York. We will then spend a few days in New York with some of our favorite people before finally touching down in the land of fajitas and bean & cheese tacos. (My mouth is literally watering uncontrollably. I’m almost embarrassed. Now you know why we don’t write of “what we miss” too often.)

The journey to the decision to come home was difficult.

We arrived here with a one-way ticket and intentions to stay as long as we felt we needed to – even if that meant forever.

Somehow, though, the permanence never set in. Stef felt like maybe she knew that within the first couple of months. I quietly knew it within the first couple of weeks.

It is not something that is easily explained, this feeling we had. But it was another bit of Truth that we could not deny. A lot of prayer and many long nights left us with the only choice we felt we could make. And that was to return to the people we knew and the place where we imagined that our lives might make the greatest impact.

We are already facing the bittersweet reality that lies in front of us. Every day we spend here makes it harder to imagine that we will leave. The people have stolen our hearts, Stef and I have bonded in new and unspeakable ways, and the work here will never ever be finished.

Still, we feel confident in where we are headed. More so, we are expectant of God’s incredible next chapter in our lives. To woo us from this place, it must be something amazing.

So, Merry Christmas. Please continue to pray for us and email us and generally support us through what is going to be a very strange (and likely lonely) holiday season.

We cannot wait to see you (maybe over some fajitas?) and thank you in person for the way that you have carried us through this journey.

darkness into light. wherever we are.

26 November 2007

photographic evidence of our existence (also known as "we're back")

We have had four Americans in to work with us, play with us, and celebrate Thanksgiving with us. Plus, our friend Tiffani is sticking around until late January...

Here are some photos of the last two weeks around here. There would be more but Blogger is evil sometimes and it wouldn't let me put more photos up for some reason. You get the highlights of our culture day and a couple of other random shots. There will be more (much more) soon, along with the accompanying stories.

the group at the Apartheid Museum

stef and tiffani at the USA-SA soccer match (with SA face-paint included)

kyle and ryan looking friendly before the soccer kicked off

stef shopping in bulk in preparation for "sandwich warfare"

if you can't be silly with polony, what can you be silly with?

one of our favorite children finds a new way to use sandwich-bag ties

dealing with the weight of squatter camps (and trying to bring some hope)

simple squalor

the outside of Beauty's new apartment (which was summarily painted and decked out by the team)

stef and the team practicing for sunday morning church

24 November 2007

atm fraud resolved and some humor from above

Well, hello.

We are about to say goodbye to our team from Grace Point. And we'll write more about that very soon.

We wanted to drop a note, though, to tell you all that the bank refunded our fraud money. Every cent. On top of that, we seemed to have earned $5 in cash back thanks to the money that the fraudster spent on our debit card. So, not only did USAA refund our lost money, but they gave us an extra $5 in rebates.


a good punch in the groin (a second, less serious, thanksgiving story)

**Editor's Note: This post has nothing to do with spirituality or Africa. I just thought it was funny.

With this being the Thanksgiving season and all, I thought I would reminisce a little about one of my favorite memories from Turkey Day.

Just last year, my cousin Jeff and I were embroiled in an epic, if somewhat juvenile, battle of surprise slaps to sensitive areas. This is what happens when two men revert to (very) childhood ways in the midst of their in-laws.

Anyway, I was pretending to play a sweet air-guitar riff (photo 1) when I backhanded my cousin's ability to have children into the stone age (see his reaction in photo 2). Then, I laughed and laughed and laughed (photo 3). It was sweet. Enjoy the photos.

photo 1

photo 2

photo 3

20 November 2007

$1 a day (a thanksgiving story)

In 2005, I led a team of 16 people from Grace Point Church to South Africa for a 12 day mission trip.

I was thrilled to show the world I knew to people I loved for the first time. I was also very excited that our Thanksgiving fell directly in the middle of the trip.

Thanksgiving in America is a joyous time. It is a time of family and football and comfort food. Lots of comfort food.

I assured our team that I would give them a distinctly African Thanksgiving feast, promising the best Thanksgiving ever while failing to tell them of a little scheme I had been working on.

You see, 50% of sub-Saharan Africans live on less than $1 a day. I live amongst many of these people and I still have trouble believing it. No matter, I decided to raise awareness of this simple fact through our Thanksgiving.

Stef and I took our friends Daniel and Anna with us to the grocery store to help us with the shopping for Thanksgiving dinner. Together, we put together a meal that cost around $16, $1 for each of us on the team. We bought 1 chicken. We bought 1 2-liter Coke. We had a large pot of pap (cornmeal porridge). And we had each other.

We lit the living room of the Mission House with candles (not uncommon due to consistent power outages) and kept our dinner plans under wraps. After everyone had assembled, including the 16 Americans and another 8 Africans who lived at the house, we began to talk about what we were thankful for. Tears fell heavily as people remembered their families far away.

After everyone had a chance to speak, we brought in the much-anticipated dinner. One chicken, one 2-liter Coke, and a pot of porridge. For 24 people.

I don't quite know how people reacted to it. The room was mostly quiet as I explained the plight of so many around us. I told them that I hoped that 2005 would be a Thanksgiving they never forgot. I hoped that they would tell their families the story of hundreds of millions of people living in absolute poverty. I hoped that for a moment they might begin to understand how that would feel.

We quietly ate our slivers of chicken and our dry, tasteless porridge. Some had Coke. Most had water. Tears continued to fall. And, for a moment, we all remembered that the things we were truly thankful for existed there in that room...beating hearts just like ours, friends, and family. Mostly, the Spirit of the Lord swept through the room as we took an American festival of overconsumption, gluttony, and silliness and made it about something other than ourselves.

I do believe that the 16 from that trip will never forget their Thanksgiving from 2005.

This year, 2007, we have another team from Grace Point. I will again promise them an African feast. And I will again deliver the sober reality of the world around us with a generous helping of what's really important. We will eat our porridge and slivers of chicken. And we will remember you, our dear family and friends back home. We will also remember that today in Africa many will die and millions will go to bed hungry.

I hope, this year, that you might consider those millions as you give thanks.

In the spirit of Psalm 116...we love you.

15 November 2007

dr. exhaustion or: how i learned to stop worrying and love the ministry

We have been extraordinarily busy the last few weeks. Pastor Willie has been in Australia (his fourth trip since we've been here) and we have been doing his job and our jobs all while hosting a team of Maoris from New Zealand at the Mission House. Preaching and teaching and feeding and banking and basically running ourselves into exhaustion. In fact, I've gone a little bonkers under the stress. I now look like this guy:

Friday night, we pick up 4 of our friends who are going to be helping us with the work around here for the next 10 days. This is a very good thing, although they will join the Maoris at the Mission House and we'll be a total of 12 folks trying to use one shower. Should be interesting. And cold.

Regardless, this busy season has been among the best of our lives. We are being stretched and pulled and shaped into more loving, tolerant, and patient people. I realized this at the end of a long day, after preaching on Ecclesiastes 3. After telling the people about a time for peace and a time for war, a time for weeping and a time for laughing...I was able to really own the fact that the last few weeks have been a time for falling short and a time for running out of ways to meet needs. It has been a time for tempers and grated nerves. It has, above all, been the most poignant example that without the sour, the sweet has very little meaning.

Exhausted, used, abused, and taken advantage of, we are learning to love the ministry here.

With all of that said, we will probably not be able to post anything for a few days. Or maybe we just don't want to. Maybe we're just sitting by the computer eating popcorn...

Either way, email us at theburkholders@gmail.com and we'll be back soon enough.

"Wheeeere could I be?" - For your enjoyment.

atm fraud. sweet.

("The story you're about to read is a fib, but it's short. The names are made up but the problems are real."...ok, this is actually happening to us, but I wanted to use that quote.)

Monday afternoon, I walked up to an ATM that I have probably used a dozen times. I put my card in and immediately the machine turns red and tells me that it is out of order.


I turn around and notice a rather sinister-looking character watching my every move.

Perfect, indeed.

I pressed every button on the machine, making sure to push the red one that said “Cancel” in Zulu about 400 times. Still, the machine keeps my card and the sinister-looking chap behind me continues looking ever more pleased.

So, I walk home as quickly as I can to get on the computer to tell our bank that our ATM card is probably being used to buy sinister Christmas presents for a sinister family. Naturally, the bank’s website is not functioning properly and it will not let me declare my card lost or cancel the silly thing. It directs me to a US 800-number, which is not particularly useful seeing as how I am not in the US and I don’t have access to a phone anyway. So I do the next best thing: send the bank a message asking them to please cancel my card ASAP.

Wednesday afternoon, Stef decides to check out accounts online…

And, wouldn’t you know it; a sinister -looking amount of money is missing from our account. About $1500 to be exact…

We are on the case, working with the bank and we are relatively confident that the fraud will be properly dealt with and we won’t be penalized. Still, watching 80% of your living expenses for the next 2 months disappear is not the most comforting feeling in the world.

Just another adventure in Africa.

a brief introduction

I've probably referred to David Wilcox about 312 times in this blog over the last 6 months, mostly in subtle references that only 1 or 2 other people would get.

I figured that today I'd introduce you formally.

You see, David Wilcox is one of the most prominent spiritual influences in my life. I once went to a concert of his on the UT campus. By myself. In a room of 70 people, he sat in a white t-shirt and jeans. He had one guitar, no special lighting, no videoboards, no pyrotechnics, and everyone's undivided attention. He exuded peace and grace and harmony even then.

My brother introduced me to David. Let me share the privilege.

14 November 2007

the clothes line, the %@*^$! clothes line

In this African life, washing clothes can be a difficult endeavor. It is, however, much easier now than it was 3 years ago.

Then, we had no washing machine, so clothes were washed by hand. The Mission House now has an automatic washer, but we still hang-dry our clothes. This is sort of a cathartic experience, maybe because it connects us with our past in some simple way. But it can also be a little frustrating.

(the photo is not of our clothesline, by the way - found this example on Google Images for the youngsters wondering what a "clothes line" in...)

If you’ll recall, I love the rain. I have decided that I no longer love the rain on Tuesdays, our washing day. If it rains, the clothes on the line stay wet, even thought we hang them on a line that is on our covered balcony. They just don’t dry.

So, we wash when the weather looks OK and then we pray that the rain holds out until our stuff is dry enough to bring in. Last night, we had no choice. We were running out of clean clothes and thunderclouds were rolling in. We washed, hung, and listened to the storms sweep through. This morning, as expected, the clothes were nowhere near ready to be taken down.

It is only mildly irritating, actually (despite the vehemence of the blog title). It is simply another reminder that many people still do many things "the hard way". If this is the worst thing for us in a week, it has been a very good week.

13 November 2007

mr. mcdonald and individually-wrapped processed cheese slices

From time to time, the Africans we live with manage to surprise us at how, well, African they actually are.

The Mayfair Baptist Church is a funny place full of funny people. Stef and I are fond of saying that “everybody in Africa is jacked” and Mayfair is a good place to collect evidence. (We are all jacked, but Africa seems to magnify the human condition…)

Among the many crazy faces around here is Juma, a refugee from Burundi.
From the Wikipedia: Burundi is the poorest country in the world, in terms of GDP per capita: US$90 as of 2007. 68% of the population lived below the poverty line in 2002. According to the World Food Programme, the majority of children aged under 5 (56.8%) suffer from chronic malnutrition. [4]
Juma is 42, speaks Swahili, French, and enough English to completely misunderstand everything we tell him. He also bears a striking resemblance to Ronald McDonald, albeit a deep ebony version, so much so that the guys around the house call him “Mr. McDonald”. Above all else, he is an African, as close to the general stereotype as one can get.

A few nights ago, Stef and I provided sandwiches for a big group of people. We bought bread, lunch-meat (sliced chicken-loaf – Mmm…), individually wrapped cheese slices, mayonnaise, etc…

All of our friends successfully completed the task of sandwich-making quite proficiently. All except Juma.

Stef and I noticed that all of the South Africans were laughing at him as he studied the plastic-wrapped cheese slice. We smiled and assumed that he would figure it out. Well, he didn’t. Imagine the laughter that broke out as Juma began eating his freshly-prepared sandwich, including a still wrapped slice of cheese.

His face crinkled as he fought to bite through the plastic and then scrunched up even more as he tried to decide whether he would chew it and swallow or spit the whole thing out.

Eventually, he got the help he needed and he enjoyed a sandwich without plastic interference.

Just another day in Africa, watching Mr. McDonald try to eat plastic-wrapped cheese…

12 November 2007

easy mac and ugly americans

Did you know that we live in Africa?

The other night, I found the house microwave and began to heat up Stef’s dinner for her. She would be enjoying a wonderful bowl of Kraft Easy Mac that my mother had faithfully mailed through to us.

As I placed the cup into the microwave, a nearby African looked very puzzled.

“What is that?”
“It is macaroni and cheese, only faster and self-contained.” (See, they enjoy mac and cheese here, only they make it on a stove from scratch.)
“Well, if someone is in a hurry, they can enjoy it quickly. It is not as good, obviously, but that isn’t always the issue.”
“Hmmph, clever I guess.” (At this point I received the look that is typically reserved for the time when someone begins to think of ‘Ugly Americans’…)

It is strange to me that, in little ways, the world notices the decline of some of the good things in life and notices that we seem to care very little. I mean, we have desecrated Mac-n-Cheese, not the International Declaration of Human Rights. Still, I got the look that implied that my culture stinks and, since I am from that culture, I carry an odor as well.

It says something about conflicting priorities that our cultures possess. Somewhere deeper than that, it hurts a bit. Under the surface, we sense resentment from some people here. And that, I suppose says something about the price of ministry.

...And for the record, I prefer homestyle macaroni and cheese, extra gooey. If I am making the Kraft version (on the stove with the awe-inspiring packet of yellow powder), I enjoy that too. And I always sneak in a little extra butter and a little extra milk. Now you know.

09 November 2007

someday soon

We find ourselves looking forward a lot in life, don't we?

I mean, almost no one is content where they are. We find ourselves in a never-ending series of 5-year plans and forward-looking seasons only to realize in 5 years that we've forgotten what the plan is and that we have a new one.

Usually, I would decry such living, but from time to time, it is the future that gets us through the present.

We refer to it as the "Someday Soon" after a David Wilcox song. Basically, the mystery and anticipation of tomorrow is often enough to drag us through even the most difficult today.

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Someday soon is a wonderful thing. Someday soon is a day off. It is a vacation. It is relief. It is hope that tomorrow holds a miracle drug. It is children of our own. It is seeing friends again. It is embracing our parents, brothers, and sisters. It is the idea that the work of today might make a difference to the world of tomorrow. It is wrestling with Soren. It is cooking with Mom. It is the promise that was made to us. It is the promise we made to Him.

Someday soon is why we try. Someday soon finds us when we are empty and gives us just enough hope to satisfy.

Listen to "Someday Soon" by David Wilcox

Someday Soon

So we raced each other downhill on the sidewalk
And we raised each other, two against the world
And we promised not to bow, we made a solemn vow
To keep our Independence flags unfurled

So when the battles of the spirit left us stranded
Each went hiding in our separate ways
Ah, but carrying a candle to keep the fire burning
To find us here in brighter days

Someday Soon made a promise I will follow
Someday Soon is why I try
Someday Soon told me: "Take this cup of
Empty hope up to the well that's dry
Where there's just enough of Someday Soon to satisfy"

You have done all the adventures I have dreamed of
And I have run a different path but just as fine
Ah, but both of us have missed, we haven't closed
The distance on the destination peace of mind

For it seems as if it's always half together
There is no happy-ever-after magic wand
The lightning pulls the thunder, the distance
Pulls the wonder that calls us farther on

Someday Soon made a promise I will follow
Someday Soon is why I try
Someday Soon told me: "Take this cup of
Empty hope up to the well that's dry
Where there's just enough of Someday Soon to satisfy"

Now if heaven is perfection
I'll get my deepest questions answered
Like a child tears into presents
To a Christmas tune

But in that big hall, let there be a
Bright red ribbon that stays
Wrapped around the mystery
Of Someday Soon

08 November 2007

home (so far away) - new song

I have been meaning to publish this for awhile.

New Song on Our Podcast - "Home (So Far Away)"

I wrote this one day about a month ago. The lyrics were obvious as to what the song meant to me at first. Only later did I begin to understand that there may be much deeper yearnings inside of me that are bubbling over.

where do you stay
come back i pray

so far away

where have you gone
why have you run

so far away

07 November 2007

of sleeping positions and kellogg's corn flakes: vulnerabilties

I sleep on my left side. Always. I can try to sleep on my back or my stomach, but I always end up falling asleep on my left side.

I sleep with my left arm extended up past my head. Sort of like the lady in the middle there, only with my left arm extended under my pillow and my right arm curled under my pillow in a cuddling sort of thing.

Now, the manner in which I sleep is only significant when paired with another tidbit of information. I happen to have a 7-inch scar on the left side of my torso, under where my arm would hang at my side.

This scar is conveniently pressed against the bed as I sleep.

Now why, for the love of Moses, did we just go through that?

I think the way I sleep is a reflection of some innate animalistic defense mechanism that would protect my most vulnerable areas from sneak attack in the middle of the night. Stupid, right? But I am convinced.

Vulnerabilities can be easy to hide at night, especially when the odds of a sneak attack are probably pretty small. (Anyone with relevant midnight-sneak-attack stories can email me. I, for one, do not anticipate waking in the middle of the night to a band of wild Indians or blood-thirsty cannibals, although that may have been a childhood fear thanks to realistic bedtime stories from my father that may or may not have featured lifelike tales of hungry lions escaping from the zoo and bands of Indians sweeping across northern San Antonio…)

Getting to the point, our life here in South Africa has left us quite vulnerable at times, in places where vulnerabilities are not so easily hidden. Twice in the last week, and a half dozen times since we got here, we have been in the checkout line at the grocery store with a slight problem.

We have limited amounts of cash that we can carry, since we only walk with an amount that we are comfortable being mugged for. Sounds pleasant enough… That often presents a problem when we load up our little basket at the grocery store. Twice this week, we stopped for about $25 in groceries and twice we ended up about $1 short when the total was revealed. The checker then presses a button that sets off this shrieking alarm that brings the manager to void out one of our transactions, which would be slightly humiliating if we weren’t so used to it and if it didn’t happen to every third customer. On Monday, I had to put back my Kellogg’s Corn Flakes that looked so wholesome and wondrous. Tuesday, $0.25 short, the checker just waved us through and ignored the fact that we couldn’t pay for everything.

Now, I’ve never been poor. I thought I was poor growing up, but that’s just because my Dad was not a wasteful man, a quality I now treasure and mimic whenever possible. For example, I thought that surely “rich people must throw out milk that smells that way”. (The smell in question is that strange acidic smell coming from the milk carton that has formed the yellowing crust around the cap…) Well, some families might have thrown it out. Not my family. My Dad would drink it down. Therefore, we must have been poor. I assumed that our four-bedroom, two-story house was simply a product of the size of our family. Doesn’t every family get a house with enough rooms to let each child have their own? I was a boy-prodigy, obviously. Sound logic has always been my forte.

Let’s move on.

I am still not poor by any means. But Stef and I are learning what it might feel like if we were. And, really, it’s not that bad. We eat a lot oatmeal and cereal for breakfast and a lot of peanut butter and jelly for lunch and dinner.

We do eat out. We get decent meals. Women in the church cook for us. We’re OK.

But, in this experience, we are gaining a new insight into the vulnerabilities of people who are truly poor. I can always grab a little extra cash and return to the store to rescue my Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Most of the people around us would not have such a luxury. They would wait until next month for the vitamin-packed delight featuring “Pro-Start-K”, a supplement that Kelloggs created to trick Africans even though it is actually contained in everything with the styled, red “K” on the front of the box. I think Coco Puffs features “Pro-Start-K”. But I digress.

This is part of the beauty of our journey. We are learning to be more vulnerable, at least when we’re awake. We’re learning that there is no shame in having to hold up the line because you can’t afford that extra Twix bar (it’s the only candy with the cookie crunch!).

There is no shame in poverty. And there is a real beauty in humility, which above all things is a virtue that is drilled into us throughout our time here.

For your enjoyment, some truth in advertising:

06 November 2007

message in a bottle

Sometimes we post things happening with us hoping they might inspire you or change your worldview.

Today we are posting an article from Fast Company (a magazine) that we would hope you might read for similar reasons. It is about bottled water, a seemingly silly subject that seems to lack any controversy. Well, read it and decide for yourself if change or reflection is even necessary.

The link is here. For those of you wary of links, the text of the article is also below (though it is quite long)...

Message in a Bottle – Link to Fast Company Article

Message in a Bottle

Americans spent more money last year on bottled water than on ipods or movie tickets: $15 Billion. A journey into the economics--and psychology--of an unlikely business boom. And what it says about our culture of indulgence.

The largest bottled-water factory in North America is located on the outskirts of Hollis, Maine. In the back of the plant stretches the staging area for finished product: 24 million bottles of Poland Spring water. As far as the eye can see, there are double-stacked pallets packed with half-pint bottles, half-liters, liters, "Aquapods" for school lunches, and 2.5-gallon jugs for the refrigerator.

Really, it is a lake of Poland Spring water, conveniently celled off in plastic, extending across 6 acres, 8 feet high. A week ago, the lake was still underground; within five days, it will all be gone, to supermarkets and convenience stores across the Northeast, replaced by another lake's worth of bottles.

Looking at the piles of water, you can have only one thought: Americans sure are thirsty.

Bottled water has become the indispensable prop in our lives and our culture. It starts the day in lunch boxes; it goes to every meeting, lecture hall, and soccer match; it's in our cubicles at work; in the cup holder of the treadmill at the gym; and it's rattling around half-finished on the floor of every minivan in America. Fiji Water shows up on the ABC show Brothers & Sisters; Poland Spring cameos routinely on NBC's The Office. Every hotel room offers bottled water for sale, alongside the increasingly ignored ice bucket and drinking glasses. At Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFMI), the upscale emporium of the organic and exotic, bottled water is the number-one item by units sold.

Thirty years ago, bottled water barely existed as a business in the United States. Last year, we spent more on Poland Spring, Fiji Water, Evian, Aquafina, and Dasani than we spent on iPods or movie tickets--$15 billion. It will be $16 billion this year.

Bottled water is the food phenomenon of our times. We--a generation raised on tap water and water fountains--drink a billion bottles of water a week, and we're raising a generation that views tap water with disdain and water fountains with suspicion. We've come to pay good money--two or three or four times the cost of gasoline--for a product we have always gotten, and can still get, for free, from taps in our homes.

When we buy a bottle of water, what we're often buying is the bottle itself, as much as the water. We're buying the convenience--a bottle at the 7-Eleven isn't the same product as tap water, any more than a cup of coffee at Starbucks is the same as a cup of coffee from the Krups machine on your kitchen counter. And we're buying the artful story the water companies tell us about the water: where it comes from, how healthy it is, what it says about us. Surely among the choices we can make, bottled water isn't just good, it's positively virtuous.

Except for this: Bottled water is often simply an indulgence, and despite the stories we tell ourselves, it is not a benign indulgence. We're moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone. That's a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers delivering water. (Water weighs 81/3 pounds a gallon. It's so heavy you can't fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water--you have to leave empty space.)

Meanwhile, one out of six people in the world has no dependable, safe drinking water. The global economy has contrived to deny the most fundamental element of life to 1 billion people, while delivering to us an array of water "varieties" from around the globe, not one of which we actually need. That tension is only complicated by the fact that if we suddenly decided not to purchase the lake of Poland Spring water in Hollis, Maine, none of that water would find its way to people who really are thirsty.

A chilled plastic bottle of water in the convenience-store cooler is the perfect symbol of this moment in American commerce and culture. It acknowledges our demand for instant gratification, our vanity, our token concern for health. Its packaging and transport depend entirely on cheap fossil fuel. Yes, it's just a bottle of water--modest compared with the indulgence of driving a Hummer. But when a whole industry grows up around supplying us with something we don't need--when a whole industry is built on the packaging and the presentation--it's worth asking how that happened, and what the impact is. And if you do ask, if you trace both the water and the business back to where they came from, you find a story more complicated, more bemusing, and ultimately more sobering than the bottles we tote everywhere suggest.
In the town of San Pellegrino Terme, Italy, for example, is a spigot that runs all the time, providing San Pellegrino water free to the local citizens--except the free Pellegrino has no bubbles. Pellegrino trucks in the bubbles for the bottling plant. The man who first brought bottled water to the United States famously failed an impromptu taste test involving his own product. In Maine, there is a marble temple to honor our passion for bottled water.

And in Fiji, a state-of-the-art factory spins out more than a million bottles a day of the hippest bottled water on the U.S. market today, while more than half the people in Fiji do not have safe, reliable drinking water. Which means it is easier for the typical American in Beverly Hills or Baltimore to get a drink of safe, pure, refreshing Fiji water than it is for most people in Fiji.

At the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills, where the rooms start at $500 a night and the guest next door might well be an Oscar winner, the minibar in all 196 rooms contains six bottles of Fiji Water. Before Fiji Water displaced Evian, Diet Coke was the number-one-selling minibar item. Now, says Christian Boyens, the Peninsula's elegant director of food and beverage, "the 1 liter of Fiji Water is number one. Diet Coke is number two. And the 500-milliliter bottle of Fiji is number three."
Being the water in the Peninsula minibar is so desirable--not just for the money to be made, but for the exposure with the Peninsula's clientele--that Boyens gets a sales call a week from a company trying to dislodge Fiji.

Boyens, who has an MBA from Cornell, used to be indifferent to water. Not anymore. His restaurants and bars carry 20 different waters. "Sometimes a guest will ask for Poland Spring, and you can't get Poland Spring in California," he says. So what does he do? "We'll call the Peninsula in New York and have them FedEx out a case.
"I thought water was water. But our customers know what they want."

The marketing of bottled water is subtle compared with the marketing of, say, soft drinks or beer. The point of Fiji Water in the minibar at the Peninsula, or at the center of the table in a white-tablecloth restaurant, is that guests will try it, love it, and buy it at a store the next time they see it.

Which isn't difficult, because the water aisle in a suburban supermarket typically stocks a dozen brands of water--not including those enhanced with flavors or vitamins or, yes, oxygen. In 1976, the average American drank 1.6 gallons of bottled water a year, according to Beverage Marketing Corp. Last year, we each drank 28.3 gallons of bottled water--18 half-liter bottles a month. We drink more bottled water than milk, or coffee, or beer. Only carbonated soft drinks are more popular than bottled water, at 52.9 gallons annually.

No one has experienced this transformation more profoundly than Kim Jeffery. Jeffery began his career in the water business in the Midwest in 1978, selling Perrier ("People didn't know whether to put it in their lawn mower or drink it," he says). Now he's the CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, in charge of U.S. sales of Perrier, San Pellegrino, Poland Spring, and a portfolio of other regional natural springwaters. Combined, his brands will sell some $4.5 billion worth of water this year (generating roughly $500 million in pretax profit). Jeffery insists that unlike the soda business, which is stoked by imaginative TV and marketing campaigns, the mainstream water business is, quite simply, "a force of nature."

"The entire bottled-water business today is half the size of the carbonated beverage industry," says Jeffery, "but our marketing budget is 15% of what they spend. When you put a bottle of water in that cold box, it's the most thirst-quenching beverage there is. There's nothing in it that's not good for you. People just know that intuitively.

"A lot of people tell me, you guys have done some great marketing to get customers to pay for water," Jeffery says. "But we aren't that smart. We had to have a hell of a lot of help from the consumer."

Still, we needed help learning to drink bottled water. For that, we can thank the French.

Gustave Leven was the chairman of Source Perrier when he approached an American named Bruce Nevins in 1976. Nevins was working for the athletic-wear company Pony. Leven was a major Pony investor. "He wanted me to consider the water business in the U.S.," Nevins says. "I was a bit reluctant." Back then, the American water industry was small and fusty, built on home and office delivery of big bottles and grocery sales of gallon jugs.

Fiji Water produces more than a million bottles a day, while more than half the people in Fiji do not have reliable drinking water.

Nevins looked out across 1970s America, though, and had an epiphany: Perrier wasn't just water. It was a beverage. The opportunity was in persuading people to drink Perrier when they would otherwise have had a cocktail or a Coke. Americans were already drinking 30 gallons of soft drinks each a year, and the three-martini lunch was increasingly viewed as a problem. Nevins saw a niche.

From the start, Nevins pioneered a three-part strategy. First, he connected bottled water to exclusivity: In 1977, just before Perrier's U.S. launch, he flew 60 journalists to France to visit "the source" where Perrier bubbled out of the ground. He connected Perrier to health, sponsoring the New York City Marathon, just as long-distance running was exploding as a fad across America. And he associated Perrier with celebrity, launching with $4 million in TV commercials featuring Orson Welles. It worked. In 1978, its first full year in the United States, Perrier sold $20 million of water. The next year, sales tripled to $60 million.

What made Perrier distinctive was that it was a sparkling water, served in a signature glass bottle. But that's also what left the door open for Evian, which came to the United States in 1984. Evian's U.S. marketing was built around images of toned young men and women in tight clothes sweating at the gym. Madonna drank Evian--often onstage at concerts. "If you were cool, you were drinking bottled water," says Ed Slade, who became Evian's vice president of marketing in 1990. "It was a status symbol."

Evian was also a still water, which Americans prefer; and it was the first to offer a plastic bottle nationwide. The clear bottle allowed us to see the water--how clean and refreshing it looked on the shelf. Americans have never wanted water in cans, which suggest a tinny aftertaste before you take a sip. The plastic bottle, in fact, did for water what the pop-top can had done for soda: It turned water into an anywhere, anytime beverage, at just the moment when we decided we wanted a beverage, everywhere, all the time.

Perrier and Evian launched the bottled-water business just as it would prove irresistible. Convenience and virtue aligned. Two-career families, overprogrammed children, prepared foods in place of home-cooked meals, the constant urging to eat more healthfully and drink less alcohol--all reinforce the value of bottled water. But those trends also reinforce the mythology.

We buy bottled water because we think it's healthy. Which it is, of course: Every 12-year-old who buys a bottle of water from a vending machine instead of a 16-ounce Coke is inarguably making a healthier choice. But bottled water isn't healthier, or safer, than tap water. Indeed, while the United States is the single biggest consumer in the world's $50 billion bottled-water market, it is the only one of the top four--the others are Brazil, China, and Mexico--that has universally reliable tap water. Tap water in this country, with rare exceptions, is impressively safe. It is monitored constantly, and the test results made public. Mineral water has a long association with medicinal benefits--and it can provide minerals that people need--but there are no scientific studies establishing that routinely consuming mineral water improves your health. The FDA, in fact, forbids mineral waters in the United States from making any health claims.

If the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000.

And for this healthy convenience, we're paying what amounts to an unbelievable premium. You can buy a half- liter Evian for $1.35--17 ounces of water imported from France for pocket change. That water seems cheap, but only because we aren't paying attention.

In San Francisco, the municipal water comes from inside Yosemite National Park. It's so good the EPA doesn't require San Francisco to filter it. If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35. Put another way, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000.

Taste, of course, is highly personal. New Yorkers excepted, Americans love to belittle the quality of their tap water. But in blind taste tests, with waters at equal temperatures, presented in identical glasses, ordinary people can rarely distinguish between tap water, springwater, and luxury waters. At the height of Perrier's popularity, Bruce Nevins was asked on a live network radio show one morning to pick Perrier from a lineup of seven carbonated waters served in paper cups. It took him five tries.

We are actually in the midst of a second love affair with bottled water. In the United States, many of the earliest, still-familiar brands of springwater--Poland Spring, Saratoga Springs, Deer Park, Arrowhead--were originally associated with resort and spa complexes. The water itself, pure at a time when cities struggled to provide safe water, was the source of the enterprise.

In the late 1800s, Poland Spring was already a renowned brand of healthful drinking water that you could get home-delivered in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago. It was also a sprawling summer resort complex, with thousands of guests and three Victorian hotels, some of which had bathtubs with spigots that allowed guests to bathe in Poland Spring water. The resort burned in 1976, but at the crest of a hill in Poland Spring, Maine, you can still visit a marble-and-granite temple built in 1906 to house the original spring.

The car, the Depression, World War II, and perhaps most important, clean, safe municipal water, unwound the resorts and the first wave of water as business. We had to wait two generations for the second, which would turn out to be much different--and much larger.

Today, for all the apparent variety on the shelf, bottled water is dominated in the United States and worldwide by four huge companies. Pepsi (NYSE:PEP) has the nation's number-one-selling bottled water, Aquafina, with 13% of the market. Coke's (NYSE:KO) Dasani is number two, with 11% of the market. Both are simply purified municipal water--so 24% of the bottled water we buy is tap water repackaged by Coke and Pepsi for our convenience. Evian is owned by Danone, the French food giant, and distributed in the United States by Coke.

The really big water company in the United States is Nestlé, which gradually bought up the nation's heritage brands, and expanded them. The waters are slightly different--springwater must come from actual springs, identified specifically on the label--but together, they add up to 26% of the market, according to Beverage Marketing, surpassing Coke and Pepsi's brands combined.

Since most water brands are owned by larger companies, it's hard to get directly at the economics. But according to those inside the business, half the price of a typical $1.29 bottle goes to the retailer. As much as a third goes to the distributor and transport. Another 12 to 15 cents is the cost of the water itself, the bottle and the cap. That leaves roughly a dime of profit. On multipacks, that profit is more like 2 cents a bottle.

As the abundance in the supermarket water aisle shows, that business is now trying to help us find new waters to drink and new occasions for drinking them--trying to get more mouth share, as it were. Aquafina marketing vice president Ahad Afridi says his team has done the research to understand what kind of water drinkers we are. They've found six types, including the "water pure-fectionist"; the "water explorer"; the "image seeker"; and the "struggler" ("they don't really like water that much...these are the people who have a cheeseburger with a diet soda").
It's a startling level of thought and analysis--until you realize that within a decade, our consumption of bottled water is expected to surpass soda. That kind of market can't be left to chance. Aquafina's fine segmentation is all about the newest explosion of waters that aren't really water--flavored waters, enhanced waters, colored waters, water drinks branded after everything from Special K breakfast cereal to Tropicana juice.

Afridi is a true believer. He talks about water as if it were more than a drink, more than a product--as if it were a character all its own, a superhero ready to take the pure-fectionist, the water explorer, and the struggler by the hand and carry them to new water adventures. "Water as a beverage has more right to extend and enter into more territories than any other beverage," Afridi says. "Water has a right to travel where others can't."

Uh, meaning what?

"Water that's got vitamins in it. Water that's got some immunity-type benefit to it. Water that helps keep skin younger. Water that gives you energy."
Water: It's pure, it's healthy, it's perfect--and we've made it better. The future of water sounds distinctly unlike water.

The label on a bottle of Fiji Water says "from the islands of Fiji." Journey to the source of that water, and you realize just how extraordinary that promise is. From New York, for instance, it is an 18-hour plane ride west and south (via Los Angeles) almost to Australia, and then a four-hour drive along Fiji's two-lane King's Highway.

Every bottle of Fiji Water goes on its own version of this trip, in reverse, although by truck and ship. In fact, since the plastic for the bottles is shipped to Fiji first, the bottles' journey is even longer. Half the wholesale cost of Fiji Water is transportation--which is to say, it costs as much to ship Fiji Water across the oceans and truck it to warehouses in the United States than it does to extract the water and bottle it.

The bubbles in San Pellegrino are extracted from volcanic springs in Tuscany, then trucked north and injected into the water from the source.
That is not the only environmental cost embedded in each bottle of Fiji Water. The Fiji Water plant is a state-of-the-art facility that runs 24 hours a day. That means it requires an uninterrupted supply of electricity--something the local utility structure cannot support. So the factory supplies its own electricity, with three big generators running on diesel fuel. The water may come from "one of the last pristine ecosystems on earth," as some of the labels say, but out back of the bottling plant is a less pristine ecosystem veiled with a diesel haze.

Each water bottler has its own version of this oxymoron: that something as pure and clean as water leaves a contrail.

San Pellegrino's 1-liter glass bottles--so much a part of the mystique of the water itself--weigh five times what plastic bottles weigh, dramatically adding to freight costs and energy consumption. The bottles are washed and rinsed, with mineral water, before being filled with sparkling Pellegrino--it uses up 2 liters of water to prepare the bottle for the liter we buy. The bubbles in San Pellegrino come naturally from the ground, as the label says, but not at the San Pellegrino source. Pellegrino chooses its CO2 carefully--it is extracted from supercarbonated volcanic springwaters in Tuscany, then trucked north and bubbled into Pellegrino.
Poland Spring may not have any oceans to traverse, but it still must be trucked hundreds of miles from Maine to markets and convenience stores across its territory in the northeast--it is 312 miles from the Hollis plant to midtown Manhattan. Our desire for Poland Spring has outgrown the springs at Poland Spring's two Maine plants; the company runs a fleet of 80 silver tanker trucks that continuously crisscross the state of Maine, delivering water from other springs to keep its bottling plants humming.

We pitch into landfills 38 billion water bottles a year--in excess of $1 billion worth of plastic.

In transportation terms, perhaps the waters with the least environmental impact are Pepsi's Aquafina and Coke's Dasani. Both start with municipal water. That allows the companies to use dozens of bottling plants across the nation, reducing how far bottles must be shipped.

Yet Coke and Pepsi add in a new step. They put the local water through an energy-intensive reverse-osmosis filtration process more potent than that used to turn seawater into drinking water. The water they are purifying is ready to drink--they are recleaning perfectly clean tap water. They do it so marketing can brag about the purity, and to provide consistency: So a bottle of Aquafina in Austin and a bottle in Seattle taste the same, regardless of the municipal source.
There is one more item in bottled water's environmental ledger: the bottles themselves. The big springwater companies tend to make their own bottles in their plants, just moments before they are filled with water--12, 19, 30 grams of molded plastic each. Americans went through about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year, 167 for each person. Durable, lightweight containers manufactured just to be discarded. Water bottles are made of totally recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, so we share responsibility for their impact: Our recycling rate for PET is only 23%, which means we pitch into landfills 38 billion water bottles a year--more than $1 billion worth of plastic.

Some of the water companies are acutely aware that every business, every product, every activity is under environmental scrutiny like never before. Nestlé Waters has just redesigned its half-liter bottle, the most popular size among the 18 billion bottles the company will mold this year, to use less plastic. The lighter bottle and cap require 15 grams of plastic instead of 19 grams, a reduction of 20%. The bottle feels flimsy--it uses half the plastic of Fiji Water's half-liter bottle--and CEO Jeffery says that crushable feeling should be the new standard for bottled-water cachet.

"As we've rolled out the lightweight bottle, people have said, 'Well, that feels cheap,'" says Jeffery. "And that's good. If it feels solid like a Gatorade bottle or a Fiji bottle, that's not so good." Of course, lighter bottles are also cheaper for Nestlé to produce and ship. Good environmentalism equals good business.
John Mackey is the CEO and cofounder of Whole Foods Market, the national organic-and-natural grocery chain. No one thinks about the environmental and social impacts and the larger context of food more incisively than Mackey--so he's a good person to help frame the ethical questions around bottled water.

Mackey and his wife have a water filter at home, and don't typically drink bottled water there. "If I go to a movie," he says, "I'll smuggle in a bottle of filtered water from home. I don't want to buy a Coke there, and why buy another bottle of water--$3 for 16 ounces?" But he does drink bottled water at work: Whole Foods' house brand, 365 Water.

"You can compare bottled water to tap water and reach one set of conclusions," says Mackey, referring both to environmental and social ramifications. "But if you compare it with other packaged beverages, you reach another set of conclusions.
"It's unfair to say bottled water is causing extra plastic in landfills, and it's using energy transporting it," he says. "There's a substitution effect--it's substituting for juices and Coke and Pepsi." Indeed, we still drink almost twice the amount of soda as water--which is, in fact, 90% water and also in containers made to be discarded. If bottled water raises environmental and social issues, don't soft drinks raise all those issues, plus obesity concerns?

What's different about water, of course, is that it runs from taps in our homes, or from fountains in public spaces. Soda does not.

As for the energy used to transport water from overseas, Mackey says it is no more or less wasteful than the energy used to bring merlot from France or coffee from Ethiopia, raspberries from Chile or iPods from China. "Have we now decided that the use of any fossil fuel is somehow unethical?" Mackey asks. "I don't think water should be picked on. Why is the iPod okay and the water is not?"

Mackey's is a merchant's approach to the issue of bottled water--it's a choice for people to make in the market. Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer takes an ethicist's approach. Singer has coauthored two books that grapple specifically with the question of what it means to eat ethically--how responsible are we for the negative impact, even unknowing, of our food choices on the world?

"Where the drinking water is safe, bottled water is simply a superfluous luxury that we should do without," he says. "How is it different than French merlot? One difference is the value of the product, in comparison to the value of transporting and packaging it. It's far lower in the bottled water than in the wine.
"And buying the merlot may help sustain a tradition in the French countryside that we value--a community, a way of life, a set of values that would disappear if we stopped buying French wines. I doubt if you travel to Fiji you would find a tradition of cultivation of Fiji water.

"We're completely thoughtless about handing out $1 for this bottle of water, when there are virtually identical alternatives for free. It's a level of affluence that we just take for granted. What could you do? Put that dollar in a jar on the counter instead, carry a water bottle, and at the end of the month, send all the money to Oxfam or CARE and help someone who has real needs. And you're no worse off."
Beyond culture and the product's value, Singer makes one exception. "You know, they do import Kenyan vegetables by air into London. Fresh peas from Kenya, sent by airplane to London. That provides employment for people who have few opportunities to get themselves out of poverty. So despite the fuel consumption, we're supporting a developing country, we're working against poverty, we're working for global equity.

"Those issues are relevant. Presumably, for instance, bottling water in Fiji is fairly automated. But if there were 10,000 Fijians carefully filtering the water through coconut fiber--well, that would be a better argument for drinking it."
Marika, an elder from the Fijian village of Drauniivi, is sitting cross-legged on a hand-woven mat before a wooden bowl, where his weathered hands are filtering Fiji Water through a long bag of ground kava root. Marika is making a bowl of grog, a lightly narcotic beverage that is an anchor of traditional Fiji society. People with business to conduct sit wearing the traditional Fijian skirt, and drink round after round of grog, served in half a coconut shell, as they discuss the matters at hand.
Marika is using Fiji Water--the same Fiji Water in the minibars of the Peninsula Hotel--because Drauniivi is one of the five rural villages near the Fiji Water bottling plant where the plant's workers live. Drauniivi and Beverly Hills are part of the same bottled-water supply chain.

Jim Siplon, an American who manages Fiji Water's 10-year-old bottling plant in Fiji, has arranged the grog ceremony. "This is the soul of Fiji Water," he says. The ceremony lasts 45 minutes and goes through four rounds of grog, which tastes a little furry. Marika is interrupted twice by his cell phone, which he pulls from a pocket in his skirt. It is shift change at the plant, and Marika coordinates the minibus network that transports villagers to and from work.

Fiji Water is the product of these villages, a South Pacific aquifer, and a state-of-the-art bottling plant in a part of Fiji even the locals consider remote. The plant, on the northeast coast of Fiji's main island of Viti Levu, is a white two-story building that looks like a 1970s-era junior high school. The entrance faces the interior of Viti Levu and a cloud-shrouded ridge of volcanic mountains.
Inside, the plant is in almost every way indistinguishable from Pellegrino's plant in Italy, or Poland Spring's in Hollis, filled with computer-controlled bottle-making and bottle-filling equipment. Line number two can spin out 1 million bottles of Fiji Water a day, enough to load 40 20-foot shipping containers; the factory has three lines.

The plant employs 200 islanders--set to increase to 250 this year--most with just a sixth- or eighth-grade education. Even the entry-level jobs pay twice the informal minimum wage. But these are more than simply jobs--they are jobs in a modern factory, in a place where there aren't jobs of any sort beyond the villages. And the jobs are just part of an ecosystem emerging around the plant--water-based trickle-down economics, as it were.

Siplon, a veteran telecom manager from MCI, wants Fiji Water to feel like a local company in Fiji. (It was purchased in 2004 by privately owned Roll International, which also owns POM Wonderful and is one of the largest producers of nuts in the United States.) He uses a nearby company to print the carrying handles for Fiji Water six-packs and buys engineering services and cardboard boxes on the island. By long-standing arrangement, the plant has seeded a small business in the villages that contracts with the plant to provide landscaping and security, and runs the bus system that Marika helps manage.

In 2007, Fiji Water will mark a milestone. "Even though you can drive for hours and hours on this island past cane fields," says Siplon, "sometime this year, Fiji Water will eclipse sugarcane as the number-one export." That is, the amount of sugar harvested and processed for export by some 40,000 seasonal sugar workers will equal in dollar value the amount of water bottled and shipped by 200 water bottlers.
However we regard Fiji Water in the United States--essential accessory, harmless treat, or frivolous excess--the closer you get to the source of its water, the more significant the enterprise looks.

No, no coconut-fiber filtering, but rather, a toehold in the global economy. Are 10,000 Fijians benefiting? Not directly. Perhaps 2,000. But Fiji Water is providing something else to a tiny nation of 850,000 people, which has been buffeted by two coups in seven years, and the collapse of its gold-mining and textiles industries: inspiration, a vision of what the country might have to offer the rest of the world. Developed countries are keen for myriad variations on just what Fiji Water is--a pure, unadulterated, organic, and natural product. Fiji has whole vistas of untouched, organic-ready farmland. Indeed, the hottest topic this spring (beyond politics) was how to jump-start an organic-sugar industry.

Of course, the irony of shipping a precious product from a country without reliable water service is hard to avoid. This spring, typhoid from contaminated drinking water swept one of Fiji's islands, sickening dozens of villagers and killing at least one. Fiji Water often quietly supplies emergency drinking water in such cases. The reality is, if Fiji Water weren't tapping its aquifer, the underground water would slide into the Pacific Ocean, somewhere just off the coast. But the corresponding reality is, someone else--the Fijian government, an NGO--could be tapping that supply and sending it through a pipe to villagers who need it. Fiji Water has, in fact, done just that, to some degree--20 water projects in the five nearby villages. Indeed, Roll has reinvested every dollar of profit since 2004 back into the business and the island.

Siplon acknowledges the risk of slipping into capitalistic neo-colonialism. "Does the world need Fiji Water?" he asks. "I'm not sure I agree with the critics on that. This company has the potential of delivering great value--or the results a cynic might have expected."

Water is, in fact, often the perfect beverage--healthy, refreshing, and satisfying in a way soda or juice aren't. A good choice.

Worldwide, 1 billion people have no reliable source of drinking water; 3,000 children a day die from diseases caught from tainted water.

Nestlé Waters' Kim Jeffery may be defending his industry when he calls bottled water "a force of nature," but he's also not wrong. Our consumption of bottled water has outstripped any marketer's dreams or talent: If you break out the single-serve plastic bottle as its own category, our consumption of bottled water grew a thousandfold between 1984 and 2005.

In the array of styles, choices, moods, and messages available today, water has come to signify how we think of ourselves. We want to brand ourselves--as Madonna did--even with something as ordinary as a drink of water. We imagine there is a difference between showing up at the weekly staff meeting with Aquafina, or Fiji, or a small glass bottle of Pellegrino. Which is, of course, a little silly.
Bottled water is not a sin. But it is a choice.

Packing bottled water in lunch boxes, grabbing a half-liter from the fridge as we dash out the door, piling up half-finished bottles in the car cup holders--that happens because of a fundamental thoughtlessness. It's only marginally more trouble to have reusable water bottles, cleaned and filled and tucked in the lunch box or the fridge. We just can't be bothered. And in a world in which 1 billion people have no reliable source of drinking water, and 3,000 children a day die from diseases caught from tainted water, that conspicuous consumption of bottled water that we don't need seems wasteful, and perhaps cavalier.

That is the sense in which Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, and Singer, the Princeton philosopher, are both right. Mackey is right that buying bottled water is a choice, and Singer is right that given the impact it has, the easy substitutes, and the thoughtless spending involved, it's fair to ask whether it's always a good choice.
The most common question the U.S. employees of Fiji Water still get is, "Does it really come from Fiji?" We're choosing Fiji Water because of the hibiscus blossom on the beautiful square bottle, we're choosing it because of the silky taste. We're seduced by the idea of a bottle of water from Fiji. We just don't believe it really comes from Fiji. What kind of a choice is that?

Once you understand the resources mustered to deliver the bottle of water, it's reasonable to ask as you reach for the next bottle, not just "Does the value to me equal the 99 cents I'm about to spend?" but "Does the value equal the impact I'm about to leave behind?"

Simply asking the question takes the carelessness out of the transaction. And once you understand where the water comes from, and how it got here, it's hard to look at that bottle in the same way again.

03 November 2007

golden boy, mini-van, and vandelay's imminent takeover

In the Seinfeld episode entitled “The Marine Biologist”, Jerry laments how his favorite t-shirt, "Golden Boy" is dying due to aging. Elaine doesn't understand Jerry's attachment to Golden Boy...check the transcript:

Jerry: Elaine, see this T-shirt, six years I've had this T-shirt, it's my best one, I call him...Golden Boy
Elaine: I'm on the phone here.
Jerry: Golden Boy is always the first shirt I wear out of the laundry, here
touch Golden Boy!

Elaine: No thanks. (to the phone)Yeah, Yeah I'll hold.
Jerry: But see look at the collar, see it's fraying. Golden Boy is slowly dying. Each wash is brings him one step closer, that's what makes the T-shirt such a tragic figure.
Elaine: Why don't you just let Golden Boy soak in the sink with some Woolight?
Jerry: No!!! The reason he's iron man is because he goes out there and plays
every game. Wash!!! Spin!!! Rinse!!! Spin!!! You take that away
from him, you break his spirit!

Here is my "Golden Boy". He is simply called "Mini-Van", although he is falling out of the rotation due to spousal protest. You can see how his color is fading, the green giving way to yellow. He has stood by me for years and continues to make special appearances.
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This is "No Doze". The back says "Don't hate, just rock". My friend Daniel gave it to me and I wear it with pride when I am feeling particularly rock-ish.
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I designed this one (available at cafepress.com/6600). It too is dying. Poor Namibia is fading away.
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My brother gave me this gem, although I think the humor is lost of Africans. I get looks like "Do you really drive that car?" You can see his color fading around the collar. Stay strong, buddy.
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"Brownie" came from Target and is holding up very nicely. I don't exactly know what the design is, but I'll wear it often until someone alerts me that it is a dominant symbol of the occult.
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This is the newest addition to the lineup. That's Joburg on the shirt. You probably won't find it in any store near you (made by Muthaland), but if you do, the quality is superb.
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Finally, here is the heir apparent to "Mini-Van". Who doesn't love Art Vandelay? Well, Africans don't. They probably think I have a friend by that name who has a business. Anyway, this little beauty (given to me by Cousin Jeff) has found it's way into the first spot in the laundry rotation, as "Mini-Van" slowly works toward retirement. Witness, ladies and gentlemen, the next "Golden Boy."
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02 November 2007

day 5 in 3 parts

Well, this is the end of the week. I decided to split up day 5 into 3 parts (found below), mainly because I could have gone three weeks with this kind of stuff but am pretty sure that one is enough.

Change is possible. Darkness can become light.

distracting diversion (day 5.1)

Red herring
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

A red herring is a metaphor for a diversion or distraction from an original objective. An example can be found in academic examinations, particularly in mathematics and physical sciences. In some questions, information may be provided which is not necessary to solve the given problem. The presence of extraneous data often causes those taking the exam to spend too much time on the question, reducing the time given to other problems and potentially lowering the resulting score. Red herrings are frequently used in literature and cinema mysteries, where a character is presented to make the reader/viewer believe he/she is the obvious perpetrator, when in reality it is someone far less suspect.

distracting diversion

the hypocrisy of democracy
our bloodstained herring


pregnant with possibility (day 5.2)

I guess that this week I hoped that we would all consider our place. I hoped that we would see things as they could be and we would free ourselves from what we've learned only to learn it anew.

I am beginning to see the days in a new way, pregnant with possibility. A child waits to enter this world, pushing on the life that sustains her. Our days wait the same, challenging the life that gives them meaning, pushing us to make something of today, of the choices that lie before us.

Pregnant with possibility. Every day. I believe in change and the larger Source that makes it all matter.

twice maya

a woman
she is bulging

she dangles
from the avarice
the precipice

of creation

of heartbeats

future scented
with backstreets
acrimonious vignettes of possibility

a woman
she is bulging

she dangles

surely we can change (day 5.3)

and the problem is this: we were bought with a kiss,
but the cheek still turned, even when it wasn’t hit.
and i don’t know what to do with a love like that
and i don’t know how to be a love like that
when all the love in the world is right here among us
and hatred too, and so we must choose what our hands will do

where there is pain, let there be grace.
where there is suffering, bring serenity.
for those afraid, help them be brave.
where there is misery, bring expectancy.
and surely we can change something.

and the problem it seems is with you and me,
not the Love who came to repair everything
and i don’t know what to do with a love like that.
and i don’t know how to be a love like that.
when all the love in the world is right here, among us.
and hatred too and so we must choose what our hands will do.

where there is pain, let us bring grace.
where there is suffering, bring serenity.
for those afraid, let us be brave.
where there is misery, let us bring them relief.
and surely we can change something.

-David Crowder*Band, Surely We Can Change, Remedy (2007)

01 November 2007

grey wool (day 4)

Death of a Salesman
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Death of a Salesman is a 1949 play by Arthur Miller and is considered a classic of American theater. Viewed by many as a caustic attack on the American Dream of achieving wealth and success without regard for principle, Death of a Salesman made both Arthur Miller and the character Willy Loman household names. More profoundly, the play raises a counterexample to Aristotle's characterization of tragedy as the downfall of a great man, whether through (depending on the translator) a flaw in his character or a mistake he has made.

grey wool (we are all willy loman)

rambling streets
greet his rambling feet
welcome to beauty
and tomorrow

he carries his case
but he dreams of something else

of standing
on a bridge somewhere

he’d flip the latches open
look up at the sky and smile
and he’d let the case spilt open
showering the world with his cares


but maybe
that is another man
today he marches on
chasing something he isn’t sure he wants

chasing nevertheless

through the revolving door
important people all around
he begins another day
another delay
from the day that will change his way

one day
his dreams do say
he’ll flip the latch
and walk away
free to live and breathe

even briefly