Friday, December 28, 2007

I Want A Pontiac Solstice

I got my driver's license when I was 17. A bit late, I know, here in the suburban wasteland that is the US of A, but there were extenuating circumstances. Mostly I was extremely eager to drive.

And drive I did. From 17 to around, say, 21, I drove and drove. I drove despite my mother's warnings that our car was not up to snuff. I drove around the Long Island Sound because I couldn't get a ferry reservation. I drove too fast, earning two speeding tickets in one summer.

I drove not with a feeling of freedom and abandonment, but rather with a feeling of fear. I remember tooling down some local roads at nineteen or so, and just knowing the car was going to spontaneously combust. OK with me, I thought. Fine. They'll reconstruct the whole scene, figure out what happened. Who cares? I never wore a seatbelt. I drove with my left foot up on the dash. "So what?" I thought. It doesn't matter.

Eventually that car -- a very cute 1980's VW rabbit -- bit the dust, and I just stopped driving. The next car I was intimately involved with came from my boyfriend's mother, when I was around 23, and it was a stick, which I didn't really know how to drive. So my boyfriend drove.

For a long time after that, I couldn't afford a car, and I didn't drive. I started to enjoy taking the bus and train and taxis; I started to enjoy telling people, "I don't drive." I got more and more weirded out by the fact that when you're driving, it's quite easy to kill people. To kill people!! How would you ever get over that? I became a reasonably happy non-driver.

It's, uh, about 20 years now since I drove a lot, and for various reasons, I've started doing some driving lately. I was really out of practice. But don't worry! -- I've had lots of updated instruction, and I'm not out there being a menace.

Today I had a kind of driving moment. I went to the mall, to return something, and to buy some stuff, and of course, it was crazy busy, and of course, the traffic was nuts. It was maybe the first time since I've been back at it that I've had to deal with lots of cars with highly emotional people in them.

It all went fine, and when I got home, I really felt like, "Well, now I'm a driver. A driver!"

And because I'm crazy materialistic, style-obsessed, and unsatisfiable, my next thought was, "I'm a driver! What kind of car should I get?"

After an hour or so of web searching, I decided on the Pontiac Solstice. OK, dumb name. But what a cool looking car! Check it out:

I like the way it's got that big rear end in the back with all those curves all around. Bee-you-ti-ful! And sexy!!

When I first starting looking around, I was thinking, "Chevy Camaro." And my enthusiasm for the Camaro was stoked by this funny Wikipedia entry describing "pony cars" -- cars that, in the wake of the Mustang, were all about sporty style and cheap prices, and not about substance or engineering. "That's for me!" I thought.

They stopped making the Camaro in 2002 (I know, shocker!). They're going to bring it back, but the truth is that like the current Mustang, the look is actually too sensible and boxy to really be appealing. Here's the 2008 Mustang:

It's fine, but it's a little too much like a Honda Civic, don't you think?

The sad fact of the matter is that I live in a big city, with no parking, and I take the subway everywhere, so there is no reason on earth for me to buy a car. But if I ever have to move to Barstow, I'm signing a deal on that Solstice within the hour. I love it! Rowwr!!

Household Tasks, Volume VII

I would apologize for my recent and repeated failure to post, but since that failure is brought on by my being in the actual face-to-face company of three out of the four readers of this blog, I figure nobody's hurting too much. Really, you could think of it as a kind of three-dimensional interactive blog that's been going on here on the east coast, with this whole being around people thing.

Anyway, I am thinking once again about household tasks and my relationship to them, a relationship always complicated by being in somebody else's space dealing with their stuff. It is in some ways easier to do household tasks in somebody else's house because a) you are not responsible for the baseline level of cleanliness and b) they will tell you what to do and how it should be done. It is of course mostly harder because you don't know how they want it done, you don't know where to put stuff away, and if you break something you feel like a jerk.

But all this is reminding me why doing the dishes is the best household task around. Doing the dishes and taking out the trash. They're both good tasks because they're finite. Floor cleaning is the sort of thing that you could do for seven hours straight and at the end of it the floor would still be dirty. Dusting is even worse. Dishes and trash are self-contained. You might have a lot of dishes and a lot of trash, but when it's done it's done.

Also, unlike some cleaning tasks, dishes do not require disrupting the normal life of the household. You do not have to lift things and move them around to get at the dishes; you do not have to hunt for special equipment. A sink, a sponge, some soap -- you are all set.

And then there's something kind of soothing about the whole thing: the flow of warm water over your hands, the repetitive movements. It's got a good contemplative cleanliness going.

Finally, last but not least, doing the dishes will get you proper social appreciation faster than any other chore. People may not notice the dusting -- dusting, generally, is only noticed when not done. But the absence of dirty dishes -- it leaps to the eye. And from there to the heart.

This post is a lot duller than I thought it would be, starting out. For that, blame the snow on the ground, my sense of virtue from dishes recently done, and a contemplation of just how much lotion my hands need. Also the presence of my loved ones.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Rational Teens, Crazy Adults

It's one of those things everybody knows: teenagers engage in risky behaviors because they have a feeling of invulnerability -- an emotive, but incorrect, sense that the odds are in their favor.

On Tuesday, The New York Times ran of those "everybody knows this, but it's false" stories (link here). In fact, the data show that teenagers generally overestimate the risks involved in their activities. Even more than adults, they tend to say that something bad is bound to happen, even more than it actually is.

The reason kids do risky things, it turns out, isn't that they don't know the risks, but rather that to them, the benefits simply outweigh the risks. They quite rationally judge that since the risk of pregnancy with unprotected sex is quite small, even when overestimated, and the thrill associated with the (possibly fleeting) opportunity is high, the rational action is to go ahead, get it on.

Ergo: reminding teens the activities are risky isn't going to work.

OK, fine. But then the story gets weird. The risk-prevention specialist featured in the article explains that where teens are actually going wrong isn't in judging risk, its in understanding "gist."

The “gist" of a situation is an overall sense of what is the best course of action. It's an intuitive judgment about what to do.

The Times quotes the specialist as saying, “Young people don’t get it. They don’t get the gist of a situation. Gist is based on one’s culture, background and experiences, and experience is what teens lack.”

Oh. I see. So if teenagers are making rational risk-assessment choices, and we're making intuitive judgments that reflect cultural expectations, they're the ones who are supposed to change their decision-making?

This strikes me as bullshit. Look, older people don't want teenagers doing risky things. And for good reasons. But that doesn't mean the teenagers themselves aren't thinking clearly.

The most you could say, I think, is that teenagers may be less capable than adults of predicting what things it will make them happy to have done in five years, as opposed to what things are going to make them happy now. But it's dumb to say they aren't accurately judging what they want now. They are. They just want more fun and excitement than adults do. And they want it more.

The "gist" of a situation is just a fancy way of talking about the fact that adults want certain things, and they want their children to want those things too.

My own opinion is that adults should just be honest here. Speaking for myself, I don't want young people to drive drunk, take too many drugs, have sex without condoms, etc. But the reason is just that I care about them, and it makes me feel bad if bad things happen to them. These are selfish motives, but they're the good kind of selfish motives -- the kind that say, "If you suffer I will suffer. So take care of yourself! Please!" Do it for me.

The "gist" specialist says the right approach is rather to train kids in strategies. From The Times: "In helping a teenage girl resist spontaneous, unprotected sex, a gist-based approach has her practicing ways to say “no” and not worry about losing her boyfriend.

Ohhh brother. Don't even get me started.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Jingle Bell Time/It's A Swell Time

So in theory I feel like there's too much stuff in the world, an impression borne out by the fact that Pottery Barn is selling fake fur throw blankets for over $100, which blows my goddamn mind. And the exchange of presents is in some part responsible for this excess of stuff, because it means that people are buying things for other people that those other people do not particularly want, and also our financial constraints means that we are buying each other lots of cheapish stuff, which seems even more wasteful.

Nevertheless, I am pro-present.

Getting someone a present that they really like is the best way I know to show you care. It involves effort and attention and comprehension. Also, in some ways, being given something you really like feels like a compliment. This other person saw this cool thing out there in the world, and when they saw it, they thought of you. There's something really nice about that.

This is why gift lists and telling other people what we want is so much less fun -- it brings presents back into the world of autonomy and decisions and choices.

But I understand that the risk of the kind of present-giving I am advocating is that you will get things that you don't like, things that feel, even, a little insulting. "You thought I would like that?" Etc. We've all either been in that position, or we've seen it on tv. The thing is, though, it allows for a different kind of generosity, the kind where you assume that your loved ones are doing the best they can, and mean nothing but the best, and, operating on that assumption, you fake thrilled surprise.

Also, none of this means that I am opposed to the sheepish gift-card giving mode of exchange, although I have been known to joke about people waiting in line for mall gift certificates. Because we are out there trying to be generous to our loved ones, and make their lives better and richer and fuller, and if gift cards are the best way you can think of to do that, that's not so bad.

So that's why I think gift giving is a good thing for being part of a human community. But also I just like shopping for things for people. I like seeing what's out there; I like trying to match gifts up with people. It's like a puzzle. There is that bad moment after you've bought everything when you think the gifts you're giving are crummy, but then you get to rely on the generosity of spirit of your family, and that's pretty nice too.

It's an imperfect world, and there's something great about those moments when we try to compensate the ones we love for that, when we try to snatch out of the darkness a fifteen dollar alarm clock where a hunter shoots a deer, hoping that maybe that will make it all better.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I Am A Humorless Feminist

But then, you probably already knew that.

I am a humorless feminist because of quotes like this one: "The human male has had the most impact on the planet than any other life form. Women are responsible and men are more playful and it is this playfulness that is our species' greatest achievement." (That is a quote, in theory, from Desmond Morris, which was in this Daily Mail article which I was reading because of this Jezebel post. I don't know where the screwed up grammar in the first sentence came in. See, look how humorless I just was, worrying about the grammar.)

I was re-reading Pride and Prejudice the other night. And I was thinking how unattractive all the women in it, with the single exception of the heroine, are. Jane's all right, I guess. There's the aunt too, and Miss Darcy. They're good, but they don't have a lot to offer. Otherwise it's a minefield out there. Mrs. Bennet is monstrous, Lady Catherine is grotesque, Mary is smug and preening, Charlotte chooses her social establishment over any kind of integrity of character -- it's a parade of horribles.

Then there's Miss Bingley. Miss Bingley is presented as a genuinely bad person, someone who will destroy her brother's chance of happiness in hopes of bettering her own social position, someone who will undercut her friends, a liar, a hypocrite. Miss Bingley is also portrayed as obviously and embarrassingly wooing Mr. Darcy: she admires his handwriting, she runs down Elizabeth Bennet (and her family) to try to destroy his interest, she throws herself at him. Her failings of character are tied, inextricably, to a situation that makes her an actually embarrassing object of contemplation. And, in all this, she is given no charm to compensate for that, none of the grace or humor that make, say, Mr. Wickham personable to the end.

As much as I like that book, in some respects I feel like it illuminates the narrowness of attractive female roles. And the moral it points out is that if you cannot be sure that you are Elizabeth Bennet, rather than Lydia or Miss Bingley, your safest bet is to be Jane -- unfailingly sweet, perpetually modest, deeply reserved. Otherwise, you'll just be an asshole.

Monday, December 17, 2007

My Childless Self

I don't have kids. I'm about the age at which, if I don't have biological children now, I'm almost certainly never going to have them.

When I think about that, mostly it seems fine. I mean, I like my life; I'm involved with lots of young people in my life as a professor; although I like children I've never had any special desire to have any of my own. And I know that if the desire should strike, there are plenty of non-infant children waiting for adoption.

It's a sign, though, I think, of the power of cultural women-children whatever, that still, I worry.

1) I worry that I'll wake up one morning, desperate to have children, and in despair that I never did. Isn't that what happened to Wendy Wasserstein?

2) I worry that I'm missing out on one of "life's great things."

3) I worry I'm trying too hard to just have a good time with life.

4) And of course, I worry about who's going to take care of me when I get old.

But then I think, 1) is just borrowing trouble. Who knows what's going to happen? 2) and 3) are both vague and hard to think about specifically, especially since I have no emotive inclinations. 4) is not really a good reason -- all alone anyway -- to bring new people into the world.

So you see I'm basically happy but I fret a bit.

Yesterday I finished rereading The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. I was ambivalent about it the first time I read it, and I'm ambivalent about it now. It's so, I don't know, straightforward. There's not enough confusion. The types are all so identifiable, and the good and the bad are so basically good and bad.

What's good about the book is its description of the inner narration of the characters. And there was an inner narration in there that suddenly made me feel much less worried and conflicted about not having kids.

Roz is a middle-aged woman with various desires and disappointments. Roz has two wise-cracking teenage girl twins. Reflecting on her dreams of grandmotherhood, Roz thinks, "What grandchildren? Dream on Roz. The twins are too young and will anyway probably grow up to be stock-car racers or women who go off to live among the gorillas, something fearless and non-progenitive."

"Something fearless and non-progenitive." Ha! That made me feel good. That's my new model for adulthood. Stock-car racer and woman living among the gorillas. Indeed.

Sign me up.

Georgia, Day 2

I am, frankly, a little disappointed in my extended layover in Georgia. Not just because I have not, as yet, learned lessons about life, love, and the true meaning of Christmas as represented by a single father with a horse farm and brought to you by the ABC Family Channel.

No, the fact of the matter is that in these decadent times, being stuck in a strange city with or without your luggage does not actually affect your life as much as you might imagine. People who need to talk to me can talk to me on my cellphone. I have wireless internet access.

I went to IHOP for lunch, then I strolled through the crisp Georgia air to the Family Dollar Store, where I bought socks and underwear and toothpaste. None of this was very difficult.

I guess I could have made this layover mean something. I could have camped out in the airline terminal, which would have had the added bonus of saving money, and it would have been a story then, although people might have asked me why I didn't just go to a hotel.

The most interesting thing was trying to figure out the relationships of the people across from me at the IHOP. The guy was a pastor, one woman was the mother of the two little girls, and the second woman was either the wife of the pastor or some relative of the first woman.

At one point in the meal the pastor asked the mother what she was doing, working or going to school. She said she was going to school to become a registered nurse, and they chatted a little bit about that, and she said she was going on because she had her 3.5, and the pastor said, "Proverbs 3.5?" and she laughed and said no, that was her G.P.A.

Proverbs 3.5, if I'm reading my Gideon's correctly, is "Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Stuck Outside Of Somewhere With The Something Else

There is a lesson to my current location, as there is to all things, which is that if you make too many jokes about Michael Vick you will find yourself stuck in Atlanta without a change of underwear listening to the owner of a Mexican restaurant attached to a Best Western express outrage that Vick is getting two years for killing dogs, which, the guy pointed out, his grandfather used to eat.

Fair warning: there are no general points to be made in this post -- it is all straight ahead personal narration although, as always, my general and always wavering levels of righteous indignation could stand some recalibration.

This morning I set off from Los Angeles. I was inspired by the extreme competence of my cab driver and the ease of my check-in. I was also a little loopy from the fact of getting to LAX by 4:30 a.m. That, my friends, is how I emerged in Atlanta at 1:30 p.m. to discover that my connection to my holiday destination had been canceled.

The lesson to all this may in fact be not to fly to a place on the day that it's being pelted by snow. That could be a lesson too.

I was prepared to roll with that punch, but when the Delta guy told me that because the next day's flights were all booked up that I would have to stay in Atlanta until Tuesday morning I got a little pissed. I believe my precise words were "You're fucking kidding me." If I had known how many opportunities for pissy behavior I would have and take in the space of the afternoon to come, I might have let that one slip on by.

Also we fought about whether the second night of a hotel would fall under the weather rule so that the airline wouldn't pay for it. He got pretty feisty in defending Delta; I suppose there's something inspiring about that quality of loyalty.

Anyway, we found a neighboring town to my destination that might have a flight leaving tonight (Sunday) and he said that he had also saved me a seat on the next day's flight to the neighboring town.

We parted on good terms. That was a mistake. I went and read trashy books and drank trashy drinks. That was not.

About an hour before my flight was supposed to depart (at 8:55 p.m.) it too was canceled. A second round of phoning was required to discover that I didn't have a seat on the Monday flight to the neighboring town. Discussions were had. She promised me meal vouchers, and said she'd see about allowing me to reclaim my checked bag.

Oh hell, you can imagine the rest. The luggage is not being released, the woman at the baggage claim told me with pride -- "Nobody going to Buffalo is getting their luggage back."; I had to get all rowdy to claim my $21 of meal vouchers which I will almost certainly fail to use; the shuttle driver for the motel I booked tried to convince me that I was actually going to another motel, and, on the way out of the parking lot, started praying loudly to god that the van would work again. Endless stupidity. And I swore a lot and told various Delta customer service representatives how shitty I thought their airline was, which I'm sure made everybody's day pleasanter.

And really, the downsides are these: I don't get to see the people I love as quickly as I would like to; I'm not going to smell very good when I get there; my carefully selected Christmas presents (I really want to write a post about present buying one of these days because it is the most enjoyable form of shopping in some ways, although also one of the most wrenching) may be gone forever. On the other hand, I spent a day drinking and reading trash, and feel vaguely virtuous about it. Also I'll watch tv. Also I can spend a day in Atlanta, which I think we are all excited about.

It's cold and crisp here, and my only real regret is that I couldn't properly overhear the owner of the Mexican restaurant when he explained how he would prefer his wife cheat on him, if such a state of affairs had to be. I feel like I should regret being such an jerk-off to the various customer service reps, but really I also kind of hate them.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Aqsa, I Am So Sorry

As they sometimes say over at Jezebel, I've been drinking. So I'm, like, blogging with a reduced filter. Blogging without a net. Whatever.

I'm American but I live in Canada. I live in Toronto. For the past couple of weeks, I've been in the US, and then today I came back home. And of course the news here in Toronto is all about Aqsa Parvez, a 16 year-old girl who lived in a Toronto suburb and was killed by her father Monday night.

No one knows exactly what happened, but all of Aqsa's friends say that she and her family had been fighting ferociously about her clothes. Her family wanted her to wear modest clothes and a hijab; she wanted to wear fun teenagerish Canadian fashions. Her friends said she'd come to school and change in the bathroom then change back before going home.

I know a lot of 16 year-old girls die for a lot of reasons, but this story has hit me very hard. One reason it has is that this is evidently Aqsa's myspace picture:

I love this picture. When I saw this picture in the paper over dinner I could hardly stop myself from crying. I'm not sure why, exactly, except there's something so awesome about this girl in this photo. What a great expression! What a cool coat! What awesome hair! I want to be friends with her.

But she's dead. I'm sorry, Asqa. I'm sorry the world is so fucked up, and I'm sorry death is so final. I look at this picture and I think, well, surely there's just been a mistake. I mean, whatever happened -- we can undo that right? And she can sign up for courses next term?

Sometimes you get the feeling that people think that talking about sex and fashion is, you know, talking about something trivial. But women all over the world are threatened, menaced, and killed over sex and fashion.

And it's not just because, you know, some people are crazy. When people say they don't want their daughters becoming sex objects, they have a point. It's not a crazy demand. But when girls say, Hello, I'm going to do whatever the fuck I want, they have a point too. Because they get to. That's the deal we've all signed up for around here.

I could go on and on, but let's let Aqsa have this post, and this moment, to herself. We can argue about it later.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

For Love Or The Game

is a feature in ESPN the Magazine. In it, they take some athlete, and his wife/girlfriend (pronouns used advisedly, although maybe once a year they switch it up by having the chick be the athlete) and a teammate or competitor, and then they ask the athlete questions and have the girlfriend and teammate try to guess what the answers are.

It's a front of the book kind of thing, designed to be stupid and funny; it is not as funny, in my opinion, as the semi-regular feature "Right Name, Wrong Number" in which they call people with the same name as famous sports figures and ask them the interview questions that you would ask the actual athlete, and the person answering gives straight ahead responses. That makes me laugh a huge amount. Also the "If Larry King Wrote For Us" feature, because that is also pretty goddamn funny.

Anyway, this "For Love Or The Game" thing is supposed to be light-hearted and they always ask the question "Who wears the pants?" to which the girlfriend or wife is apparently contractually obliged to answer either "I do" or "He'll say he does."

I have been reading ESPN the Magazine for about three years now. It comes out every two weeks; I think this feature is in at least every other issue.

Never once in that time has the non-spouse or girlfriend won. Not once.

I'm starting to feel like the whole thing is rigged. I have been reading this feature and the girlfriend's missed like three pretty easy questions in a row and I think we're heading for an upset and then she pulls it out.

It's not, I suppose, totally implausible that dating someone gives you an insight into their character that nobody else can match. But I guess it strikes me as equally plausible that ESPN the Magazine operates on the reasonable assumption that we would don't want to hear that Mike Modano's wife does not actually know him as well as his teammate Darryl Sydor does.

But it's this funny ritualized enactment of what relationships are supposed to be like. The girlfriend says at least one drastically wrong thing, the buddy cracks some jokes, the girlfriend demonstrates her strength by refusing to fall in with any idea that the guy wears the pants, but accepts the concept wholesale, and at the end the power of true love as a basis for knowledge, faulty as it may be, is reaffirmed.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Screening Room Of One's Own

In an old essay from the 70's, Peter Singer argued that most of us should be giving away most of our discretionary income. (He wrote a sort of updated version in The New York Times last year).

Part of the original argument went something like this: If you happened to walk by a child drowning in a dirty shallow pond, you'd rush in to rescue him. You'd rush in to rescue him, even if you were wearing a really expensive suit.

Since physical distance isn't morally significant (more on that later), the same principle shows that, as long as there are people starving somewhere, you should take the money you'd have spent going out to dinner tonight, buying Champagne for New Year's, and getting iPods and Playstations for all your loved ones, and you should send it to famine relief.

Now, there are lots of problems with this argument that I don't really want to get into. Like, for instance, it seems plausible that one reason we twenty-first century Americans have so much wealth to spare is that we have a good economy, which in turn is somehow related to the fact that we spend our discretionary funds going out to eat, buying Champagne, and amassing closets full of obsolete electronic gadgetry. Let's leave that stuff aside for now.

What I do want to get into instead is the distance question.

I think Singer is right that, strictly speaking, physical distance isn't morally significant in and of itself. I don't owe you less or more just because of where you happen to be standing.

His implementation does go too far, I think, in that it seems to me you can still draw a principled distinction between people you ought to care about more and people you're allowed to care about less. It's appropriate to care more about your family and loved ones than about strangers, and it's appropriate to care more about your fellow-citizens and countrymen than about others you share no loyalties with.

But Singer's point is still usefully corrective. Because the way people feel and behave varies much more with simple proximity than seems to make sense. We think about, care about, and help, the people we happen to see, far more than those we don't. Just because we happen to see them.

This would be fine and unexceptional, and maybe even reasonable, except for the fact that it creates an immediate and simple method of removing yourself from the moral calculations of life: just don't see a lot of people. Especially don't see a lot of people who need help.

And that's what Americans do. They move to the suburbs; they drive through the nice parts of town; they build their own in-ground pools and put exercise equipment in the spare room. Enough in that direction and you never see anyone who needs anything.

Convenient! It's like the moral equivalent of driving past the pond so you won't run into any drowning kids. Oops! Didn't see it happen! Wasn't there! So sorry!

I mean, it's fine to carve out your own space. But for all the difficulties with his line of thought, Singer is right to insist that doing so does not let you off any moral hooks. A screening room of one's own is not the answer to the crowds in the movie theater. At least, not a total answer.

One Of My Problems With Watching TV

A while ago, Noko Marie wrote this post on wanting actual narrative resolution. And I feel like that's part of my problem with watching tv.

See, the kind of tv that I would naturally gravitate toward is fictional, involving people and their problems and the resolution thereof. The kind of thing you most often find in series television, I guess. The History Channel, the Discovery Channel: if they're on and other people are around I can watch them and be amused by them. On my own I'm not going to think they have a lot to offer. But the whole thing about series television is that it's geared up not to give you any resolution -- it's not supposed to end, things just keep happening. The characters may get some temporary resolution at the end of one episode, but the next week something's going to happen to screw up that balance.

I hate that. I get so frustrated. I want to know what happens, where it ends, what the final resolution is.

To be honest, I want a kind of resolution that doesn't really come with the real-life territory. I want real-life plus; I want a happy ending. I'm willing to settle for a less-happy ending, but I want it to matter.

So if I watch one episode of a show, I want to watch all the episodes until the final one right then and there. And I don't want that final episode to be just some kind of review of what already happened; I want it to solve things.

Watching sports on tv actually is probably the most satisfying thing going, narratively. Because you know the season will end, and you know somebody will win or lose, and within each game there's a resolution. I think that's right, anyway.

Sports or, I guess, those movies on the Disney Channel, where a kid learns to windsurf and recovers from his parent's divorce all in one hour and a half package.

Friday, December 7, 2007

More Things I Miss About Being Young, But Not Really

I was probably seventeen, and it was Friday night, and we were going to go out to dinner at one of the really good places, which meant that it probably cost like $8 a person, but everybody had other complicated plans that had to be pursued first and it was in the pre-cellphone era so nobody could get in touch with each other and everybody got all pissed off with everybody else, for slowing things down, or for being impatient, or something, so then we weren't going to go, and in that simmering stew of tension I decided that I hated everybody and everything and I went storming off and took the last BART of the night to Fremont, which was the end of the line, and I had this idea that I would go walking moodily along the streets of Fremont and never trust anybody again, but then I wound up calling my friends from Denny's and we talked it all over on the phone, and we made up and our friendship was better and stronger for it but I was still stuck in Fremont until 5 a.m. and I read the East Bay Express at the station and learned that this Brazilian martial art called capoeira was all the rage.

So this is kind of related to this post, and particularly to Noko Marie's comment on it. Because I remember those years, from my late teens to maybe twenty three or so, as the glory years of fighting.

You get older, and you only fight with people that really are your near ones and dear ones. And mostly you try not to fight with them. I mean, that's not really true, but nowadays I mostly think of fighting as something to avoid. I know how much of a jerk I'm capable of being, past experience has taught me that in retrospect I will think I was at least somewhat in the wrong in a situation, and, last but not least, you realize you're not going to change anything by going off to Fremont for the night.

But I kind of miss that mood. You get upset, part of the reason you're upset is things other people are doing, and so you really need to explain to them how they are upsetting you. And you do, and they explain to you what you've done to exacerbate the situation, and you see that as deeply unfair and totally harshly critical. And then you repeat it. Hopefully, you both draw in allies.

I think I miss it because it seems, in retrospect, both so light-hearted and serious. Serious because, while the direct causes we fought about were mostly mind-boggling stupid (an epic and drawn out feud over the loss of some rubber duckies being the best example thereof) we were fighting about real things, about how much you can expect from other people, about where the boundaries are. Light-hearted, really, only in retrospect, but light-hearted because you have to have an inordinate trust in the world around you to think that you can scream and yell and storm out and expect to be able to go out to dinner the next night.

I don't know. There are a couple of pretty good friends from that period that I actually wound up losing in fights. It changed the mood of it all. But it's hard to say. Other people that I fought with just as bitterly are still my friends. Some people that I never dreamed of fighting with aren't.

I don't actually miss the fights. I do miss the idealism, though, the belief that the air could be cleared and everything transformed if we just talked at each other long enough. Also, I still feel like I would be cooler now if I had jumped on the capoeira bandwagon back then.

Girls, Fashion, and Feminism

A lot of parents these days seem, well, maybe a little worried about their daughters obsessions. I've been noticing this among my friends for some time, and then then today a blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education's new "Brainstorm" feature has a short piece on doll-fascination and its discontents.

She starts with a pretty familiar kind of story. Good feminist that she is, she dresses her daughter in overalls and buys her toy trucks. Unfortunately, the daughter starts demanding Barbies almost as soon as she can talk. Mom frets.

I wasn't really into dolls when I was a kid but I was way way into clothes and fashion. Many of my earliest memories are of clothes, and the feelings they inspired. For most of my childhood one of my main goals in life was "Look like Cher." That is, look like Cher as she was in her awesome variety show: elegant gown at 7, hilarious leopard print cat suit at 7:15, hip hugger pants at 7:30. This still strikes me as a reasonable life goal.

As a kid, I didn't see anything non-feminist about this, and I still don't. Sure, the goals of fashion sometimes conflict with other goals. Of course. You might not be able to wear your favorite lace petticoat to the office; you may want to purchase some sneakers for playing sports; you may even decide that to concentrate on your work you have to wear some sensible shoes.

But lots of life goals conflict, and any life is full of compromises. Is there anything inherent in caring about adornment that makes it a dumb thing to care about? As I argued before, no. The world would be a better place of more people got a more of their life's pleasure from clothing, and less of their life's pleasure from expensive electronics, feeling superior to others, engaging in violent sports, bossing other people around, and basically acting like fucking va-jay-jays.

The "Brainstorm" blogger tries to draw this connection: "While boys are learning to run the world by manipulating the control module on PlayStation 3, girls are learning to be second best by endlessly brushing their dolls’ hair."

This doesn't strike me as all that convincing. Everyone says kids learn lots of stuff with just ordinary playing, and usually girls playing with dolls are talking, imagining, and even maybe reflecting on themselves. It's a quiet contemplative activity.

You might have a point if you were to say, it's a problem if girls spend too much time thinking only about boys. Maybe. But everyone says little girls playing with dolls aren't thinking about boys at all.

In fact, in a paradigmatic hand-wringing piece on this issue last year, Peggy Orenstein wrote in The Times about girls' recent obession with princesses. One interesting thing she noted is that princess play never involves a prince. Or a king. Or a queen, even. Really, being a princess is its own thing.

I don't have kids so I can't say for sure. But, bracketing for the moment the Barbie body-image issues, it seems to me wanting to be cool, pretty, and have a magic wand is not weird in the wanting department and isn't really related to not wanting to live as a feminist.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

It's A Tribute To Dear Abby, As Well As A Tribute To Somebody Else

Confidential to N.M. in Western NY:

Happy Birthday! You're a hero!

It's Hard, Living With Other People

I don't mean living with other people as in having, say roommates, because I don't and I won't and never again, despite the fact that I was mostly pretty lucky in my roommate choices (although the last roommate I ever had had hair all the way down to her ass and, apparently, no idea that it was a good idea to clear the shower drain -- but see this is why I don't have roommates, because I'm telling that story as if she is a jerk, but, in fact, when I asked her to start taking her hair out of the drain she was super nice and apologetic about it).

I mean existing in the world with other people. Particularly on my mind is the whole apartment building living phenomenon. On my mind in part because Miss Manners once again is taking on the most urgent issues of our time with a column in which she advises someone who doesn't know what the protocol is for opening the locked door to a complex when someone else is standing right behind you. Do you allow them to follow you? Do you attempt to slam the door in their face?

Miss Manners, with her usual common sense, advises not allowing other people to pass through, but instead making the face indicating regret at doing so and the sad necessity of following the rules (the apartment complex in question has a sign that asks residents not to allow strangers in). This is probably sound advice; I am too much of a moral coward to follow it. I would spend the next two hours worrying that the person following me hates me for not letting them in.

Mostly my problem in sharing space with other people is a sense that I don't know what their expectations are. I would be happy (more or less) to do the right thing, I just don't know what that is. Take the communal laundry room, usually with a limited number of washing machines. I come down to do my wash, and discover that all the machines are full, although all of them have already run their course. Do you move somebody else's laundry to the dryer? Do you pile it, damp, atop the washing machine? Do you sneak away, and come back later and hope they've picked it up?

If it were my laundry sitting their in the washing machines, I would hope that other people would feel gleeful and confident in moving it somewhere. I do not want to have to time my laundry to the minute, which I would feel obliged to do if laundry could not be moved out of the way. But I have friends who have expressed discomfort with the idea of strangers pawing through their laundry.

This is a little bit of a made-up dilemma, because the obvious answer is that I support moving the laundry to the dryer -- I am not really so eager to get along with my neighbors that I'll skulk around the laundry room until they voluntarily decide to move their wash. But what's real in it is that I feel a vague sense of unease as I'm doing so, a fear that somebody will come in as I am putting a heaping armful of their underwear into the dryer, and that their wrath will be terrible.

Other things: sometimes I listen to music late at night or early in the morning. I don't think my neighbors can hear, but sometimes I worry that they can, that it's too loud. How friendly to be going through the building. Whether it's bad when I let the front door slam.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that we so often think of living with other people as hard because of actual conflicts, straight up differences of opinion and/or bad behavior. But sometimes living with other people is hard because of the constant low level desire to avoid situations where potential conflicts become real.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

TV, Cars, and Pharmaceuticals

"Magic Pills" by Flickr user e-magic. Creative Commons licensed.

My early 21st century North American life is atypical in at least two ways. I don't have a car and I don't have a TV.

I do have a driver's license. And for various reasons, lately I've been doing some driving. Also, for other various reasons, I spent a lot of time last weekend watching TV. You put these two together you get a real different feeling about the world you live in.

First, when did TV become a distribution system for mood-altering drugs? If you're not used to them, those ads are too much. Scene one: a serious looking woman tries to look hopeful, but just can't manage it. Scene two: a man wants to play with his children, is just too discouraged. Scene three: someone stares off into space. Conclusion: you, too, need more anti-depressants in your life. Talk to your doctor.

Repeat for sleeplessness, heartburn, allergies, and high cholesterol.

But remember. Side effects may include constipation, liver damage, headaches, nausea. "If you experience muscle pain, tell your doctor immediately. Muscle pain is rare but can indicate a serious and dangerous medical problem."

In between the commercials you get a few glimpses of aspirational america on the actual shows. Skinny girls, buff guys, cute youngsters, and comic hipsters duke it out for your viewing pleasure; all are teflon coated and unscratchable. Everyone feels they Must Win. Everything.

I watched a funny show called Dog Eat Dog that consists of funny challenges and voting and all that crap and it came down to these two guys and they were like, "I'm still in the game. I'm a player. It's not over yet. It's not talking that matters, it's action!" And they were, like, totally for real!

Anyway, a few hours of this, I figured, and you're gonna need some anti-depressants.

Then, of course, driving, my god. It's a madhouse out there.

After my little foray I found myself thinking, if I were driving home in rush hour and then watching a couple of hours of regular programming, on a regular basis, I'd be hitting the smack, never mind a little Prozac/Ambien/Xanax cocktail. Jeez.

Gives me a new appreciation for my fellow citizens. Yo! Y'all are pretty tough out there!

I guess my life is atypical in three ways, since I don't take any of these medications. I did once get yelled at by a doctor for drinking too much wine, but now I figure, hey, if you want to talk side-effects, I think I'm doing OK, thanks.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Misery Is Normal. They Should Write It In The Sky.

I was reading the paper version of The NY Times last Sunday, and they have a new little feature where they put in a couple of reader comments on the editorial page. Some of these comments were about an opinion piece I hadn't read by Judith Warner, "Helicopter Parenting Turns Deadly."

Warner's discussing the unbelievable series of events that happened recently when some parents of a former friend of a 13 year-old pretended to be a Cute Guy on Myspace. The "Cute Guy" made like he liked this 13 year-old, then turned on her suddenly, and the 13-year old killed herself. Like everyone else, I was like, "Parents did this? Adults??"

Warner argues that the main thing going on here is "parents too involved in kids' lives." One of the commenters -- one who was quoted in the paper Times -- said something I thought was kind of astute, that parents these days, having been through therapy, and having talked with one another about how painful it is to grow up, simply can't bear to put their kids through the same experiences.

Indeed, the parents in this case were getting revenge on behalf of their own daughter, who they thought was mistreated by the 13 year-old girl -- who had sort of stopped being friends with her or something.

Insane, but you can see how this happens. We've created this crazy optimistic cultural space these days: You can be anything you want! Achieve anything you want! You're special and great! Everything is possible and you are totally free.

If that's the basic idea you're operating with, then watching your kid suffer from failure and loneliness is going to be a killer.

Thinking about this reminded me of the Times story two weeks ago, about how Sesame Street DVDs of old shows are coming with a warning: "These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child."

Yep. Oscar was grouchy; Bert was mildly neurotic and maybe had a little OCD. No one believed Big Bird when he described seeing the Snuffleupagus. Cookie Monster was a one-dimensional addict. And on "Monsterpiece Theater" Alistair Cookie smokes a pipe and then eats it.

But as Virginia Heffernan says in the Times, there was something awesome about all these screwy things.

"People on 'Sesame Street,'" she writes, "had limited possibilities and fixed identities, and (the best part) you weren’t expected to change much. The harshness of existence was a given, and no one was proposing that numbers and letters would lead you 'out' of your inner city to Elysian suburbs. Instead, 'Sesame Street' suggested that learning might merely make our days more bearable, more interesting, funnier. It encouraged us, above all, to be nice to our neighbors and to cultivate the safer pleasures that take the edge off — taking baths, eating cookies, reading. Don’t tell the kids."

Man, reading that makes the 70's seem so far away.

I'm just the right age to have encountered these early episodes as they were rolling off the rack. And it's impossible to really look back, but I remember just this feeling watching Sesame Street. Oh, yeah, everyone has the same problems. They get bored. Antsy. Mad at each other. Sometimes like Ernie and Bert they live in basement apartments.

Two things on Sesame Street upset me a lot when I was little. One was the guy with the cakes falling down the stairs after the counting sequences. I don't really remember it but my mom tells me I used to cry and she had to change the channel. Eventually I understood it was faked.

The other was a long sort of video just showing a single drop of water going down a plant stem while some quiet, slow, guitar music played. That music made me feel so depressed and sorrowful. I can still hear it in my minds' ear, and it still makes me feel that way. When that came on I was a little older and I changed the channel myself. That one I never grew out of.

Anyway, it was all very reassuring. There's a great comic by the artist and author Lynda Barry about feeling shitty about her teenage love life, and only realizing later that everyone's teenage love life feels shitty. She says something like, "They should write it in the sky, so everyone would know, and wouldn't feel so bad."

Look at that great picture of Ernie and Bert! If this isn't two imperfect people enjoying some of the simpler pleasures in life, I don't know what is.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

An Album Person In A Shuffle World

For an early birthday present I got an iPod Touch. I was a little nervous, because I had very high expectations of the iPod Touch. But I needn't have worried: it's everything I had dreamed of and more, in the pleasure department.

One area the iPod Touch is a little not-perfect is: you don't really want to bring it to the gym. I mean, the entire front is made of glass. And for some perverse reason all the good cases want to leave the glass "accessible" - which I understand, since it's a touch screen, but at the same time, it's glass. You'd like to have the option of covering it up.

I eventually found this so puzzling, I decided to buy another iPod just for the gym: an iPod Shuffle. Cheap, tiny, clips on your shirt. The woman at the Apple Store said if you accidentally put it in the washing machine it will probably be fine when it dries out. At first I was like, "put it in the washing machine"? but after I used it I understood. It's clipped onto your clothes. You might forget.

Anyway, great solution. The only thing is, the iPod Shuffle is designed to, you know, shuffle. It has randomness built in at several stages. You don't have to use it that way, but that's its basic idea.

And, you know, I think before I bought this item, I had never actually shuffled. Anything. I started listening to music when the album was the basic unit, and I fell hard for that approach, and that's how I listen to music.

I have all the same old tired opinions as other people about the greatness of albums:

1) If you listen linearly, the songs you end up liking best are not the songs you end up liking first. That's cool.

2) You get the song-order emblazoned on your mind, so you have certain pleasures of anticipation and remembrance along with your pleasure of now.

3) Maybe you get some sense of the album as a concept -- though this one has never weighed big with me.

Supporting these well-worn points is new research showing that you become more attached to things you have no options about. Some marketers discovered that if you weren't allowed to return something, you were much more satisfied with it than if you were allowed to return it.

This last I think partly explains my long-term preference for TV over video, for radio in general, for music that just comes at you (as Captain C and I were discussing earlier). Thinking it over, though, I realized that in some ways the shuffle gives you that: it gives you an order you can't refuse. I mean, you can click past but you have to encounter the song.

Good, right? Except it isn't, really. I then realized that another part of the charm of the album, the TV, the radio, is the sense of its simply being that way, and being encountered by you. I love the feeling with the radio that this is what's on. Everyone who is tuned in is encountering it the same way. You're having the same experience as a bunch of strangers. At the same time.

It's why it's so much more fun to do today's crossword puzzle than just any crossword puzzle. It's why TV is fun, why flipping channels is fun. Who would flip prerecorded video?

This is an essential part of album listening. Everyone who listens to an album has the same anticipatory pleasures, the same mood shifts as the song goes from one to another. And it's why I don't like to shuffle.

It's OK. You can just load up the Shuffle with songs in order, and listen to them that way. Which is what I'm doing. But is this the aesthetic equivalent of dinosaur behavior?

In trying to find a good case for my iPod Touch, I googled, and I came across this:
No sooner do we get word that some Apple Stores have the iPod Touch in stock do we find some unboxing pictures (via our sister blog, Engadget). The pictures aren't the best but it will give you a good idea of what comes in the box (here's a hint: other than the iPod, not much. Am I the only one that misses the days when you got lots of stuff with your iPod? I feel like an old man, 'In my day iPods came with docks! And they had a FireWire port! And they were Mac only! You kids with your iPods and your touching.').

"You kids with your iPods and your touching!" That cracked me up.