Humor

The Democratic Pleasures of the NYC Health Department Rating System

This piece was first published in 2013. 

 

There is this whiskey bar around the corner from where we live. They sell oysters, too.  It’s the kind of place that mines a very specific vibe and mines it very well. Picture floor-to-ceiling windowed façades separated by tastefully stained strips of dark wood. Imagine low wisps of orange light ensconced in vaguely European fixtures—gracefully set above white candles in cute little vintage crystal holders—to create the kind of mystic glow that makes anybody’s face look both mysterious and more appealing. Beneath the 150-year-old Massachusetts barnwood beams, picture refugees priced out from more expensive zipcodes by their socioeconomic betters. Picture upwardly mobile hipsters. Picture white people.

My wife and I pass it every day on the way home from the C train after work. We imagine the place filling as the evening comes down and the conversations, the cigarettes, the talk of young creative people who have been liberated from fashioning things with their hands to better produce ideas with their minds. What wit! What interesting anecdotes!  Pour another drink! Try the Blue Label! We can hear their voices through the glass, blitzed with all the color and carefree whimsy of liberal arts graduates whose friendships are mostly based on the lubricating effects of alcohol. We marvel at the insouciance of those who do not have to worry about the children because they have been on birth control for the past twenty years, or else the Caribbean nanny is in tonight. I’ve just got a promotion! Another round on me!

If you detect a trace of jealousy, reader, I do not deny it. Another’s success, as terrible as it is to say, always invites dark thoughts in the secret places of the heart. Witnessing the enjoyment of something that one cannot have is a cruel burden to endure. It’s the reason I still feel the urge to knock lollipops and ice cream cones out of the hands of passing children on the street. On occasion, let it be said, I have indulged those urges. Better that none should have if I should do without. So goes the resentful logic of the heart.

It is true: I cannot afford whiskey.

But do not think me grotesque in my jealousy, reader. My wife tells me that envying the rich is one of the few remaining pleasures left to the poor. Do not take it from us.

And indeed, one of our paramount consolations came as of July 28, 2010, a date to kindle the democratic impulses lodged in the cockles of every equitable New Yorker, no matter how cynical or browbeaten. For debuting this day was the Health Department’s infamous A-B-C restaurant grading system, which cast a scarlet letter upon those unfortunate eateries whose stainless-steel sheen in front belied the dissipation behind the counter. Each letter grade, no matter how offending, must be placed prominently on the entrance to the establishment. Better still, the public penny paid for a searchable online database of all restaurants in the city, with detailed explanations for each grade given. It was like a beautiful dream: an open society, with transparent public information made readily available, empowering its citizens to be the rational economic actors the Republican party believes we all can be, and, as God intended, allowing the free market to determine the public’s standards of acceptable queasiness.

Cut to my wife and I, late September of the same year, making the usual tired trek home from work. More tired than usual, actually, as it had been pouring steadily all day—one of those days when the tops of the buildings are obscured in grey infinity. We had stopped under an awning to shake the flecks of water from our umbrellas when my wife gasped at something behind me and clawed at my shoulder. It was no Damascus moment, to be sure, but there were suddenly parting clouds, and rainclouds breaking into a hundred shafts of light, and crepuscular rays like the fingers of God through the dome of St. Peter’s. Turning around, with the skies upending and the light falling out and over everything, I saw the utilitarian font of the Health Department glowing like an icon.

The whiskey bar got a B.

The system was still so new that we didn’t know what it meant. But there was a sense of something momentous happening, an understanding before understanding, as though perhaps for once cosmic justice was to replace cosmic disappointment. We removed our shoes. We rushed home.

With surgical glee we dissected the account given on the website. The descriptions were frustratingly uniform, the result of an inspector punching in the code for a standardized comment, but gradually we came to see them as all the more tantalizing for what the bureaucracy of it did not say. There were limitless possibilities, entire worlds, in what was left unspoken.

Take, for example, the first violation: “Evidence of mice or live mice present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas.” You could drive a truck through the gaping holes of ambiguity in that sentence. The inclusion of ‘live mice’ alone opens up the horrific possibility of the physical presence of rodents at the time of inspection, perhaps tumbling playfully in the flour or skittering among the pots, so unconstrained that even a jittery staff couldn’t keep them out of sight for the duration of an inspection. And think about ‘evidence of mice’—a coy phrase including, presumably, everything from the droppings of the animals to teeth marks to chewed holes in dry goods, to—God help us—the severed limbs of the creatures, dismembered accidentally in the closing of a door or a particularly vicious fight. Which raises the question—why are dead mice not even mentioned as a possibility? Is there another code altogether for dead mice? Or is a subtle philosophical point here emphasized by the Health Department, that a mouse may be simultaneously dead or alive, until the moment it is observed, like Schrödinger’s cat?

And consider that ‘and/or.’ A phrase as demanding of greater explanation as there ever was. Are they saying that mice—evidence or otherwise—were simply in the food areas, milling about underfoot? Or merely confined to the bathroom, an area more rigidly non-food than any other unless, perhaps, you are a dung beetle? Food or non-food areas—which is it? I think I am not alone in the presumption that a healthy amount of foot traffic depends on the careful resolution of this question. But there is a third possibility, too, like a spectre arising in the mind. There is the genuine and sobering possibility that perhaps ‘food’ is meant to remain on its own, decoupled from its adjectival pairing with ‘areas.’  Yes, live mice are in the food. Or else ‘evidence of mice’—attach whatever meaning you will—has made its way onto the serving plate itself, to be dished up to an unwitting public blissful in its ignorance.

Retaining all the ambiguity of the first while introducing fresh horrors, the second violation reads thusly: “Evidence of flying insects or live flying insects present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas.” Again with the ‘evidences’ and the unfortunate conjunctives! But now imagine—flying insects! My God! Gnats I can forgive, some mosquitoes, even a moth or two fluttering against a light bulb at night—but what are we talking here? An infestation of grasshoppers? Flies? Flying—gasp!—cockroaches?  And surely ‘evidence’ in this case is more mentally redolent than mere mice droppings. What does it mean? Smashed bugs, limbs akimbo, mashed onto counters? The proverbial smoking gun of a hastily stashed and gummy flyswatter? Eggs, like grains of rice, deposited into foodstuffs or onto the inner lip of crockery?

But the coup de grâce of the inspection is the third violation: “Facility not vermin proof.  Harborage or conditions conducive to vermin exist.” Vermin? Can it be…? Google tells me that vermin can include all types of small objectionable animals that are destructive or injurious to health—but, in its most common usage, the term refers specifically to rats. Rats! So it’s far worse than anyone feared. Once the purvey of subway tracks and sewers, the noxious conditions of eating and drinking establishments are luring the large rodents of New York City into their already-tiny acreages. There are rats in the whiskey bar.  This is several orders of magnitude beyond mere mice and arthropods. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Furthermore, what does ‘harborage’ mean? And where have you heard—or will ever hear again—that phrase in the 21st century? But more to the point, what does ‘harborage’ really tell us, besides the evident use of an outdated thesaurus within the Health Department?

The implication is that someone at the whiskey bar is actively promoting the interests of the rat population. Yes, the Health Department is trying to tell me that my local whiskey bar harbors rats, like they were the members of some kind of traitorous faction.  Someone in that establishment is waging an active campaign against his or her own species in preference for an alternative vision of reality, one which elevates the nonhuman to a place of special, even prime, importance. The conditions for some kind of rat army, an explosion of rodent society, are being nourished just around the corner.  Far worse than a union rat, or even a Communist, we have a Rattus norvegicus sympathizer in our midst.

I know. I was shocked too. What possible motivation could the proprietor have? But, then, ideology has never needed reasons, has it? The illusions of a fevered mind are enough. The vain reaching for transcendence furnished, if only temporarily, by the seductions of a totalizing narrative. The feeling of being part of something greater.

And all this attached to that single letter B at the whiskey bar we pass every day.

Imagine our glee. My wife and I held each other and made love vigorously. There is justice in the universe, after all! With shivers, we whispered to each other in the filtered light beneath the sheets of the bed. All those Junior Manhattanites—those monstrously poor sufferers of the peculiar cognitive dissonance that ensnares persons desperately proud to have moved to Brooklyn three years ago but who would move to SoHo if they could afford it—frequenting a place of infestation! Rat tails disappearing like slurped spaghetti into the bloated, corpuscular lips of the rich! Insane laughter over dram after dram of exorbitant spirits—joy so refined it is oblivious to mundane matters like floating rat turds! We made love again.

I say: do not think me jealous, reader. For the democratizing effects of the Health Department make us all equal before those vaunted letter grades. It is the great leveler, whereby even the very poor may lord it over the very moneyed. Taking in food— the voluntary insertion of foreign objects inside your body to be made part of your very flesh—is intimate in a way that few things are. Dysfunction there breeds dysfunction everywhere. Every valley high and every mountain low, indeed.

And so, when I close my eyes to sleep, and fancy myself able to hear the clinking of the glasses and the hearty cheers of the clean and well-dressed upper classes around the corner, I see an apocalyptic vision firing the inside of my eyelids. For I know a day is coming, and that right soon. My wife and I will rise late one night, past midnight. We will don our Sunday best. I will put one leg on at a time with great care into the void of my trousers. She will help me part my hair crisply so no strand is out of place. I will tie a bow into her fresh curls and zip her flowered dress. Our shoes, polished black as mica, will be new. We will have a moment together in silence before the mirror. And then we will leave.

The whiskey bar will be bright with its bacchanal festivities. No one will see us coming. Streaming in together at full speed, quick as thieves in the night, we will spread our hands to heaven with a shout. They will see our faces, radiant, beatific, like that of St. Stephen’s, and they will be afraid. We will relish their fear. Their surprise will invigorate us. Our fingers will splay and arch. And with one voice we will thunder to shake the foundations of the earth:

“Rats! Rats! All this time and you’ve been eating rats!”

Where We Left the Octopus

What particularly struck us, as we scanned the Lonely Planet travel guide for things to do in Croatia, was the fact that you may ask the monk precisely one question, to which he will answer or not answer; or respond to with a question; or not respond at all.

It should be said right off the bat that Sviječ had gained some small notoriety over the years for his exploits. (And, oddly enough, for a well-received chapbook of poetry in the Croatian press, which was subsequently translated into English by the National Geographic writer and ethnic Croat Paul Kvinta, and furthermore reviewed favorably in The New Yorker.)  Enough notoriety, that is, to earn him a mention in what is surely the quirkiest entry in the Croatian Lonely Planet. His epigrammatic responses and obscure mystic replies—as well as his habit of keeping court and charging high prices for visitations—have led many to wonder if he is not part-and-parcel a practitioner of some elaborate performance art. Perhaps a kind of strange Croatian Catholic satirist thumbing his nose at the West’s perennial obsession with amorphous spirituality and sages-on-mountaintops and making a mockery of our hunger for long beards and Zen-like simplicity, our craving for pronouncements as austere and unfathomable as the open sky of Idaho. (If not an out-and-out fraudster.)  Either way, the monastery seems not to care, reaping the benefit to the tune of 1.7 million kuna a year.  And either way—or rather, because the possibility of either way existed—we knew we had to see him.

“Besides, what else are we going to do?” my wife said to me, clipping her nails straight onto the hotel room floor in Split.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Swim? Eat? Whatever it is tourists do.”

“Stop dragging your feet,” she told me. “This man is a spectacle from the looks of it. We’ve been married three years. We’re not going to learn anything new sitting around in a hotel room.”

It was two o’clock. We were both still in our underwear. I watched the nails falling.

“Think about it,” she said, looking at me.

I watched her in her underwear clipping her nails.

“You’re right,” I said.

So we were on a journey to see a monk, for reasons which were altogether ambiguous, even to ourselves.

 

 

In the midst of his linen robes, Sviječ sits from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (excluding holidays, both religious and bank), praying for the health of the world. For 125 kuna, the guidebook said, he may be persuaded to defer this religious duty and receive visitors bearing tendered bills in an obscure antechamber in the farthest left-hand corner of the monastery grounds. Religion being what it is in a continent of ever-emptying churches, few guests may be presumed to arrive seeking specifically Christian instruction. And yet they stream to him anyway—creedless and irreligious, dabbed in sunscreen and smelling of lavender, the oil of which may be purchased at the many roadside stands flecking the dusty switchbacks of the island.

“A cynic,” my wife said with some satisfaction. “A cancer!”

“No better than a war profiteer,” I said, trying to catch the spirit.  “A feaster upon flesh!”

But because motives are difficult to judge from afar, we paid the ferry fee to see for ourselves.

 

 

We took the morning crossing with glee, resounding like a bell—the sea breeze and salt spray, catamarans and suntans, every European brow and ancient gull-galled lighthouse striking our city-parched souls with the force of bronze clappers. The slough of a troubled Continent was spat upon the decks with us—Spanish youths, no doubt unemployed, blazoned in red and yellow; a clutch of olive Greeks, eyes askance and mistrusting; untroubled Italians, immediately shirtless and well oiled; Germans, so pristine they seemed indifferent to anything at all—and, to one side, a ring of hip Londoners clung also to the railings, fleeing the Games, unsure of where they belonged but intoxicated nonetheless. Despite a certain smell of destruction lingering stubbornly like ash from distant fires, we judged the collective mood to be upbeat, even celebratory. The detritus made us giddy, awash in crooked possibilities. We felt open to every winding eventuality like the passing sails on the starboard side. Damn the euro! More sun! Split the very ocean in half around our bow!

Only the Greeks were suspicious enough of the free bottles of water distributed by the crew—“for the heat wave,” they said—to refuse them.

We disembarked on the island of Hvar, an ancient fixture of dolomite and limestone bearing the travails of humanity for well over five thousand years, adhered to the mainland under a mile of water in the depths of the Adriatic Sea.  By hired taxi, we made our way to the village of Sućuraj, as picturesque a place as can be imagined (according to the guidebook), where the marina disgorges fishing boats every morning and welcomes them back every evening; and the hills, lined with the grasping hands of fig and olive, encircle homes and streets hewn from white stone millennia ago; and the church bells mark the hours of the day as punctually as the tinkling of wine glasses and espresso saucers.

“To the monastery?” the driver asked automatically in broken English.

“To the monastery,” we said.

In the midst of Sućuraj the Franciscan monastery looms, the oldest building in a town of old buildings, and in the midst of the monastery we paid our 250 kuna to see the monk named Sviječ, still feeling pretty ambiguous about the whole thing.

 

 

My wife and I went to him in his chamber on a Monday, noting the incense that clouded our vision, the many mystic candles burning, the excruciating two-hour wait in a line sandwiched between a woman wearing parachute pants from Bali and a shirtless man with dreadlocks wearing a string of Buddhist prayer beads slung wide around his neck.

The woman was excited, trying to make eye contact with everyone around her in an obvious ploy to initiate conversation. We observed this seconds too late.

“The aura of this place is good. Can you feel it?” She smiled broadly, revealing a row of clean, well-kept teeth. There was a smudge of North Carolina clay in the ends of her sentences.

“No,” we replied, “but we are open to feeling it.”

“Oh good!” she said, clapping her hands. “Openness is good, you know. Without openness we are like blind eyes. The divine passes us right by.” She made a little whooshing noise as she waved her hands.

“We’re from New York,” we said.

“Oh, I love New York,” she said, not a drop of makeup disguising her face. “There’s so much there. To do and see. To experience.”

“That’s what we’re trying to have,” my wife said conspiratorially. “An experience.”

“It’s our third anniversary,” I said.

“Love!  Just another name for God, you know. For each other. Sometimes I feel that one word could swallow me whole.” She closed her eyes, apparently imagining her own cannibalization. “Infinite bliss, all the way down.”

We shifted our feet. “That’s very beautiful.”

Eyes still closed, she said, “Thank you.”

And then, upon opening her eyes, “I’m Janet.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Janet.”

Her voice intensified. “You know, don’t you think it’s funny that we met like this? In a line? In Croatia? You probably don’t even know your neighbors back home, in New York. All those cold apartments and empty stairwells. Everybody rushing around. Nobody ever looking at anybody else except to judge them. And yet here we are, chatting it up, perfect strangers! And don’t you just feel it? The divine in me opening to the divine in you. And we’re finding ourselves when we do it—our true selves—saying yes to each other, yes to you, yes to me, yes—” She cast her outward palm in an arc before her face “—to all of this.  That’s the important thing—to keep saying yes.”

“Keep saying yes,” my wife repeated, looking at me sidelong. “I like that.”

“It sounds like you’ve got things figured out,” I said.

“Oh goodness no!” she laughed. “It’s the journey. You never arrive, not really. I’m trying to find Him—Her, It—wherever He—She, It—can be found. Further up and further in, as they say! Divinity’s under every rock, every tree. I am trying to learn, to slowly learn, that every place is holy ground.”

She closed her eyes again. The dreadlocked man, silent, nodded in agreement behind us.

“Sviječ,” she said at last, “has it. The aura. The divine finger.”

“We read about him in the Lonely Planet,” we said, sheepishly.

“Mysterious ways,” Janet said, and loosened the bandanna that held up her hair.

 

 

At last my wife and I were ushered in. The chamber was appropriately dark, sunlight penetrating the gloom from only one oval window, just above the door, so the shaft made a little solitary circle of light on the ground. We stood in the light and gazed through geological layers of burning myrrh, stilled by the golden eyes of a dozen joss sticks burning before an icon of Christ on the cross. With his back to us, kneeling before the icon, a monk in robes was chanting a low, sad song. Five words, each one ascending in tone, then repeated. The breath of his lungs caused a trio of candles to flicker on the altar before him. And behind this monk, seated in the center of the room where the darkness was most pervasive, Sviječ gestured to us through the haze.

He was younger than we expected, a little bloated, with a stark widow’s peak visible even from across the chamber as his defining feature. His hair was cut close, just a touch longer than his Buddhist counterparts. Nothing could be read on his face except pleasant self-forgetfulness, like a child at play alone and unwatched in the house of his birth.

We had the feeling of being incidental and petty and we suddenly regretted our coming, but he beckoned to us anyway.

Engleski?” he asked, once we were close.

“Yes. Please.”

His English was marble-mouthed, his syllables lead-soled in Slavic shoes. “Are you open to hearing the word of God?”

“We are open to many things,” my wife said.

“It’s our anniversary,” I said.

Sviječ nodded, but it was a practiced nod, too solemn, too world-weary. We noticed the stitches and hems of his robe, how they seemed artificially aged, how they seemed a little too worn, like the costumes in a movie. And his rings! Where does a monk get gold rings?

But something about his eyes made us stop just short of allowing ourselves the vulgar pleasure of clandestine mockery.

“And are you open to the holy presence in every manifestation, even the ones you do not expect?”

“I don’t know what that means,” I said.

“We’re not even sure why we came here,” my wife said.

He bowed his head a little, as though in respect and deference, but to what we could not discern. We stood there feeling uncomfortable and a little thick-headed from the incense and unable to decide if he could be written off or not. Seeing him, we realized, clarified nothing. If anything, it made things more confusing.

“We should go,” my wife whispered to me as discreetly as possible.

“This was a terrible idea,” I hissed between smiles at Sviječ.

“We should go,” she repeated, her voice a little bit higher.

Sviječ shifted his robes in his chair. “And what about your question for me?” he said, indulging his mouth in a small upward twitch. “Don’t you have a question for me?”

My wife and I looked at each other.

“Not really, no,” she said miserably.

He frowned.

“But you say you are open to hearing the word of God?”

“We are open to many things,” I repeated. “We don’t like to limit our possibilities.”

“For example,” my wife continued, “we are open to the possibility that you could be who you say you are. That you are a saint.” We exchanged a glance, she sighed, and I knew she was taking the plunge. She was stubborn and brave and I loved her for that. I also hated her for that.

She was looking him in the eye.  “Mostly we are open to the possibility that you are a charlatan.”

Sviječ frowned.

“It’s our anniversary,” I said again, stupidly, trying to cover her indiscretion.

And then, because it was true: “We have lost touch with each other.”

And then, because once you start telling the truth it’s hard to stop: “We are trying to find ourselves and we’re not doing a very good job of it.”

The expression on my wife’s face was hard to read. I thought for a moment she hadn’t heard what I said, but the slight opening of her eyes and a sudden wetness there betrayed her. A moment. The breath of a moment. Then she turned back to the monk.

“But mostly we are open to the possibility that you are a charlatan,” she said.

He looked at us a long time. Any emotion at all was difficult to register. His eyes remained placid. At first we thought he was angry in that place beyond anger, where the blood chills to a perfect hatred. It was true that in the cloying perfume something had changed. But it wasn’t anger, we realized. A new regard was in his eyes, as though seeing a familiar face suddenly materialize in an unfamiliar crowd. There was something appraising in the gaze, a sense of being weighed upon the scales. The other monk repeated his five rising tones innumerable times in the interval. No one was saying anything at all.

At last Sviječ held up one finger.

“You have never killed before,” he said, a statement of fact. “Bring me the corpse of an octopus. One you have killed with your own hands. You will find yourself in this act of bloodshed.”

And he motioned us out the door.

 

 

Later, in the monastery courtyard, we laughed off his bizarre imperative.

“A charlatan,” my wife said. “And not even a very good one.”

“Too heavy,” I said, “for your average reader of Eat, Pray, Love.”

“Too concrete,” she agreed.  “Besides, whoever heard of a church that doesn’t use censures?”

We never mentioned any of the other stuff.

 

 

But a strange thing happened as we snorkeled that week in the clear waters of the Adriatic. Every day brought a partial sighting, the merest hint of a sucker-bearing arm disappearing into a crevice, perhaps nothing more than a trick of the imagination. We laughed it off. We told ourselves it was important to scramble along the bottom collecting abalone and bachelor’s buttons for an art project, nothing more. Overturning rocks and poking sticks into holes was simply a matter of scaring up reluctant fish. Digging about in the weeds was a gambit for rustling out hidden crustaceans. Our intentions, we assured ourselves, were sufficiently small in scope to exclude any presumption of cephalopod.

But behind our feigned innocence we knew the truth. Every half-seen octopus pricked at our gray matter, niggling deep into the wrinkles of our cranial folds. We heard his pronouncement at night as we lay trying to sleep in a heat wave. Flashes of violence invaded our fitful dreams—knife blades winking silver like fish in the sun; murderous faces smeared into ambiguity, like jam on bread; menacing, wriggling tentacles stretching across our gasping mouths; heads, corpuscular and fleshy, churning in deathly pirouettes in the deep. Daylight brought no relief. The curling fingers of grapevines on the terrace at lunch became squid-like in our periphery, the splash of red wine in the bottom of a glass indistinguishable from a burst of dark ink.

By Thursday, after the fourth spotting, with a shrug of her shoulders, my wife voiced our defeat.

“Should we do it? Should we give it a try?”

“Of course not,” I said.

We gave it a try.

 

 

Armed with a mesh laundry bag, we dove into the depths. Beneath the sun-warmed surface, where the blues edged a first touch toward black, our eardrums quivered with pressure. Searching among the rocks pained us. Hidden urchins left their marks in our flesh. Sea water occasionally, perniciously seeped into our masks and consequently into our eyes. We saw the bottom through a double screen of liquid, blurring every line into an abstraction. Our fingers ached with cold in the deeper currents and our lungs burned.

“Here’s to finding ourselves,” my wife said at the surface, plucking an urchin spindle from beneath her fingernail.

“Happy anniversary,” I said, and wept salt from my carmine eyes.

We dove. The world narrowed into patches of sand and rock. All sound receded and then fled. We dove and dove.

 

 

Midday, and the creature was in my hands. I plucked him from the bottom in a snarling ball around my fist, limbs an inch in diameter, deceptively strong. He came up with me as easily as if he were on a platter, a meal with no garnish to cling to except my forearms. The tubular siphon beneath his head heaved and ink trailed us like smoke in the water. His yellow eyes were substantial, weighty—intelligence was at work behind those pupils, something beyond dumb instinct.  He was holding me as much as I was holding him.

In the open air, he seemed enraged. Writhing his tentacles beneath my grasp, swelling and contracting like an iron bellows, the octopus made steady headway up my arm, peeling his suckered limbs uncomfortably close to my neck and face with every contortion. One-handed, I flailed for the shore. My wife appeared, grasped a tendril, was in turn grasped by two, the three of us abruptly linked into one messy knot, each bearing the other in strange intimacy across the sea to land. By the time we reached shore, the creature had made its way to my back while still clutching her stomach, conjoining our bodies in the facsimile of a couple spooning.

“We need to kill him and fast,” my wife said, unpeeling one row of suckers only to be adhered to by another.

“Wow,” I said, marveling at the serpentine way each limb curled in on itself. “Wow.”

“Shut up and kill it,” she said, remarkably calm. “Kill it, kill it, kill it.”

All up and down the beach we went, the three of us wound together at odd angles, the octopus impossible to keep fastened to one spot. We plucked his limbs from our arms, our chests, our necks. They kept coming as though multiplying, implacable, fierce. He slithered from my right forearm to my left, up my wife’s shoulders and down her back. It was like having sentient gum in your hair. The yellow eyes glowed without compromise.

And then it was over. Seizing an opportune moment the octopus released us both, springing onto the beach and out of our hands like a Houdini. He crawled swiftly on unfurling limbs toward the ocean, thought better of it with my wife in the way, then dashed perpendicular to the waves toward the discarded laundry bag and pulled it over his speckled bulk to crawl inside. He remained still within the mesh, presumably hoping for one final bit of desperate camouflage, or perhaps mercy. But we both knew it was over. Out of the water, outnumbered, out of breath. Fighting had availed him nothing. The yellow eyes watched in defeat from between the mesh. Wretched, not exactly cowering, but pathetic nonetheless.

“I am open to the possibility of killing you,” I said to the octopus. But I wasn’t really sure I was, or if I was supposed to be.

My wife reached out. “Does he really think himself protected? Covered in a sack stitched out of holes?”

The yellow eyes were open as wide as they could go. His piteousness took our breath away.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t think he does.”

My wife reached out to me.

“No,” she said, “I don’t think so either.”

Reflected in those inclusive orbs, we saw what the yellow eyes saw—all possibilities, and how each ended the same.

My wife reached out to me and I held her hand.

The thing continued to watch, each of his three hearts pumping a diminishing amount of oxygen through his extremities, each sucker tasting the bitter grit of sand and faded detergent, each gill heaving with fear and exhaustion on either side of his upper mantle.

Killing this creature was not a new experience I wanted. We left the monk in his monastery. We left the octopus in the sea.

 

There’s Nothing Finer Than a Fedders

We had a pretty big week at our house. Actually it was just one day of the week, and a small part of that day, about one second long … but that one second made the whole week. It was a Movie Moment.

A Movie Moment is when you very briefly get to star in your own movie. It’s when something occurs that is so utterly perfect or fateful or cliché or tragic, it feels scripted. You almost expect to hear “Aaannnnd … Cut!”

These moments are best when they impart some deep meaning to your life. If life just picks up where it left off, you still feel pretty important and universal — after all, you did just star in a movie — but you’re not really a changed man. You’re just very pleased with yourself.

Well, our moment had deep, profound significance for me.

Ours is the kind of household that cares — rather too much, perhaps — about recycling. To that end, we’ve discovered a marvelous online community called the Freecycle Network. It’s simple and brilliant: instead of tossing something away, one first posts it on a list service to see if someone else wants it; if she does, it’s hers. These objects can be anything, from frying pans to computers to food to dirt. It’s the world’s biggest junk pile, and like any junk pile, you find the occasional, slightly battered gold nugget. There’s also the obvious environmental benefit of passing this stuff on to new owners instead of sending it to a landfill; plus, the original owner avoids any potential effort or fees involved with disposal. Everybody wins.

My wife, an intrepid Freecyclist, recently tracked down an ancient air conditioner. We dutifully rescued it from eternal decomposition in some scrapyard, hauled it home and dragged it upstairs and put it in the window and plugged it in and it works — well, it groans to life and dims all the lights in the building and produces a small trickle of cool air. But in a wintry economic climate (and a stifling meteorological one), free A/C is not to be scoffed at.

It is a Fedders. (Yeah, I haven’t either.) Their motto is, “There’s Nothing Finer Than Fedders.” It is brown. It is ugly. It is absurdly heavy. I don’t know when it was manufactured, but when was the last time you saw a brown air conditioner, the late 1980s? If it were a car, it would be a Ford Crown Victoria station wagon, or just something big, heavy and unpredictable.

This summer, we’ve been using our air conditioner more often, just like you. For various reasons, we decided a few weeks ago to move it from the bedroom to the living room. Then, last night, we decided to move it back.

It was a dark and stormy night.

I’m not kidding; when we get that sucker back inside, it’s soaked. “Slippery when wet,” I quip, puffing and stumbling across the floor and back into the bedroom, where I deposit it, along with a few well-chosen oaths, on the windowsill. We begin edging it back out over nothingness. Soon, the Crucial Moment arrives: as the hindquarters of the unit gradually project out into space, one must lift its front bottom lip over the lip of the windowsill; having done so, one must then support the infernal weight of the unit while one’s boon companion carefully but quickly lowers (quickly, quickly, for crying out loud) the window with the object of trapping the upper lip of the A/C unit against the bottom of the window (Figure 1). Then, all being well, everyone exhales with relief and steps back to admire the dubious physics of an inch of plastic molding preventing a huge leaden beast machine from jumping to a watery oblivion.

 

Sadly, all was not well.

In the midst of the Crucial Moment I make a grievous error: having opted to counterbalance the weight of the appliance by positioning the ends of my fingers along the upper lip of the front and pulling towards myself, I now have nowhere to put them once the window descends — they are in the no-man’s-land between the lip of the A/C unit and the bottom of the window (see Figure 2). Also, everything is wet.

Somewhere between requesting a slight raise of the window and attempting to reposition my fingers along the edge, it slips. It’s like a fish — like a scaly fish, which would like nothing better than to jump through your hands and swim away from you. This air conditioner doesn’t jump so much as leap — it positively scampers out, I swear I hear a “Wheeeeee!” as it exits — and I know we’ve done it, we’ve really done it. We’ve dropped the air conditioner out the window.

This was an important moment in my life. Something big was happening. Something big was falling.

And it was at that moment, my friends, that I knew, in my secret heart of hearts, that I have always wanted to drop an air conditioner out the window.

Why? Because it’s asking for it. There was a day in history when the founding fathers of air conditioning sat around a table to decide how best to install their enormous, staggeringly heavy metal appliances in the home. And guess what they came up with? After much discussion, I’m sure, the winning solution was to mount the unit by its very edge in an open window with nearly the entire mass suspended over thin air, supported by nothing — unless one is handy with tools and takes the initiative to build a brace beneath the window and nail it to the house. (Presuming of course that one owns the house — our landlord generally gives us the thumbs-down on punching big, round holes in the siding. By the way, I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry, my landlord’s not on this email list. I checked.) But of all the air conditioners I’ve seen hanging out of windows, I’ve seen maybe four braces. It just isn’t done.

I remember being mystified as a kid as to why these things weren’t falling out all the time; seems like all it would take is a decent bump and whoops — here’s seventy pounds of rushing metal, sponsored by gravity.

It’s just that a window air conditioner is so heavy, and is balanced so precariously, and when it falls on you, you are not bruised or maimed, but dead.

With this in mind, one would think my immediate reaction upon dropping it was abject terror. One would be right. But that was not my only reaction; I must say, there is also a certain thrill to the experience. And, if I am honest, an element of humor, too.

It could be a guy thing, but there is a deep, mysterious gratification in causing a heavy object to fall from the top of something to the bottom, where, with luck, it smashes. It’s a primitive impulse, but we must acknowledge it. Now, I enjoy it much more when I know no one will be hurt (at least permanently) by my enjoyment. But I confess the inner demon child in me will always love throwing dirt clods into the road, rocks into the river and, apparently, air conditioners into urban space — and have a hard time feeling guilty about it afterwards.

I’m happy to say that this albatross, this anvil of technology, came to rest in nothing more than wet sod. No one was hurt; no one, that is, but Fedders. I’m sorry to say that, whatever our Freecycling intentions, we have bowed to the inevitable, and shall be visiting our local superstore to purchase a new air conditioner.

Maybe there’s a brown one lurking in the back room.

 

Knowledge Points Are Power

 

The lights are dimmed.  Song “Far From Over (Stayin’ Alive)” by Frank Stallone plays.  Punching through a poster of an image of himself, a man in a white suit emerges.

Into his headset, he yells: “I’m not here to talk you about your LOVE life; I’m here to talk to you about LOVING your life!”

The crowd goes wild. “Yay! Guru Dave!”

Beaming smile lasers at the crowd, he gestures for the audience to be seated.  He is about to share something personal and profound.  He is about to share capital “K” knowledge.

“Who here has come face to face with rejection?”

“Me!”

“Good. How about today?”

“Yep!”

“Could we maybe see some other show of hands? Great!”

“The thing about rejection is that it’s subjective. It could be anything, anything at all. Like that hypothetical time in junior-kindergarten when Sebastian “couldn’t” invite you to his birthday party because he “ran out” of invitations before reaching your spot in the circle. Would you have accepted a verbal invitation? Of course. Did you get one? No. So you see, rejection is everywhere and you will face it in almost every thing you attempt or encounter. Now, what can we do about it? Well, I’m literally going to tell you, metaphorically.”

 A large screen drops down behind him.  He reads the slide on the screen aloud:

 

Knowledge point #1:

“When God closes a door he opens a window.”

 

“Yes?”

“No!”

“No, I mean ‘yes, it sounds familiar’?”

“Yes!”

“So, he could have left the door ajar or put the keys in the room, but he opened a window.  He opened a window.”

“Why?!”

“Are you serious? I have no idea why. The point is: God has made things a hell of a lot more difficult for you. Obviously it’s easier to walk through a door like a normal person than to climb through a window. A door is, what, twice the size of a window? To leave, you’ll have to climb the wall, remove the bug screen, and leap from a story or two … and there’s no way of knowing what’s on the other side. Or, you could just stay in the room and enjoy the cross breeze. There’s a rug, which could double as a blanket if necessary. And there is a sink… that could double as a… well… hopefully it won’t come to that.”

“Maybe it’s a mistake?”

He pulls out his phone and mimes a text:

“OMG!

Come and open thatdoor 4 me!

Or give me a boost to reach tha

window?”

“This is limbo; God only knows when He’ll be back.  It could be days or months, but I’ve been in cramped situations for what feels like ages.  Regardless, I suggest you pin up a bulletin board and a motivational calendar just to make things livable.”

Pulls a calendar out from under his shirt and reads the tagline for the month.

The surest way not to fail is to determine to succeed.”  Right?  When you’re succeeding you’re not failing.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have all forged a few valleys in life, and we all know that it takes endurance to climb a mountain, but sometimes I think we forget that mountains on posters are metaphorical.”

 

Slide changes.

 

Knowledge Point #2:

Motivation is 99% Inspiration

“Now, how many of you are familiar with the phrase: “It’s the little things in life?””

 Just a guess but… ten, maybe fifteen of us?

“And how many of you have told yourself in response to that phrase: ‘I want the BIG THINGS in life?’  Just a show of hands…Ladies and gentlemen, there are no little or big things.  There is only every thing.  And every thing is something.  What you think is a big thing, may turn out to be a something.  And a mere something may turn out to be more than you can comprehend, at least at this point in time. I go through about three boxes of Yogi tea each morning.  Maybe you’re thinking that this is because Chamomile calms my nerves – or Dashberry Dreams alleviates symptoms of despair – and, it does – to some extent – but mostly I just read the quotations on the tags for relief.”

Pulls tea bags out of pocket, opens a package, and reads text on tag: “The universe is a stage on which your mind dances with your body, guided by your heart.” 

“Nice. Who needs to make it on Broadway when you’ve got the universe, right?”

Lets do another. “When the mind is backed by will, miracles happen.”

I hope so!  How about this one: “You only give when you love.” So true!

He pauses as a pitcher containing a bottle of water is brought on stage. He reaches inside the pitcher, grabs the bottle of water and, removing the cap, drinks.  Thanking the cart–wheeler, he motions him off-stage before continuing.

Slide changes.

 

Knowledge Point #3:

Maximizing Your Time in Solitary Confinement

“We’ve all heard that avoidance behaviors are a bad thing.  And why is this?”

“Because everyone has to face reality eventually.”

“True.  EventuallyBut not today.”

“Unrealistic portrayals of life and love are an integral part of any shut-in diet.  Starved for a reason and purpose to go on, you need sustenance. There have been days when I was so hungry, I would scour Facebook looking to eat up any and all inspirational memes. “Happiness is Homemade,” I would regurgitate to myself as my sweaty hands slid on the wallpaper, foiling my first attempted escape.”

Sound familiar?

“No!”

“In another incarnation of myself, I thought that I was above “kitschy” trappings of sentimentality…  That I didn’t need words like “SUCCESS” pinned around my work cubicle to be productive, or teddy bears with hearts for paws, to know that I was loved. But I was only partly right. And if you want to know, the other part, I was wrong. In my next life, I realized that I had been a pessimist dressing in merino wool sweaters and Ugg boots. The truth of the matter is, thinking the worst about things, or facing “reality”, doesn’t make you any more prepared, or “ready” as the synonym may be. Instead of anticipating probable worst-case scenarios, you should fill your head with hopelessly delusional, feel-good scenarios.”

“For instance, everyone knows real life is not nearly as romantic as fantasy life: “Things get really crazy when Jennie confronts Jim about forgetting to take out the compost…” That’s why we have fantasy life.  So you could think critically about it, or you could pop in another DVD. And those posters of couples in ripped jeans lying together and kissing on the beach… You could say that they are not real… but why would you do that? Why would you spoil it for everyone? ”

“Hope, ladies and gentlemen, even if it comes embroidered on a tea cozy or embossed on a picture frame, is vital. Obviously your dreams may or may not come true, but should you stop believing in them? Only if they’re debilitating – like the one I had last week, where a shark was gnawing at my leg.”

Slide change.

 

Knowledge Point #4:

“You Have to Retreat to Advance”

“Of course, what is never specified is how far, or for how long? And no guidelines are given regarding the advance: “This month or next?”  “One flare or two?” “What if I miss the first signal?” “Will there be another?!” “Does the tornado alarm count?” In short, how do you win playing the waiting game?”

“You’re trying to be proactive; actively watching and jumping at all ladders which may be within or out of your reach. It’s just that with every step towards what you think is the right ladder, the ladder moves. Naturally, you lose your footing and your back’s on the linoleum floor, having missed your rung. How many more times must you fall in the attempt to reach for that elusive ladder?”

“We don’t know!” Tell us!”

“Well, I’d like to …  If this damn thing…  Slide change?  Can we get a slide change? Hello?  I’m pushing buttons, but maybe not the right ones? Nothing is working here…”

Slide finally changes. 

The Answer, ladies and gentlemen is: MANY, MANY, MORE TIMES!

“‘Rock bottom’ is a false bottom! Only by falling, again, even harder, the next time, will you know that your last experience was a mere step down on the ladder of progress.Your turning point could be one, two, or twenty downward spirals away, but, you’ll never know until after the fact. What looks like “worse” now, may very well prove to be for the bestseller later. That said, don’t think that you can rush or fake hit rock bottom in order to get to the top faster. It doesn’t work that way. In the game of life, maybe not all moves advance, but every move changes the game. Although, you can’t possibly know what move is or was a game changer until after you’ve moved and the game has changed. Sure, it may seem that some opponents are catching ladders, or, as luck would have it, they are literally rolling the die and landing on the fast track in an altogether different (better) game.  But if you weren’t born on Park Place, you are a boot or a wheelbarrow.”

Slide change

 

Knowledge Point #5:

You Can’t Spell “Knowledge” without “know” and “ledge”

“Your life path may look more like a spirograph than a linear graph.  This just means that you get to experience the hub of every cycle and, like me, look for the spin. Remember, no ledge is power.  But you’ve got to…”

“Know the ledge, to discover your edge!” 

The audience stands and erupts in laughter. Guru Dave smiles. The cart-wheeler throws teddy bears, Yogi tea bags, and embossed picture frames into the crowd.

 

photo by:

Facebook Friends Without Benefits (broken heart) and Other Newsfeeds

You have a secret. You are a masochist. You were feeling down on yourself and so you checked the Facebook profiles of the last three people you have been involved with.

Kendra Robinson wrote on Nick Patterson’s wall.

Sure, no big deal, right? But, then why is Kendra’s profile picture of her and Nick? And, if you scroll down further, why did Nick post a picture of the two of them when he has never posted any of the pictures he has taken with you?

Poster of a kitten knocking over a glass of milk: FML.

Now, all of the typical things you used to enjoy bring little pleasure. You don’t want to poke anyone and you haven’t been able to “like” anything for weeks. You’ve taken Vitamin D. Nothing helps.

You should have known: the rule of thumb for photo posting and tagging is, generally: (two words) pretty clear. The hurt is indescribable, but the term for someone who carefully manages the contents of his or her profile page like it’s a promotional site is a “Po-Sé”, or, Post selectivist. You should have guarded your heart like Mr. Po-Sé guards his wall.

Your Status Update: “Dreams don’t come true.”

Darren Feldman: Hey! Haven’t talked to you since grad. Just wanted to say that mine did! Got a job in Atlanta and just married the woman of my dreams!

Brett Chan-Man: Hey, is everything ok?
Saw that you recently took a “which lonely island character are you” quiz. Who’d you get?

Karin Tanner-Feldman: Would have to agree with Darren! Love you babe!

Somehow, you used to be able to get away with using Facebook as an emotional outlet; by putting your rambling tidbits of melancholia in quotation it seemed plausible that you were just quoting Sylvia Plath. But then, Facebook changed. What’s on your mind? Facebook began to prompt.

And now, every poem, song, video and bulletin you share is, however minutely, a reflection of your state of emotion and your state of consciousness; it is a reflection of you and a reflection on you. You are what you post. And, by extension, it’s easy to feel that you are, only if you post.

But, you haven’t been able to come up with an interesting or clever status update for hours. And, everyone knows that a successful status update lies not in the amount of information divulged, but in the number of “likes” it receives. That’s why nobody posts about the boring or unappealing things that happen in their life.

Tamara West: Ugh. Second urinary tract infection in the last two days! :/

Cora Kitchen: hang in there, hun!

Janice Wilson: have you tried Canesten? Lacey Wilson had an infection last month and it worked for her. They must be going around! Praying for you.

Sometimes, you wish you were ignorant, or perhaps just blissfully unaware, of the subtle and not-so-subtle indicators of status exhibited in the social network. Now that you’ve been exposed, your awareness feels like a burden: there’s the terrible feeling you get when you see someone else’s life and feel embarrassed about your inferiority, and the terrible feeling you get when you see someone else’s life and feel embarrassed for their inferiority. Which is worse? The latter, as your initial embarrassment on behalf of another is then compounded by feelings of guilt and shame over your arrogant feelings of embarrassment on behalf of another. Pity is the opposite of compassion.

Aaron Katz: Check out this article. How is it that everyone in America, except for me, and a few select others, is stupid, ignorant and unbelievably intolerant??!

Dan Markham: I just read the same article and had the exact same thought.

Lara Chisholm: Ugh. So violently angry about the rampant, fanatical hate speech in this country.

Jennifer Rothschild: I am always shocked at how ignorant people can be. I guess it just goes to show you that small minds think alike.

Dan Markham: I couldn’t agree more.

Then again, this is your network and these are your friends. Right? Aren’t they? Are they?

Take the REAL friendship quiz to find out!

1. You would feel comfortable dropping by (insert friend’s name) place if you were in the neighborhood. i.e. Writing an annual, “happy birthday” note on their wall.

Yes No

2. (Insert friend’s name) is someone who is there for you when you need them. i.e. Available on chat.

Yes No

3. (Insert friend’s name) is someone who understands that reciprocation is necessary in a relationship. They not only invite you to brunch, they Poke back.

Yes No

Your results:

1. Maybe?
I mean, you watch your home page more than you watch the news… so, you are up-to-date on what your friends are up to—even the ones you haven’t actually sighted or spoken to in years. But, you don’t necessarily comment on or like their posts, as that would be weird or creepy.

2. No.
You and Jacqueline Wilson are not actually friends. You are what the world long ago, and Facebook only recently has created an appropriate sub-category for, called, “acquaintances.”

3. No.
You don’t have 1330 friends. 10? Again, Maybe?

The truth has set you free from accepting friend requests from your friends’ moms, but it still hurts. Weary of the façade of interaction and the inexplicable pressure to maintain appearances, you begin to wonder if your life would be better if you just deactivated yourself. But it would be an inconvenience; you don’t know anyone’s phone number or mailing address. And what about your family? How would they cope? How would they know where you were without a Places update?

Joe Crossman decided not to head to the 2nd Street Bridge and is @Second Cup. He’s sitting in the third chair from the right of the doorway on the first floor. He’s wearing a blue shirt with a small, embroidered insignia on the left breast pocket and sipping coffee from a non-biodegradable off-white cup. Ouch! (He forgot to get a thermo sleeve.)

To remove your self from Facebook would be to commit the unthinkable: social suicide. You don’t want to deactivate yourself forever, you just want to go Invisible for awhile – so that you might still receive notification of—and read all—the nice posthumous things people might say about you when/if someone notices you’re gone; but, unfortunately, that feature is only available on Gchat.

In the only act of self-destruction, that you realistically feel destructive enough to carry out, you remove your profile pic. You don’t want to try or to be or to try-to-be anything. You don’t want to be perceived as something that you’re not, or anything that you are.

As you peruse your photos, contemplating the removal of all albums, you can’t help but feel a certain sense of nostalgia for the olden days. Those days when Facebook albums had caché… the days when you had a reason and a purpose: to dress up, take pictures, and post your photos by the next afternoon. Remember?

What happened? When did everything change? Why did everything change?

There are numerous reasons, but, according to your timeline, everything took a turn for the nostalgic after that song “Please Remember Me” by Tim McGraw was shared on your newsfeed. No, wait, wrong year… It’s the advent of the mobile upload that’s to blame.

Instagrammer: Insert Instagram and …voila!

Everyone likes this.

Purportedly to allow for greater sharing, in actuality, the mobile upload resulted in the breakdown of traditional sharing modalities. When everyone: instagrammers, foodies and partyers, are uploading immediately, instantaneously and spontaneously, your album of 60 photos, complete with memorable and witty captions, looks like you actually care about your Facebook account. It says: I made an effort. And that’s not cool.

Foodie: Insert picture of food on a plate and a description of ingredients.

Fan Friend: Yum!

Friendly one-upper: Is that today’s Times?

Philistine: … are those brown things mushrooms?

Foodie: No. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy.

Friendly one-upper: Sweet, man. Couldn’t tell. Quality of the pic isn’t as good as the shots I’m used to on my 7D.

Foodie: Let’s do lunch Friday and we can discuss aperture settings and Aristotelian ethics over chicken rosemary Salmon Rushdie curry salad sprinkled with mini-bake-oven roasted pine nuts.

What’s cool is mobile uploading. Oh. Hey. Just happened to have my phone out. Took a snapshot. No big deal. Here it is. Check it. It’s instantly gratifying in a casual, I’m-only-disinterestedly-interested kind of way. It’s like when you pretend that you are interested in a poster in a store window so that you can unabashedly gaze at your own reflection in passing.

The Partier: Insert picture of girl wearing a bustier and holding a red plastic cup

Friend Partier: Ridiculouuusss.

Partier: average Tuesday night: aka totalll sh** show.

Partier: apparently, I threw my cup on the floor, and laughed like a hysterical hyena. #becausethatswhatyoudowhenyourlifeisaridiculousrealitytvshow.

Partier: I don’t even remember taking this pic I was so outrageously out of crazy-trashy-fantastically-sexy-hand. Let’s keep talking about how ridiculous I am.

The reality is that Facebook is less like a network of friends and more like a neighborhood watch. Best-case scenario: everyone is watching you; worst-case scenario: everyone is watching you. But, the most-likely scenario is that no one is watching you as closely as you are watching yourself.

In your efforts to “sell yourself” to others, you have deluded and diluted yourself; you have come to believe that you are, or should be, a finished product. Why are you trying so hard? Who are you hiding your celebrity birthday quiz from, anyway?

Kendra Robinson: Be who you are meant to be, even if it means dressing up as a sexy-nymph-princess-child-witch-cop-bo-peep-school-girl-seductress-she-devil on days other than Halloween. Am I right? Truth. Love!

Post. Comment. Share. Everything. All The Time. Even incomplete sentences. Like that. Like this. Like everything.

Like the ad on the right hand side of your home page that depicts a baby the size of a dinky car wearing a furry blue hat and lying in the palm of a hand with the tagline: “be a social worker in NY”, one’s timeline here on this networking planet doesn’t make sense: it’s hectic, barely comprehensible, arguably user-unfriendly but ultimately, inevitably, change is imposed when the Programmer Almighty sees fit.
Then again, maybe it’s not meant to be understood—just enjoyed—in the moment—for what it is: (absurd).

I don’t know…. Maybe it’s not You. But it can’t be just me…

photo by:

I Hope You’re Happy, Mr. Mumford

I’m happy for you. No. Really. I mean it.

But, it’s just, well, kind of sudden, don’t you think? I suppose they say that you just know when you know. But, I can’t help but wonder if anyone really, ever, knows. You know?

 

From what I’ve heard, you had only been dating for 5 months! But, that’s just what I heard. I haven’t really kept up with any of it. I’ve been busy.

From the pictures of you two together, that other people have insisted I search for on Google images, I can see why you like her. She’s got that cute little smile and that pixie-look that guys swoon over. I’m sure she’s really nice too.

The "Happy" Couple.

No, really, she’s really nice, isn’t she? Yeah.  I don’t know her but I guess I just didn’t picture the two of you ending up together. Not that I ever took time out of my own life to picture you or something. That’s crazy. I just mean that when I think about it, now, just this very minute, I can envision you with someone else.

That sounds so terrible, as if I’m jealous or something. I’m sure I couldn’t be happier for you. I’m sure I couldn’t.

No, no, I know. It never would have worked out between us. Yes, right, there’s that; we’ve never been in a relationship. Fine.  Still, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we’ve been intimate for a number of years now.

I mean, you rode with me on the bus, stood with me on the subway and walked with me through the streets of NY. I eagerly introduced you to all of my friends and I proudly introduced you to my family. (My Mom was a bigger fan of you than my Dad, but I think that’s fairly typical.)

No man had ever shared his weaknesses with me so honestly. No man had ever shown his heart to me so courageously. No man had ever been humble enough to admit a need to fall on his knees before the Creator. I couldn’t stop gushing about how great you were. Knowing that a man such as your self existed gave me hope that Mr. Darcy did too.

I hope I’m not overstepping, but, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I felt we had a connection. And, if I remember correctly, you were the one who opened up to me first. Weren’t you the one who spoke about giving your heart as well as your body? And confessed your love, as well as your folly? Yes, you sure did lead me on.

The good news is that I finally made it to London. The bad news is that… ok, fine. The other news is that you’re engaged.

I hope you’re happy.

Yours,

Sincerely,

 

February Done Right

I will go to great lengths to ward off the February blahs. In years past, I have decorated my home with tropical flourishes, distracted myself with games and group trips, tried to embrace winter with snowmobiling and “Doctor Zhivago” weekends. I have done all I can think to do, and February still comes… and stays.

My pain is prolonged this year, as it is a Leap Election Year. This is when we make up for time unaccounted for in the solar calendar, and make it seem longer still by adding the torturous political primary season. It’s an extra day to campaign; I know the politicians will never give that up. They are too busy twisting truth. But perhaps we don’t need the politicians to help us Keep February Short (™).

Photo by Lindsay Crandall

That’s right. I’m doing it. My New Year’s resolution: instigate calendar reform. Before you poo-poo this idea, remember that people have adjusted time throughout time. The Gregorian calendar lopped off 13 days when it was signed into effect in, of all months, February. My proposal is not nearly so dramatic, although I know any change is difficult. According to L.E. Doggett, reprinted on this website, “In most societies a calendar reform is an extraordinary event. Adoption of a calendar depends on the forcefulness with which it is introduced and on the willingness of society to accept it.”

The church is more fractured today than it was in 1582, so I’m not looking for another papal bull. I’m not going to any United States government entity either — remember, it is an election year. No initiative of real social value will get done.

I could take it to social media with a Facebook page or a Twitter campaign. The idea would gain likes and re-tweets galore, but what does that accomplish? I need to take this to the top.

Who is forceful enough to make this happen, with followers who are willing to accept change — yea, demand it? Who could do the “extraordinary”, do in a moment what Pope Gregory’s decree did in centuries? Who needs new frontiers to cross, with new leadership and something to prove? That’s right, Apple, I’m looking at you. Help me better the world — you’re so good at it.

Please move the intercalated Leap Year Day to June 31st.

Note how humble a request this is. I am not proposing a wholesale dismantling of the Inter gravissimas. I’m not calling for the annihilation of dreaded February, although I could make a case for its destruction. I am a moderate. I understand that there is a subculture who enjoy the grey days of winter. Some ski, I suppose, or hole up and listen to Morrissey. They revel in the cold and bleak. Despite our differences, I accept both the goggle-wearing and the pasty-faced. This proposal honors them in all their winter glory.

Some may say that our Founding Fathers would be opposed to such a shift. I say, prove it. Show me a declaration of our official calendar in the Constitution. It’s not there. This omission suggests to me that they were open to other calendar ideas, willing to allow future generations the freedom to one day modify time to suit our own needs. The time, I believe, has come.

Think of it. An extra day of summer. Let it roll off your tongue. June 31st. It sounds natural, doesn’t it?

The benefits are obvious.

Benefit One: It keeps the tyranny of February to a minimum.

Benefit Two: More available days in June=more June brides. Brides spend money. The economy improves.

Benefit Three: More summer tourists in my home state of Michigan. Everyone’s rooting for us. This is a perfect way to show support.

Benefit Four: Reduced carbon footprint & energy consumption. One less day of February means one less day of cold weather. Less cold weather means less energy used to heat buildings.

I see the complaints coming. Someone will cry, “It messes with our timepieces, the ones with the little month and date tickers.” To this, I point out that you must be arguing hypothetically, as no one actually uses those watches anymore except rich fat-cats. I say, let them enjoy their timeless monocles and spats. It’s time to help the 99%.

Some will say, what of those born on February 29th? You can’t just skip their birthdays, can you? To this I say, no we cannot. All February 29th birthdays shall be moved to June 31st. And what of those few who prefer a winter celebration? They can easily change their birthday through iBorn, available for $2.99 at the App Store (for month and date birth changes only; year changes is still in beta).

Some may say that changing the day doesn’t change the weather. But the math doesn’t lie. The average temperature in February in New York City, for example, is 33.5° F. The average temperature for that same region in June? 72° F. That’s a difference of 38.5, and that is going to add up over the next 500 years, when another calendar adjustment will be due. Some so-called experts will refute this, and to them I say I have skimmed both the aforementioned article as well as Wikipedia. Let Apple decide who is right.

Some may insinuate a corporate influence is behind this proposed change. Let me assure you that I am not in the pocket of Big Gelato. Others may intimate that Apple is the wrong company to handle this, given their calendar problems in the past. I say, thanks for bringing that up. Let’s look at the past. Apple is profitable; their society is loyal; their past mistakes and subsequent triumphs uniquely position them to conquer time.

Despite these answers, I know voices of dissent will linger, claiming we should gather a committee, think this through, listen to other voices. Maybe we should consider extending September, April, or November instead of June. To all this democratic talk, I say, sure, that ’s one way to do it. An old-fashioned way, a slow way. But what about the older-old-fashioned way? I called it first, people.

So what do you say, Apple? June 31st. All you have to do is program it into our iPhones. Make it so.

 

Author’s voluntary disclosure: Contributions to this article also made by Jennifer Beltramo and Ty Beltramo. Reports of their ties to Apple, and Big Gelato, have been grossly exaggerated.

 

It’s a Great Time to be a Guy Part III: the Cool-Down

The final installment of a three part series. Part I, Part II.

Noticing that Sharon and the other women had moved to an area near the bar, he felt a sudden, dryness of throat.  At the bar, he ordered a whisky sour. Leaning against a stool waiting for his drink to arrive, he couldn’t help but listen in on their conversation.

Sharon: So, I was like, put down your book, The Four Hour Work Week, and listen up.

Woman: Oh, my God. Did you really say that?

Sharon: I said I was like . . .

Woman: Oh.

Woman #2: Ugh. God. Men.

Sharon: I know, right?

Photo by flickr user LeSimonpix.

It was hard to hear his sex take such a rap. But, knowledge is power. Whatever insights he could learn about women, he thought to himself, could only be beneficial. The bartender, with some difficulty, got his attention; his drink had arrived. He was beyond relieved; he was exonerated. Standing alone at a bar, watching a group of women was one thing; standing alone at a bar, with drink-in-hand watching a group of women, thankfully, was another. Swilling his drink around his glass, he returned to his listening post:

Sharon: It’s like, even that guy over there, the one with the New Balance sneakers and cargo shorts . . .

Involuntarily, he found himself scanning the room attempting to spot the specific characters Sharon was highlighting for the benefit of the others.

Woman: Ha, ha. Yesss.

Sharon: He could probably date that really smart looking woman in the corner if he just went up to her and introduced himself. He doesn’t even know that he has a 50% chance.

Woman: And, I mean, if any guy has at least a 50-50 shot with most women, then actual good guys . . . their chances are like, sky-high.

Sharon: By “good guys,” you don’t mean “nice guys,” right?

He felt they were speaking directly to him. Obviously, they had noticed him and, in their own subtle, feminine way, they were inviting him to approach. He didn’t have a plan. He was just going to wing it. After all, the women had been talking for the last thirty minutes about how men should just “do it.

 

Approaching the group of couches where Sharon and the other women were seated he asked if he could join them. But, before they could respond, his friends entered the bar from the outdoor patio and spotted him from across the room. “Grant! Get over here man! We’re doing shots!” What could he say? Oh, what the hell . . . “No!” he hollered, “I’m about to ask one of these fine young women out on a date!” He smiled at the group of women as he pulled up his chair.

But, by making such a strong move, he become suspect. Was he mocking them? Was he a player? Or, was he just a creep?

A number of awkward moments passed. He sipped his whisky and racked his brain for something to say, until . . .  Yes! Perfect! The sunset. But Sharon beat him to it. She leaned forward out of her chair and, looking at everyone, awkwardly asked: “Sooo . . . did everyone enjoy the sunset this evening?”

Maintaining his cool (and desperately trying to regain whatever invisible ground he had lost), he casually removed his hand from the pocket of his jacket and gestured towards the skyline saying, “In all seriousness, I think New Yorkers have some of the most staggering vistas.” Sharon laughed and coyly responded: “Yes, platinum. Or is yours black?”

Sportively, she was asking him to fight. She wanted him to prove that he was “good” rather than just “nice.” But he didn’t understand. He didn’t see the difference.

He asked the women what they were drinking and offered to buy them a round. They accepted. As he left to find the bartender, he heard Sharon make a disparaging remark about the pattern of his jacket.

He paid for their three lemon drop shooters and left. He was tired. He was tired of trying. He was tired of trying and getting nothing in return; but mostly, he was tired of trying to pretend that he wasn’t trying. He was. He was playing the game; it was just that but nobody was winning.

It’s a Great Time to Be a Guy, Part II: the Warm-Up

Part II of a series exploring the delightful world of today’s young man. Part I appeared in The Curator September 23, 2011.

 

He wasn’t sure when it had happened. When had he lost his ability to socialize — namely, with those who attend idea seminars in Mumbai and Dakar?

He considered himself a caring individual. He, too, had once wanted to make a difference in the world. He was aware of human rights violations. He knew his world leaders. He had a minor in political science, for God’s sake.

In high school, he had been the president of the debate team. His eloquent speech and impressive vocabulary had earned him a scholarship to attend a weekend conference at the local legislature. Once there, he had been elected as the opposition representative. Vigorously pounding his fists on the desk, his showmanship had attracted not only the attention of members of the opposite sex but members of his sex. Even the Speaker of the House congratulated him on his charisma and professionalism.

Photo by flickr user LeSimonpix.

All of this to say, the man was a political animal. Was. But he had lost his bravado. He could think of nothing to contribute to the conversation at hand.

“The role of the president is not simply a mouthpiece for the public . . . ”

“No, I completely disagree . . . You exhibit a great lack of profundity on this issue . . . ”

“The president is largely, if not entirely, a mouthpiece for the electorate . . . A motivational speaker for the ignorant and those capable of understanding little more than simplified jargon . . .

He thought about contributing a scornful remark about the ignorant, but he couldn’t think of any. He considered entering the conversation by dropping the name of his sister’s boyfriend’s father’s friend who knew a certain political pundit who had said something profound on this very subject. But, for the first time in his life (and possibly for the very first time in the history of New York), the name-dropping game itself was snubbed.

Thanks to a recent book he had read on the subject, by a well-known American intellectual, he was newly aware that his name-dropping habit only nurtured a false sense of glory-by-association. The reality was that none of “his” connections were really his. And he was pretty sure the other guys knew it, too.

As the conversation moved on to the sorry state of global aid programs, he considered contributing an anecdotal remark about grain prices, but, it felt so contrived. I mean, what did he really, actually know about these issues?  Sure, the pronouncements made by his companions weren’t a result of any first-handout experiences either, but, he thought to himself, at least they had probably read this week’s Economist.

Standing outside on the roof of the club he tuned out of the conversation and took in the vast and sparkling skyline. What a skyline. It looked like one of those Lite Brite toys his sister had as a kid. He remembered the first time he had flown into New York City at night. It had been magical. The lights of the boroughs sparkling below looked like a field of jewels. He wondered why they couldn’t talk about the skyline.

Stalling for time, he attempted to convey that his lack of involvement in the discussion was a matter of cautionary discernment rather than an absence of anything. He thoughtfully rested his thumb under his chin and pressed his index finger to his cheek. Like any balanced adjudicator weighing the strength of the statements of others, he pursed his lips and nodded his head left or right every 3.5 seconds. But, focused as he was on being perceived as studious, he was easily distracted by the discussion of a group of women nearby:

“I mean, I’m a cheerleader! Am I not a cheerleader?”

“Sharon, you’re totally a cheerleader.”

“I mean, I am inclusive. I invite everyone I know. I always encourage people. I am nice to everyone. Am I not nice?”

“You’re totally nice.”

“BUT, I’m sorry . . . ”

He had a feeling Sharon wasn’t sorry at all. He had a feeling she was about to say something brutal about someone.

“She is a b****. She is.”

“Ashley?! No. Ashley’s great.”

“Great? No. She is a liar. She is manipulative. She is selfish, backstabbing and a . . . ”

Someone was looking at him. He could feel it. Distracted by the conversation of the women he had forgotten to nod. Now, Ted and the others had mistaken his lack of assent in the conversation as sign of a divergent political opinion. Better than admitting his distracted state of mind or divulging his true apathy on the matter, he casually responded, “The situation under discussion bears few distinguishing characteristics from that of the historical reality of pre-war Poland.” (Duh.)

There was a pause, and then the others quickly, loudly, eagerly, one over top of the other, responded with similarly divergent examples from conferences and seminars and workshops and meetings with interesting people of all different tribes and customs . . . in Aspen. No one provided his or her citations, which only confirmed his suspicion that it was a load of H.G. Frankfurt. Contributing his last perfunctory nod, he excused himself from the game to go meet the cheerleaders.

 

Part III to follow!

#NewNebraskaSlogan and a New Rhetoric for the Midwest

Recently Tim Siedell, otherwise known as @badbanana, otherwise known as Nebraska’s most successful Twitter comedian, initiated the hashtag #NewNebraskaSlogan. (If you’re not of the Twitterati: a hashtag is a way of linking topics across the site, frequently used for memes.) I found the jokes both amusing and annoying, having learned to be wary of my home state coming into the public eye. Too many knee-jerk assessments of the Midwest run to “corn and cattle,” “flyover country,” or “purgatory”—all of which showed up under the marker #NewNebraskaSlogan. I enjoyed Siedell’s tweets (“Keep Driving to Colorado, Hippie”), but the many contributions from his fans quickly became irritating. If I could learn to consistently adopt the wry, self-deprecatory attitude that Siedell and other notable Midwesterners like Ted Kooser and Michael Perry have attained, I could laugh along with everyone else—but I’m afraid I’m not that sanguine. Like any good loyalist, I’m perfectly willing to laugh when we’re making fun of ourselves, but I can’t stand to hear mockery from outside.

The Great Plains

I’m particularly irritated by dismissive remarks directed at the landscape of the Great Plains. I really think the Great Plains are beautiful, and I’m surprised how few people share my views, even other Midwesterners. Many non-Midwesterners seem to feel it’s socially acceptable to remark to my face how ugly, flat and boring they find my home state. Complain about our lack of high culture or our obsession with college football, and I’ll let it slide and even sympathize (although: Go Big Red). Call my state ugly or boring, though—the more common complaints—and you begin to make me angry. Kansans and Iowans know this phenomenon as well: it’s aggravating to say the least to make chit-chat about how boring one’s home state is to drive across, and yet we do it all the time.

For too long I have failed to challenge this behavior. I blame this on Midwestern manners, which have made me fundamentally conflict-averse and allow me to criticize someone in only the most oblique terms. When my state is abused, I can’t agree, but I’m constitutionally averse to fighting back. Instead, I have frequently employed the phrase “Well, you haven’t really seen the best part of the state,” usually in response to those who have only driven across on Interstate 80 to Colorado. The advantage of this rhetorically sophisticated claim is that it preserves social amity, while suggesting that one shouldn’t judge the landscape based on an acquaintance made while moving at 75 MPH. The disadvantage, of course, is that it’s a total sell-out.

Now, I don’t think the area around I-80 is the best part of Nebraska. (The best part is the gentle little slope down from my parents’ land, full of colored grasses and scrubby trees and with a gravel road cutting through it to a bridge and a band of trees around the creek, then curving back up to the sky.) But I don’t want to capitulate to the assumption that it’s ugly, either. Yes, it’s pretty much made up of fields of grass, corn, or soybeans, and the sky– and I like that. I don’t see that fields and sky are ugly or boring. If I subtly suggest that maybe there are nicer parts of the state—more conventionally pretty, with more trees and more water, maybe some nascent mountains—I’m implying that I agree that really much of my state, and all its public face, is unworthy of notice.

At the risk of sounding obtuse or narrowly regionalist, I want to claim that while the Plains may not be as showy as other landscapes, not as appropriate to calendars or billboards, they hold a beauty as powerful as any other region. If mountains and oceans impress us with their vastness, I counter with the vastness of the sky and the plains—only on the Great Plains do you get a sense of the hugeness not of one particular geological formation, but of the world itself: earth and sky distilled to their essentials. And if this seems too simple and stark for you, if you prefer the complexity and detail of forests and hills, I put to you the prairie grass after a rain, when infinite nuances of oranges, yellows, greens and grays arise on the land. I have lived and traveled in other regions, and I remain baffled as to why even we Midwesterners, in a place of such compelling if simple beauty, allow our tastes to be defined by other people’s land.

Postcards and video montages may insist that some areas of the world are uniquely sublime, but on this I stand firmly with the Romantic poets, for whom no piece of nature is unworthy of notice. (John Greenleaf Whittier, for example, wrote an ecstatic paean about the Plains.) So I’m developing a new rhetoric for answering those who feel free to disparage my state: rather than hinting that there are yet-to-be-seen and more beautiful vistas, I’ll suggest to my interlocutors that they pull off the Interstate and take a real look at the landscape, without imposing postcard standards of beauty on a land built for other ideals. In keeping with this new rhetorical position, I’m a fan of one of Tim Siedell’s #NewNebraskaSlogans: “You Forgot About Us Again, Didn’t You?” It puts me in mind of a sign I once saw outside a small Nebraska town, the name of which I cannot recall: “We Like It Here.” It’s self-deprecating but carries a bite, polite but pointed; there are no grandiose claims, but also no apologizing. And it implies just what I hope to imply in my new rhetoric: only our lack of attention prevents us from seeing the beauty of the land. Some landscapes force their beauty upon us—in others, the beauty must be sought out. The Midwest is of the latter kind. And thus all the more worthy of notice.

Enjoy Your Flight

With peak summer vacation season here at last, it is important to remind passengers about safety and security steps in place for air travel. One can never be too prepared for flying; after all, regulations tend to vary from day to day and it is important to remain a step ahead of any changes in order to guarantee a smooth and enjoyable flight. Please take a few moments to review the industry list of simple steps in order to prepare for a safe and uneventful journey to your vacation destination.

It is essential for the long-haul passenger to start her trip by becoming physically prepared the night before departure. It seems to be the most common practice is to go to bed early in the hope that she will wake up fresh and ready for boarding. Of course, as this practice usually serves to keep the traveler wide awake late into the night, one might justify this occurrence as a means of preparing for the nap she will most certainly receive on the plane.

Secondly, it is important that each passenger pack his suitcase to roughly 15% beyond capacity. After all, people must take the utmost care to ensure they have packed a pair of shoes for every outfit. It is also necessary for the traveler to bring several large, hard-back books in order to stimulate cerebral development. One or two weeks of relaxation can certainly be enough time to read several large novels, the Bible, or several intellectual magazines. The active reader can never be over- stimulated in flight. Besides, this is a great opportunity for airline security staff to practice searching and repacking over-stuffed baggage.

When a passenger arrives at the airline check- in counter, he must bring at least six stimulating questions for the ticketing attendant. For example, “Is my suitcase too large to carry on the airplane if it doesn’t fit the overhead bin measurements?” And, “Is it possible for my checked luggage to be free of charge because my situation is unexplainably different than everyone else’s?” And, we cannot forget, “Can my dog sit in the seat next to me for free?” This traveler must be certain the line is extremely long and slow in order to enable all waiting passengers to hear these questions, and hopefully, learn the answers for themselves as well.

When processing through security, it is important for each passenger to wear lace-up shoes that are difficult to remove. This choice is safest in the unlikely event of an emergency landing. This may hold up the security line for hours because of the added time needed for removing and replacing shoes but it will set a positive example of policy compliance to impatient passengers. In addition, leaving small metal objects in pockets will test the equipment of security staff and keep them proficient at their task. Utilize the metal detector at least five times to verify that every metal object has been identified by security staff.

For general airport safety and security purposes, passengers must keep an eye on their luggage at all times. Make sure to spread your bags out over all available seating within the boarding area. Sacrificing available seats for the protection of personal belongings is a safety issue that the F.A.A. takes very seriously. It is also important that each and every passenger approach the gate attendant and ask the same exact question as the previous person in line; this is a great way to preemptively understand any information that will be released over the intercom at a later time. Making sure your tone is particularly monotone and stern will reveal to the gate attendant that you are interested in any valuable information they can provide.

Prior to boarding, we ask that all passengers congregate around the jet bridge doors, regardless of aisle number or frequent flyer club membership. When the gate attendant announces over the intercom that the aircraft is ready to board–beginning with first class–it is vital that all passengers, regardless of seat row, crowd the jet bridge. The best seat on the plane, your seat, must be obtained quickly and with any use of force necessary.

Lastly, the airline industry would like to remind our weary travelers that passenger comfort is our number one priority. While boarding the flight, make sure to take additional time getting your luggage into the overhead compartments. If your bag doesn’t fit, don’t worry! Simply shut the compartment door down as hard as possible, over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. It will close over tightly fit luggage perfectly. Remember to spread out, recline your seat, and get cozy. Lift the armrest between seats; this is an excellent way to make new friends.

On behalf of all airlines, we would like to thank you for following these simple steps to ensure smooth and safe travels during this busy season. Stay safe and enjoy your vacation.

Harbinger of Spring

I am thawed. Spring. Beneath this snow heap I’ve emerged from a thousand discontented winters. All has melted around me, a nobody caveman frozen in absurdity. How long have I laid in this icy solidity? A hundred, a million years? I don’t know. How could I? If I recall correctly I had slipped on a glacier in Siberia whilst escaping a frustrated mammoth. But that might be wrong. I’m not sure. They say the brain is the last of the organs to fully defrost. But really, does it matter?

But what’s this? I have somehow drifted into a metropolitan bustle, surrounded by civilians and Duane Reade pharmacies. From Siberia to a city sidewalk, another victim of plate tectonics. People pass by, staring at my genitals, betrayed by a loincloth. This childhood nightmare: why should I be surprised at its fulfillment? Empty.

How my embryonic chamber – this sidewalk snow – lasted this long in this large a municipality is a wonder. You would think they’d have plows by now. They must be recovering from some global deep freeze. Perhaps there’s a neighborhood meeting where they could explain all this. I should probably register to vote.

The filth of a blizzard: Next to me lies a one-winged pigeon with part of a Snickers wrapper in its mouth, killed mid-swallow in a final attempt at satisfaction. Nearby is a tattered pair of underpants printed with robots and wizards. Such waste. And here I see that is not all. Needles. Toothpaste. Sour Patch Kids. Trash litters this sidewalk soup. I was better off in Siberia, where the only litter we saw was the morning after a pack of saber-toothes binge hunted and flung their scraps all over town like temperamental dictators. They were always a fussy lot, tigers.

But, look. What cheery-eyed insanity governs the faces of these urbanites? What scantily clad impulse has driven them to adorn their bodies in such thin and bright material? So quickly are they healed of their cabin fever! Such abandon, I feel it myself. It’s as if this seasonal pattern has wrought in them a charge of primal indiscipline, as all have abandoned occupation on this sunny Thursday for a 3pm happy hour at a bar called “F*** It”.

They are wild with freedom. I commiserate with their yearning for recklessness, for now is the time we all together agree that wouldn’t it be great to finally get to the beach.

‘I would love to try that one restaurant.’

‘I would love to go to that concert in the park.’

‘I would love to set a couch on fire and start a college riot.’

I wonder if that bar serves food. Nachos sound good. Maybe a margarita.

Only cavemen really know that Spring is the scorned lover of Responsibility, forever badmouthing it’s well-intentioned advice that they ‘take it slow.’ In these few months she will take her revenge, a promiscuous blossom that will inevitably wither in the heat of an Indian summer. Spring has sprung and will be undone and apparently I rhyme when I’m drunk.

Not surprisingly, alcohol tolerance seems to deteriorate when you are frozen for long periods of time and oh my God a bucket of Coronas is only five dollars? Are you kidding? I’m getting that. I’m totally getting that next.

So here I stand, thawed, naked, on the sidewalk of a bar where no one seems to care. Oh how I’ve missed the sorrow of civic-minded solipsism. I can but despair in the weight of this Sisyphean season, knowing full well that winter will surely come again. But this is Sprunk – sorry, spilled my drink – but this is Spring, where frost is defeated. Am I lost? Found? Am I old? Am I new? How much longer for my nachos?

Welcome to Adolescence

Welcome, dear friend, to adolescence. Population: you, and a billion other zitty, hormonal folks who seem to have lost the hems of their skirts. It is quite a journey, one that last year’s school slogan told us to approach in the spirit of “Carpe Diem.” It will be filled with obscene amounts of homework, judgmental friends, and absolutely no time for sleep. You are stuck here for seven years of your life, so you might as well enjoy it. After all, when else will you be this stressed and confused? Maybe when you get Alzheimer’s, but that is a different story all together.

A rocky teenagehood is something to embrace, but below I have compiled a survival guide for teens, just in case your 14th year isn’t nearly as joyous as it should be.

1) You’ve managed to hide behind the jocks in history class for a solid two months. But now — oh, no! — the teacher makes direct eye contact with you. You feel the storm gathering. “Samantha,” he says, “can you tell me the causes of World War II?” Wait a second — you know this one! It was in last night’s reading. You open your mouth to speak.

It may seem wise to rattle off the answer and impress all your friends, but here is the nitty gritty: if a teacher calls on you for an answer, you must never EVER talk for more than ten seconds. That, in this day and age, is what we call social suicide. It shows that you are not only interested, but also — gasp! — knowledgeable. Learning and fun go as nicely together as a pickle & jam sandwich. Which, unless you are me and will eat anything on bread, you will find utterly disgusting. In addition to those ten seconds of mumbling, you must be sure to make every answer an approximation. Adolf Hitler didn’t invade Poland; he like, kinda took over some European country? Yes, up-talking is also a must. Whip up that answer and your peers will consider you sufficiently stupid enough to be invited to next weekend’s party.

2) Excuse me. I should go edit that last point, because it is absolutely forbidden to call anyone in your age group your peers! If you do, people will look at you like you’re from the planet Zork. And Zork has no Xbox, so it’s a sad, sad place. “Peers” is code for no friends. To help you with this, I have conjured up a little rhyme: peers will bring you tears. (That took me an hour to write. I think I need a nap.)

3) If you took my earlier advice, and you are the lucky befriended sort, chances are you will be invited to some football games. No matter how tempted you are to stay home and eat cookie dough, you must go to these games. Yes, that means paying loads of money to watch 200 pounds of testosterone fling themselves at each other. In any other circumstance, this would be called a bar fight. But the secret here is, you cannot actually watch the game. You have shelled out ten dollars to hang out with your friends and catch up on gossip. Those bleachers that smell like overcooked French fries are the magical place where you finally find out that so-and-so is sleeping with what’s-his-face. Or so they say. In reality they’ve awkwardly held hands at a movie and were too scared to do anything. At this game, glance at the football players and quickly look away so your friends know you are not ignoring them. Cheer when the cheerleaders sound extra peppy and start throwing shiny things into the air.

4) There’s something about curls that are … savage. It might indicate a personality that doesn’t come from a Barbie commercial. It could bring up ethnicity issues. What’s worse, if you keep your hair curly, you might just be able to get spotted in a crowd. Therefore, I bring up my fourth point: you must make your hair look like it’s been steamrolled over your eyes. Sacrifice that extra hour of sleep to slam two pieces of metal over your hair. And if it’s not already blond, bring out the bleach and relish that chemical smell while you feel like your head has been set on fire. Hey girlfriend, it’s “no pain, no gain,” right? Except don’t tell anybody, not even your BFF Jill, that you’ve gone through pain to look like Lindsay Lohan post-redhead days. No, that straw that’s coming out of your scalp is perfectly natural. If you must, rub some concealer onto the bags under your eyes to hide that you’ve been getting up at 5:00 am every morning to burn your head.

So you’re tired. Getting up to plan those football games and hair-doing can be exhausting. Plus, every teacher thinks his class is the only one on your schedule so you’ve just done five hours of homework and pretended to blow it off. Advice? Complain about it! And not just the type of complaint that might come off as a minor annoyance. You can really dive deep into this pity. You have to say that you can’t deal with the confusion, that those hours of homework are making you not able to find yourself. “Where’s Lisa? Is she holed up in her room again?” Dad asks. Your answer? “How am I supposed to know, I can’t even find myself these days.” Don’t skimp on the loathing of, well, everything. This is the only socially acceptable time to announce your insecurities as though they were as blatant as today’s weather. Adults don’t have this luxury. They have to talk about the actual weather. Oh, and politics. The politics of high school are really how you’re dealing with that new zit that has craters fit for the moon. So go ahead, bemoan the emotional pressure that is landing with a resounding thump on your shoulders. Get all the whining out of your system before you’re an insecure twenty-year-old and just have to shut up. You’ll regret not having been a pain-in-the-butt teenager if you don’t. Besides, it’s a bonding experience with your peers.

Border Crossing

“You will take the fruit, the sandwiches and the yogurt,” my sister instructs me.

“What? Why?” I ask. “Because they will already be asking me more questions. You will go behind me.  We can’t be together, ok?” “What? You’re leaving me?” She is making me nervous.

“I’m going to say I’m travelling alone. It will be better for us both that way.” “So you’re breaking up with me?  It’s not me, it’s you…it will be better for us both…  What are you talking about?  Why are you telling me this?” “Get ready,” she warns.

We are at the border.  It always feels like this.  There is something guilt inducing about crossing borders. We are hustled off the bus and ushered inside.  My stomach twists.

It is incredibly cold inside but I resist putting on my sweater.  Something, something… “the right to bare arms”… After all, I don’t want them to think that I am trying to hide something.  I have nothing to hide.  No way. Not me.  Fruit? Sandwiches? Yogurt?  Is that street slang? I don’t even know what those illicit substances are.

Two lines form.  My line advances ahead of the line my sister is in.  I try not to look at her.  I also try not to notice that she is a mere three feet away from me.  There she is.  Right there.  Howdy Partner! I could literally reach my arm out and give her a jab in the shoulder, with my finger gun, and say something like: “This is a stiiickkk up!”

Do NOT do that, my brain instructs me, embarking on his own ego trip.  The border guards have obviously inspired him.  Next thing I know, there will be checkpoints between my cerebral lobes.  I know, I know: “We Are Not Together.” I drone in appeasement.

My line moves slowly.  I keep my gaze solidly fixed on… nothing.  I try not to look at anyone, while being cautious not to look away from anyone–that could be perceived as dodgy.  I follow protocol and join ranks, putting my backpack up on the scanner.  I double-check with the security guard that it’s ok that my laptop is inside.  He responds: “It only erases part of your laptop’s memory, not all of it.”  My face clearly shows signs of distress, as the guard informs me that he was making a joke.  I release the tension in my lower back.  Ahhh.  A joke, that’s fun.

My sister is called forward.  I don’t look up.  I don’t want to draw attention to myself, should they detect any resemblance in our facial features.  She is being seriously questioned.  For the record, others have, once or twice, noted the general shape of our noses.

In line, they do a quick search of my lunch bag.  I have arranged it as my sister instructed me.  Then, they tear my suitcase from my hands.  Ok, maybe that’s not entirely true.  Ok, it’s not at all true.  Regardless, what is true is that my suitcase is sailing down the conveyor belt and I am sweating a little.  But then, my whole body freezes as I suddenly remember.  Oh GodFruit, Yogurt and sandwiches…who cares! I have bags of loose tea, from my mother, sitting on top of the clothing in my suitcase! Goldenseal, and marigold, lying there, fully exposed!

I am nervously shifting my weight, alternating between a plié and contropposto stance, desperately trying to think of various winning rebuttals.  I rehearse the first one that comes to mind: But officer, they are “natural” herbs! No, no, no.  That definitely would not cut it…

 

Luckily, I am spared the strain of coming up with more winsome refutations as moments later my luggage trots out of the baggage scanner looking triumphal, but war-torn.  I can tell that she has been through a lot on my behalf.  I still lie awake at night wondering: How did that machine know the difference between marigold and marijuana?  I’ll never know.  I am in awe of you, powerful technology.  I grab her and pull her to my side.

Back in line, I look over to find that the officer is still grilling my sister.  He is married, I notice.  Or, at least wears a ring on the forefinger of his left hand.  1 out of the 4 officers behind the counter wear some such similar ring. There is only 1 woman amongst the 4 guards.  Less than 25% of all border guards self-identify as women. My sister is smiling.  Prematurely, I take this to be a good sign.  Then, I notice that the border guard is not smiling.  Bad sign.  Of those who participated in our border control survey: 5% answered affirmatively to the contentious statement “I have smiled while on the job.”

 

As I am contemplating this, a man in front of me rolls over my foot with his enormous suitcase.  He then turns around to say: “careful, watch your toes!”  I thank him for his thoughtfulness.  In another place, at another time, I might have said something different in response, but presently, I bear this ill silently for fear that someone should see that we are talking, i.e. conspiring.  The sign in the middle of the wall suddenly commands my attention: “You are not allowed to argue with or threaten the guards.” I imagine this means no feeding or poking sticks through their cages too.

Now I am summoned.  I take a deep breath and walk forward.

Guard: What is the purpose of your travels?

Me: To see friends and family.

Guard: To see friends and family?

Me: Yes.

Guard: No, repeat what you just said.

Me: Umm… “To see friends and family”

Guard: No, from the beginning… “The purpose of my travels is to…”

Me: Oh. “The purpose of my travels is to see friends and family”?

Guard: Final answer?

Me: Yes…

Guard: No, say it.

Me: Oh, umm….

Guard: Say: “Final Answer.”

Me: Oh. “Final Answer.”

Guard: Have a good trip!

Me: Thanks.  You too!

Dang.  As soon as the words leave my mouth, I know it’s the wrong response.  He’s not going on a trip.  Whatever.  It’s just that he had me all caught up in that “repeat after me” stuff.

I exit the building and look for my sister.  There she is.  I march over to her. “Hey, what was THAT all about?!”  “We’ll talk about it once we’re back on the bus”, she hurriedly responds, moving away from me as if dodging the burdensome queries of some weirdo smelling of Doritos.  I get it.  I practice my whistling and take another stab at self-hypnosis: I am just a regular-ol’-passenger-person who happens to have met a look-alike on my bus tour.  Just a coincidence, ho-hum, whistles, whistle, whistle. The line moves onto the bus and I rush to the middle to grab two seats.

Finally, back on the bus and seated, I am hoping that we can be sisters again.  As we get ourselves situated I quietly whisper “OK! So What Happened?” (“Quietly whisper?” An outright lie: more like exclaimed loudly.)  She tells me that they needed proof of her residency to ensure that she would leave the country again come fall.  But the “100% real” “juice” of the matter, the “pulp” of the situation, the “seedy” detail was that her file had been flagged.

Me: Flagged?? Why?!

Sister: Apparently I brought a clementine into the U.S. a number of years ago.

Me: Apparently?! (Gasping for air, my heart palpitating, I move as many inches away from this unconscionable smuggler as I can.) So that’s why you weren’t willing to put the fruit in your own bag. Wow.  What a set up! It’s all so biblical!

Sister: You are nuts.

Me: No. I am Benjamin.  You are Joseph: the malicious one, placing a silver cup in my bag!

Sister:  One would be so lucky as to have nothing more than a silver cup discovered amongst their belongings at the border.  Sure, there might be duty fees, but they wouldn’t flag your profile.

Me: I think you’re making light of this.  I am suffering from pangs of guilt and possibly even PTBD.

Sister: PTBD…?

Me: Post-Traumatic Border Disorder.  If any of this fruit had been discovered in my bag, my plight could have surpassed that of biblical proportions.

How could she be so cool about it all? This had been a really stressful experience.  I knew I needed to calm down.  I reached into my bag and pulled out a small container and proceeded to lick the white stuff off the lid.  My sister looked alarmed, or maybe just surprised. “You got that through?!”

“Want a hit?” I say, softening my earlier tone and cracking a smile.  I reach back into my bag and grab a container for her.  “But seriously, how did you…” my sister is still still waiting to hear my explanation.  I try to leave her hanging there, for just a minute more 1,2,3… until I can contain myself no longer.

“You see, dear sestren…” I proudly begin, “While the border guards were busy sniffing out the infamous citrus contraband, and the X-ray machine was scanning for traces of Marigold tea, they failed to notice the 6oz of yogurt slipping into their country undetected.  But, then again, I guess it’s medicinal, right?”  I enjoy a spoonful until, like an annoying parrot, my brain squawks: Final Answer? I attempt my best impersonation, which in actuality is a “Regina Phil-in” nasally counterfeit at best, and respond to my internal border patrol: “Final Answer.”

Ten Things I Learned at the App Store

Confession time: I am a Mac user who owns a total of zero touch devices.

We have no iPhone in the house. Our fanciest iPod is a Nano without a video camera. We marvel at the magical iPad from afar.

Due to this lack of modern technology, I have been missing out on the App Store. I know this because of my chums with touch screen Apple devices. I should start slipping them calcium. I fear they will develop hunchbacks from hovering over their screens wherever they go.

It’s tough to see the value of the app while staring at their scalps, so when Apple announced the opening of their App Store for Mac, I was excited: my first personal exposure to this wonderful world of Angry Birds and Urban Spoon. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1. I can delude myself into believing I have more self-control now than when I was twenty. More confessions: I once had a gaming addiction. I would share the number of hours I’ve blown on Atari 2600, Sega Genesis, and the PC versions of Hearts and Solitaire, but by rule I only do one story problem a month (see point 3), plus I’ve spent way too much on hair color to date myself in such an obvious fashion. I’m pleased to report that even after downloading Action Potato and Pangea Arcade, I’m not spending a lot of time gaming on the computer. This allows me to continue hollering at my video-game loving children, without hypocrisy, while I’m on Facebook or Twitter.

2. Computer geeks like a good soap opera as much as girls. I decided to ask my friend Ty, an app developer, to be my Glinda, sans singing and dress, in the Land of Apps. As a part of my tour, he recounted the saga of Jobs and Gates, their split, the exit of Jobs from Apple, the return of Jobs, and the Google factor (and this was before the shake ups at both Apple and Google in mid-January 2011). Tremendous story. Recommended improvements? Cast Susan Lucci as the many faces of Android and supply chocolates.

3. Apple wants to own my consumer soul, part one. Shortly after I started toying with the App Store, I noticed an odometer-looking counter at apple.com. It was tracking the number of apps downloaded through iTunes, and if my math is correct, will turn over the ten billion mark within hours of my submission of this article. I felt like it was aimed squarely at me. C’mon, it was saying, everyone’s doing it. Tick-tock. Don’t you want a chance to win $10,000 in iTunes credit? What’s the harm in one little app? Don’t you want to be as awesome as the rest of the known world?  You at least want to see it roll over, don’t you? It was like a drug dealer inside my computer.

4. Apple wants to own my consumer soul, part two. I just said no to the ten billionth iTunes app slot machine/app-ometer, but they’ve got other ways of making you shop. The App Store shows me how badly I need to be unilaterally aligned with them. By teasing me with apps for my computer that are also available for the touch screen devices, I can see how much cooler it would be if only I could, say,  take my notes with me (yeah, Ty-Glinda the App Developer showed me Evernote), add to them, and sync it all up, nice and pretty.

5. An app by any other name is software. Such a satisfying little word, app, but an app is really just a software application, a focused sort of computer program. Thus the App Store is a virtual marketplace with a really great name. I would say “merely” a great name, but I can’t discount the value of the phrase “App Store”: Microsoft is suing over it.

6. Nostalgia can lessen your appreciation of the new. Fireworms, a part of Pangea Arcade, is a fun game to play, reminiscent of Centipede. It stirred a sense of longing for the past in me. You might be thinking, ah, she probably misses her teenage years and all that is contained therein: youth, vitality, innocence. You would be wrong. I miss the arcade rollerball. If you do not know what a rollerball is, just imagine your touchpad with a pop-up ball in a socket that you could control with your fingertips or palm, and in moments of extreme gaming frenzies, whip your hand across it and make it spin really, really fast.

6a. You were right after all. Discussing this made me also miss the game Tempest. Thinking about how few readers will remember Tempest makes me feel old. Now I’m longing for my youth, etc.

7. Programming a yelling robotto keep you on task may be as distracting as not having a yelling robot at all.

8. Selling software through the virtual store means less overhead. Aperture version 3.1.1, Apple’s step-up photography software, sells for $79.99 through the App Store. Aperture 3, sold in stores, is $199.99. This seems like good news for consumers, or at least those owned by Apple.

9. Despite the distraction of programming a yelling robot, it is fun to name him Steve.

10. When entering a high score, I call myself ACE, even though I’m the only one playing the game.

Normal and Wanted

Typically, she was described as an extrovert; a social butterfly.  Typically, she was not opposed to our communal-centric society.  But tonight, it seemed impossibly problematic. She was alone at a concert.  This was her first concert alone.  As she stood in line outside, in the middle of November, it was not the cold that bothered her– no, the air was quite refreshing; it was just that, well, she was alone.

Behind the couples and clusters of friends, there she stood: her loneliness.  There are certain things that are acceptably done alone… she thought to herself.  Of these few things, “concert going” didn’t immediately come to mind.

Photo by Barrie Humphries.

When she, and the others standing in line, were finally ushered into the lobby, the young people milled about getting drinks, chatting, or drinking and chatting on the couches in the lounge.  Attempting to be like her fellow youngsters, she too got in line to get a drink.  Unfortunately, she had never established a “favorite” drink and so as not to keep anyone waiting, she ended up ordering what the person next to her had just ordered. “PBR” she echoed to the bartender taking her order.  As she would later learn, “PBR” (Pabst Blue Ribbon) did not sit particularly well with her.  She enjoyed the design of the label and had no qualms with the company’s marketing strategy or environmental record; it was the taste of PBR that made her queasy.

She decided to walk around the lounge under the pretext of looking for someone, in the hopes that someone would talk to her, if only to ask her if she was looking for someone.  In the past, she had been told that her confident air could be perceived as threatening to men, and therefore, tonight, she consciously attempted to look unconfident i.e. “open” and “accessible”, as others had put it.  In her attempt to look the part, you would be putting it kindly to say that she “overshot” her target.  In attempting to achieve the doe-eyed look she thought would convey “open,”  she rolled her pupils back in her head rather than widening her eyes and gazing distantly to the left, and then to the right, as every other young woman in the room knew to do.  And her open mouth looked less like the simpering pout of a model, than a gasp for air or the unfortunate result of an involuntary muscle response.

After touring the room in hopes of connecting with the people around the lounge, she noticed that a line was forming.  Without knowing what the line was for, she jumped in.  Feeling especially “ballsy” (she hated that word, but due to its common usage among young people she repeatedly found it surface in her vocabulary), she asked the girls in line ahead of her what the line was for?  As it turned out, the line was for those wanting to first get into the concert hall.  Not a bad place to be, she thought to herself, as she relaxed her eyes and closed her mouth, allowing her face to return to its natural, if intimidating, self.

Since her attempt at looking “open” and “accessible” had run amuck, she deduced that she really had only one option left.  She would pretend to be a social critic who attends concerts not for personal enjoyment, but to document the mundanity of music in the post-hipster revival of Williamsburg.

Really?  That’s your only option? She found her mind second-guessing her recent epiphany.

“Yes.” She tried to sound confident in her response.

Why don’t you just try and be over-the-top friendly and introduce yourself to people around you?

Because, that would be inherently risky.  I could be perceived as: a) needy b) friendless c) weird or d) needy, friendless and, weird.”

Right, sure, I see, because pretending to be a social critic to avoid the reality that you are alone at a concert doesn’t make you needy, friendless, or weird.

She could think of no quick response to this insulting insinuation.

Besides, if you were a social critic attending a concert you would need a BlackBerry or an Iphone to pretend that you are networking with, nay, running, the entire world. Given the lowly status of your phone I would say are you capable of accomplishing little more than receiving a phone call.

You’re right. I can text.” She haughtily pretended to feign indifference to the demeaning comments made about her and her phone.  At least she had a response this time.

After this exchange, she felt quite deflated.  In a last brave effort, she grabbed for her cell phone.  Despite the lack of a posse surrounding me, she thought, at least I’ll look like I’m loved. She began texting friends so that they would respond, in order to create the illusion for the people around her that she was someone of importance; someone who was spontaneously and constantly remembered by friends, loved ones and suitors.

But she couldn’t shake the nasty comments her mind had earlier posited and so she texted her guru for advice….

how do I pretend to look

cool while standing alone in

a lounge waiting to be let in

to a concert?

…And received this response:

Just keep moving.

Look normal and

wanted.

Normal AND Wanted? Ever more frustrated by what seemed to be impossible advice, she nonetheless mulled over the guru’s advice in her mind.

She asked the girls ahead of her whom noticed had Iphones if they would look up the Merriam Webster Dictionary definition of “normal”.  They seemed more than a little surprised by this request, but kindly obliged.  The one with the dark glasses and bangs touched some buttons on her phone and pinched her fingers all over the screen before reading: “Conforming to a standard, usual, typical, or expected…umm…. A person free from physical or mental disorders.” She thanked the girls for their assistance and let them know that they could turn around again if they wanted.  They did.

Interesting, she thought to herself. Attempting to crack her guru’s Mensa text she began to slowly contemplate each word and its situational meaning.  Conforming… to the standard… of… Williamsburg (for instance)… could not be described as universally “expected” or “usual”…. She wasn’t getting very warm.

Normal: A person free from physical or mental disorders: again, totally subjective, she mouthed to herself.  Her mind drifted to the larger cultural constructions of “normal”.   Then, she remembered a t-shirt a friend had given her when she was in middle school.  The “baby T”, as they were called, had “Not Normal” written across the chest.  “Baby T’s”, though short and un-flattering with scarring slogans written on them had been all the rage.  She had vigorously fought with her mother to allow her to wear the shirt, employing coercive language like: “it’s cool,” “there’s nothing wrong with it” and “everyone else wears these shirts.”

It was not until she had won the right to wear the shirt that she began to consider the ramifications of her victory.  Questions arose in her mind, such as: “Was my friend insinuating something when she gave me this t-shirt?” and “Does this shirt say something to others about me?”  But it was too late.  She had won, and pride dictated that she had to wear, and enjoy wearing, the shirt.  Looking back now, she couldn’t help but feel resentful and embarrassed about the cruel game that had been played on her by children’s marketing moguls.

Is it karma, she wondered, that I, who fought to wear a shirt branding me “Not Normal”, now stand here alone? She felt pangs of guilt.  The idea was too weighty a burden.  She decided not to blame herself.  It was the culture at large that was to blame.

In substantiating her critique of the culture at large she questioned: are women more than men subject to solitary stigmatization in society than men? Good question.  But, she was too busy congratulating herself for coining the term “solitary stigmatization” to answer her own question.  She then wondered if even something as individual and spontaneous as dancing relies partly on the gaze of others? She concluded that it did. Dancing alone typically results in solitary stigmatization… And what about laughter? To laugh alone is to label yourself a psychopath! She giggled to herself at the thought of this ridiculous taboo.  She was on a roll. She had tested her theory on the three big matters: gender, dance and laughter. Ok, she thought, this is all coming together.

As she was thinking about her potential-thesis-dissertation-topic, theory of solitary stigmatization, she remembered that she had forgotten to examine the second word in the text from her guru.  Look (1) Normal and (2) Wanted.  In shaking up her mental gymnastics routine she decided to examine this word by asking the inverse question it evoked: what does un-wanted look like? While a number of names and labels sprang to mind she dismissed them, pushing onward.

How does one look “wanted”? Is it a matter of wearing the right garb or accessories?  She looked around the room in an attempt to see if the people in the music hall could provide any clues.  She was overwhelmed by a wave of confusing imagery.  Young people were dressed in all manner of clothing from torn and scuffed to ruffled and feathered.  She even thought she recognized her grandmother’s glasses on a number of girls.  Only one thing was clear; she had gained no insight from the world around her.

As she stood there, alone and more confused then ever, she felt a great heaviness in her heart.  And then the light bulb flashed.  The puzzle had finally come together.  She laughed out loud.  She couldn’t help herself. Loud reams of laughter poured out of her mouth.  The girl ahead of her with the Iphone and the bangs turned around.  The bartender pouring someone a PBR looked at her.  The couples sitting on the couch pulled their faces away from each other and craned their necks to see what was going on.

The joke is on me,” she said out loud.  No one disagreed, although, no one said anything either.  “If you want to get very Meta about it you could say the joke is not simply on me but that the joke is me.”  Everyone waited for the punch line.  She delivered. “Look NORMAL, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and WANTED while alone at a concert. Ha!”

Silence.

She thought these people in particular should have appreciated the irony. But they didn’t seem to get it.  A number of people exited to use the restroom; many more got back in line for another PBR and still more grabbed for their phones.  The puzzle had finally come together.  Meta. She shrugged her shoulders and mumbled to herself.  She knew this one.  Denoting a change of position or condition.

In Defense of NaNoWriMo

About nine years ago, I decided that I wanted to write a book. This came as no major surprise to the people who knew me. After all, I’d started drinking at a young age, and I’d demonstrated an uncanny ability to make foolish decisions. Writing a book was only the next in a list long enough to, well, fill the pages of a book. I’m pretty sure my family was just happy that my decision didn’t walk the line of anything illegal– except plagiarism.

Excited about my epic new undertaking, I sat down and wrote the title at the top of the page, demonstrating that I knew absolutely nothing about how to write a book, despite having read a substantial number of them without pictures by the age of twenty. That title stayed at the top of that page for months with no words to follow. I thought about the plot frequently, but not as frequently as I thought about other things, like eating cupcakes. I think this had a lot to do with the fact that eating cupcakes seemed both conceivable and enjoyable; writing a book appeared to have neither quality.

At that time in my life I read only BBC News because I was convinced that the British were somehow less biased and more put- together than the Americans. (I was also drinking. A lot.) This proved to be one of the worst decisions of my life not only because it surreptitiously led to the delusion that writing might be a good career move, but also because I started do things like saying “row” instead of “argument” and inserting the letter “u” in words that — let’s be honest — don’t really need them. But overall grammar aside, the real disservice done unto me by the BBC was cluing me in to what had been, for five years prior, a well-kept secret: November is National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo.

The postmodern premise is simple: You compete with countless other writers around the world to complete a 50,000 word novel — that’s 1,667 words a day, or roughly 7 pages — in thirty days or less — the month of November. I say it’s postmodern because you don’t actually compete with anyone. There are no prizes, no rankings, and no consequences if you lose, except that people may laugh at you. Being far superior to most other people, however, I didn’t figure this risk applied to me, and I immediately clicked on the link and signed myself up for thirty masochistic days of sub-par plot lines and character development, forsaking all other people and duties in the name of I’m still not sure what. Because I was successful at hitting the word count the first time, and because so many of the other NaNoers I met liked to hang out in bars, I was compelled by such positive reinforcement to inflict this suffering on myself every November for the next five years.

If you possess even a vague shred of sanity, you’re probably asking yourself or the guy next to you furiously typing on his netbook why someone would do something like this outside of jail. Assuming that the guy next to you hasn’t reached his word count for the day, let me shed a little bit of light.

The thing that typically gives a person the green light to NaNo (yes, it’s a verb in our little world) is the fact that other people are doing it, too. And as most of us learned in college if not before, we’re much more likely to do something stupid if someone else is willing to do it with us. In this way, NaNoWriMo has a lot in common with acting in daytime soap operas and watching any movie featuring Keanu Reeves.

Once fate has been set in motion, however, there are some rewards to be reaped in the end. The first is that, whether or not you hit the 50,000 word mark, most people end up with a really solid base for a bonafide novel. This may seem a small reward, and let’s be honest: it is. But if a novelist is only putting the pen to paper for a tangible reward, then that novelist will probably only ever be successful at failure, because statistically speaking, writing books does not earn most writers a living. Only steady writing gigs, like horoscopes and obituaries, are likely to do that.

Second, undertaking NaNoWriMo, like most two-faced pleasures, gives an aspiring writer the urge to do it again. Even if you botch the whole ordeal, you can’t help but think to yourself that it was actually kind of fun in a I-hope-God-didn’t-see-that sort of way. The next eleven months of your life will pass by without much thought, but by October, everything you see, every unsuspecting person you know is fodder for a NaNo project. Will you lose friends? Definitely. Will your family ask you to change your name? Most likely. Will you need a liver transplant when November ends? It’s always a toss-up. But in the end, you will look back with nothing less than fondness, and if you want to be a novelist, you’d better get used to looking back. After all, most of the greats didn’t become successful until they were dead.

Third, NaNoWriMo is a great way to meet people whose imaginations are even more frightening than yours. No matter how many times you’ve mused about apocalyptic CIA operatives, radioactive cockroaches, or whether or not zombies can reproduce, there’s always someone else who’s taken it a step further. In the world of NaNo severed heads will rat out murderers, fairy tale princesses will have lobotomies, and nuns will explode, not because these things are central to any particular plot line, but because apart from most NaNoers being rather twisted, the NaNoWriMo organization actually promotes word count over content. (The website actually says, “Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality.”)

And that may be the only drawback to NaNo, apart from the insanity it stimulates. With over 169,000 manuscripts scribbled down in only a month’s time, most of the content is shoddy at best. For the dedicated novelist, this doesn’t matter much because the NaNo novel is essentially just a rough draft. But for the amateurs and first-timers among them the accomplishment of a first novel gets passed around to family and friends like bed bugs, yielding roughly the same return as a church offering plate. A potty-training toddler gets more effective feedback, and probably more encouragement, too. Why? Because while most people are hesitant to constructively criticize or give an otherwise honest opinion on the musings of a loved one, there are few who will tolerate a child who never properly learns how to pee.

Fortunately, most NaNo writers are not hellbent on becoming vocational novelists, and for the ones who are, each November is, despite the obstacles, a new springboard to that dream, a fresh sheet of paper begging a would-be author to fill it with crippled dogs that can dance or children who never learn how to pee. In short, the point of NaNo is not to create good literature, but to stir the imagination, to challenge someone who is probably already an egg or two short of the dozen to sublimate that black sheep creativity by tying together randomness and weirdness into something cohesive, even if ridiculous. Most of all, the point is to have fun.

Overall, National Novel Writing Month has become an annual reminder that just as reading is essential to our culture, so also are the writings that engage us to do so. Even if sometimes suboptimal, NaNo stimulates the imagination with asinine, inappropriate, frequently unintelligible works of fiction, giving every writer a platform to be heard, a reason to create, and most importantly, something to do in jail. Because most of us will probably end up there eventually.

Death by Taradiddle

Your thumbs are aching.  Your wrists are burning.  But, you persevere.  You hit send. You smile as you picture the delight on the face of the receiver who will open your clever little text.

It was once believed that it is “better to give than to receive.” However, in this advanced day and age of texting, we now know that the value of “giving” is equal to or less than the intoxicating notification that you have received.

Your phone vibrates and the light flashes. Your adrenaline surges as you click “Read Now.” The message: a witty quip providing an intimate snapshot into the life of another. It is akin to reading a status update on Facebook but better, as this is privately, intimately, just for you. You smile and even giggle aloud while staring at your tiny screen.

Brief insight into my life: my family
eats pre-packaged dinners and watches
Wheel of Fortune re-runs while I enjoy
Pushkin and Proust.

Wow, a very successful text: succinct and clever with a dash of intellectual intrigue. Now it’s your turn. You’ve got to make a play. And if you’re a real competitor, it has to be equal to or greater than what you’ve received.  But here’s where it can all get very complicated very fast. Do you respond immediately? Do you respond openly and honestly?

What’s a Pushkin? Neva mind.
Will Wiki.

Or,

I hate pre-fab food n
think Wheel of F
is total kitsch.

The answer is NO. You don’t. You play the game. After a little background research into the subjects mentioned in the text received, you respond with something equally impressive (the first quote listed on Wikipedia by Alexander Pushkin), though completely uninformative about yourself:

“The illusion which exalts
us is dearer to us than
ten-thousand truths.”

Home Run.
______________________________________
Mind: What?! What is that?!

 

Ego: A quote by Pushkin.

 

Mind: Yeah, but you didn’t even know who he was until you Googled him?!

 

Ego: Wikipedia-ed. I had heard the name once before.

Mind: So now you’re pretending that you share a common love of Russian literature?

Acting as if this quote is memorized, ready, and waiting at the front of your brain? . . . Filed away just before the Yahoo dating tips you’ve actually memorized? I know you. You fraud.

 

Ego: Well, I think you’ll agree that it’s a pretty impressive li(n)e to send.
______________________________________

They say that 55% of communication is non-verbal, 38% is vocal, and a mere 7% is written[1]. But these statistics need not apply. Times have changed. Person-to-person communication has been downgraded. It is not uncommon to find people zoning out of your conversation, dropping their heads from your eyes to the gaze of a 2½-inch screen, to satisfy their textual cravings with others. To add insult to injury, they will then most likely ask you to repeat entire missed chapters of the conversation: as if you were nothing more than an open Kindle offering conversation on demand[2].

As the bulk of our communication increasingly falls into what should be the smallest category of all, the results are disenchanting. Recently at a party, a momentary lull in conversation saw everyone grabbing at pockets or digging in purses for their cell phones. These addicts were desperate for a hit: to send a text, check the time, anything. Which brings us to our first lesson in contemporary communication. Let’s call it Taradiddle[3] 101:

Whatever you do, you are not to make the effort to start a conversation with a new person in person. If you want to get to know the cute girl sitting on the couch next to you, you overhear her name. (Worst-case scenario you resort to conversation with her to ask for her name.)  You may then proceed to use your “Facebook for iPhone” app to add the cute girl sitting next to you as a “friend.” Once “friend-ing” has occurred, you may proceed to poke her (via Facebook, of course). From there, if you are lucky, things may even progress to reciprocal wall postings.

Overhauling age-old communication practices is not without consequence. The stakes are high; I don’t mean to scare you but, with texting, the margin for communicative error increases by tenfold[4] while the likelihood of taradiddle increases by ten thousand-fold. (On the homeland security advisory system this would be level orange. No, red.)

The most obvious reason for an increase in communication error is that texts are short, thereby restricting the amount of communication possible. The very size of the keypad limits, or I should say, lessens the possibility of texting novellas to friends. Realistically, to even touch the correct letter on the miniature keypad with our clumsy mammoth hands is meritorious. As a result, words are used sparingly and editing of texts is infrequently, if ever, done.

Of course, for strong, silent types, this all sounds positive. A “pro,” if we’re keeping tally. But, before you smile shyly on the inside, let’s move on to the real con[5]. One ill-placed exclamation mark, a mis-typed word, a poorly phrased sentence — possibly resulting from one apple juice too many — is all it takes to send the wrong message. . . .

f u! wake up with tonsillitis
you’ll no who 2 blame 🙂

. . . and the wrong message is all it takes to kill a budding romance or a flirtatious fling.

But I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking I am way ahead of you. You’re thinking: I have never had trouble communicating effectively via text because I routinely employ the greatest technologically-facilitated-emotional-communications-advancement-ever-to-have-hit-the-free-world. Emoticons.[6] But before we all employ the emoticon-wearing-a-party-hat to celebrate the emotional communications gap that has been filled, let’s not forget that all smiles are not created equal.

While it is possible to convey certain universal experiences such as: “Hey, look at me, I’m wearing sunglasses” and “I love you so much, hearts are literally exploding out of my face,” it is far more difficult to convey the nuance of human expression through emoticons. Why? Consider the variables that affect the meaning of a single spoken word: the volume, intonation, and the sound of the voice, as well as the movements of the face and body. Body language is subtle and varied. Discerning the emotion being conveyed via an emoticon? Blatant.  No emoticon can do our real emotional experiences justice[7].  Emoticons are too over-the-top to convey real emotion or to rouse empathy from the person receiving the message. The moment you add the “crying” emoticon, to show your long-distance lover that you really are tearing up at your keyboard, you instantly have made a mockery of your own emotional state. Emoticons are less an indicator of emotion than a representational satire on the states of emotion.

Therefore, emoticons =  🙁 .

While emoticons may not be the answer to all of our texting woes, all is not woeful when it comes to texting. In fact, many taradiddlers[8] would argue that there are numerous advantages of texting. For example, we can now get to know someone by text rather than having to be with them, which requires a decision and thus, an effort. It is also far easier to tolerate someone via text rather than in person. Neuroticism can come across as an endearing character trait and elusive behavior adds an aura of mystery.

But, just as the letters “xoxo” typed at the end of a message are eventually an unsatisfying replacement for the gestures they symbolize, likewise, clever text messages are no substitute for the real, in-your-face deal.  Granted, it can be enjoyable to play the taradiddle game. But, be ready to call foul. And to have your foul called.


[1]Contrary to contemporary behavior, the bulk of human communication was apparently not intended to exist vis-à-vis miniature keypad.

[2] High Definition conversation available for a nominal fee.

[3] Real word. Get out Miriam Webster. OK, fine . . . defined as “pretentious nonsense.” Aka: B.S.

[4] Shocking, but statistically fictitious.

[5] Dear strong, silent types, thank you for quietly waiting while I delivered my pre-ramble. Is it presumptive of me to say that I expected nothing less?

[6] You weren’t ahead of me; I was busy picking the perfect emoticon with a smug look on his round yellow face to show you that I knew where you were heading all along. 🙂

[7] Perhaps in the future we will have a new line of emoticons with real, high-def emotional performance capabilities and this statement will be proved false. However, at press time, I stand by this strong, if technologically insensitive and personally subjective, statement.

[8] Those who dabble in the art of taradiddle.

A Beautiful (whatever that means) Moment

So, there’s another contributor to the Curator with whom I share my city of residence. After discovering his views on our fair city (which align with mine down to the last ‘y’ in Jersey City) I knew that either we would be fast friends should we ever meet, or I have a split personality and am now submitting articles to this magazine under two identities (which, it seems, would be really bizarre as far as split personality vocational choices go). Or, perhaps we were twin brothers separated at birth, an option I ruled out quickly after we met face-to-face, or should I say, face to sternum. Hi-yo!! (Ugh. I can’t believe I just wrote that. I feel dirty.) Height difference aside, we did become fast friends. And, I was glad to learn that as far as I am aware, I have only one personality.

Besides the city we love, many other cultural artifacts could have brought us even closer together: songs, movies, politics, shoes, sports and, most obviously, numismatics are chief among them. But, it was that most manly of canapés that took our budding buddyship to the next level: hot wings and beer.

Now, imagine for one second the dangerous and seemingly impossible discovery that we could consume both our beloved hot wings and beer in our beloved city in one solitary establishment. (And for $.25/wing and $2/draft at that.) Needless to write (but will anyway since verbosity won’t keep you out of heaven… I certainly hope), we were more than skeptical about the quality of the items on which we were about to spend our moderately-difficultly-earned money.

We came. We saw. We paid with change we scraped up from various junk drawers. The wings were edible; the beer was wet; but, the experience we had, words cannot describe. So I won’t try.

That’s it. The article is over. (Wait, I’m sorry boss, what’s that? I’m way under the word minimum? The preceding drivel is not an article?)

Well, a truly gifted scribe, says Flannery O’Connor or Michael Crichton, would at this point put their artistic foot down and refuse to compromise themselves. Well, maybe not Mr. Crichton. But Flannery – I always wondered if her nickname was Flan. And if it was, did she go by Flan on trips to Spanish-speaking nations? A simple phrase like “quiero flan por favor” could have resulted in much awkwardness and perhaps  an accidentally- arranged marriage. It is at this point that I believe I have disqualified myself from ever being allowed to attend a Glen Workshop. Such is the extent of my commitment to my art.

I’ve lost my train of thought (and probably 2/3 of my readers).

Straight to the main point then.

What is post-modernism? Isn’t that the question people ask when they are trying to seem erudite and educated? Asking in a way that presumes they know the answer, when they actually have no clue what it means and couldn’t recognize it if it was a pile of manure stuck to their shoe, so it gets mistaken for mud and wiped off by hand before remembering the dream job interview starting in ten minutes and realizing there is nowhere to expunge the excrement before handshakes and hellos.

For the longest time I thought I had a grasp on this slippery eel; I thought there was only mud on my shoe. I’d throw around words like subjectivisticism, multiculturalityness and openmindednessicity in conversation. But it wasn’t until the night Fitz and I entered a corner beer and hot-wingery that I truly appreciated the 7-layer salad that is post-modernism.

The establishment presents itself like a typical, local-divey-psuedo-Irish pub, hookah bar, and grill. Gaudy four leaf clover signs advertising Budweiser’s newest beerish-but-not-much-more-than-sparkling-yellow-water beverage are lazily draped above the makeshift outdoor seating area furnished by plastic chairs and wobbly tables covered by partially torn umbrellas. No sooner than one finishes stereotyping this haunt from its exterior, does one enter it to find an unimaginably tangled web of discontinuity.

The window decor is Hindi-ish. The wall-hangings mirrored and/or neon. The music pounding is classic rock. The TVs blaze soccer & football. The parishioners palate burgers and burnt tobacco. The bar is dirty. The bartender is Puerto Rican*. The clientele is Russian, Pakistani, and Jerseyian. And there’s Fitz and me, talking theology, eating wings, and fitting right in. Because, in that place, a profalactic-peddling, ex-circus performer wouldn’t have stood out.

*Due to her fortissimo speaking volume, we did spend several minutes imbibing in silence as she regaled the Russians and another server with the story of missing work due to her mom being found dead on a boat docked in Costa Rica not shortly after having had an, apparently, life-fulfilling breast augmentation.

Our conversation that evening kept rolling back to how difficult it would be for Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann to sit at that bar for even 5 minutes. We just couldn’t imagine the high-modernist mind being able to make any sense of such a disjointed amalgamation. But that night we walked right up the embodiment of every rationalist’s fears, shook its hand, bought a beer from it, and said, “hello, post-modernism. Pleased to meet you. Cheers.”

Doubtless a place like this is not far from you, a place where you could get away and take a break from your worries; a place where nobody knows your name, and where they’re barely aware you came. Yet a place where people know that people are all the same.

We can find moments like this one where nothing seems to make sense or belong together if we are willing to suppress the need for sense and enjoy sensing the surrounding strangeness. In the senselessness of these situations, there can be some semblance of sanity, if we are only willing to shake hands with a new friend.

Autumnal Resolutions: JC Oktoberfest 2010

For showing up at the end of the calendar year, autumn is an ironically fertile season for new beginnings. Kids start school. Farmers celebrate a new harvest. The Jews celebrate a new year. I celebrate a new reason to hate people who complain about summer.

This year, during one of those infamous Labor Day picnics where millions of Americans across the country, instead of mourning the loss of joy cast over mankind through the brilliance of summer’s sun, blaspheme her holy name by proclaiming autumn to be the greatest of the seasons, a friend of mine poured lemon juice on the open wound by declaring that we should all state our Autumnal Resolutions.

For those of you who feel like you might have missed a memo, fear not. Autumnal Resolutions have never been an American tradition and, God-willing, they never will be. After all, there is very little to which autumn calls us to resolve, except maybe to sleep all day and stay home until sometime in May. But I generally like to surround myself with people who don’t grasp these obvious facts as easily as I do, because if there’s one thing more important than determining which season is the best, it’s making sure that when all’s said and done, I’m still the smartest person in the room.

This intelligence gap, however, meant that I was outnumbered and would indeed have to suffer through the lukewarm aspirations of those who are lesser than I. And if there’s one thing more important than making sure that I’m the smartest person in the room, it’s making sure that I’ve got the cleverest aspiration so that people will still think I’m cool, even when I disagree with the principle.

Unlike most people who make resolutions, I like to set a low bar. There’s no sense in dreaming up the impossible or even the improbable, because then you just have to tell everybody you failed. And nobody likes a failure. And life, of course, is all about how many people like you.

With a nil level of challenge set for myself, I declared that my Autumnal Resolution was to drink as much seasonal beer as possible. And for all of you ale connoisseurs out there who like to talk about hops and spices and malts instead of important things, like wondering what hops are in the first place, don’t expect an academic breakdown of sensations here. When I say the bar is low, I mean there are field mice that would struggle to pass underneath it. I don’t intend to seek out the scarcest or the most authentic autumn ales, mostly because drinking beer shouldn’t be that challenging, I don’t care what season it is. More importantly, my elementary appraisal of mostly bottled beers serves the greater purpose of challenging the rising belief that drinking beer is a classy thing to do. As fraternities and rednecks demonstrate ad nauseam, drinking beer is not classy. Drinking scotch is classy. Drinking beer is just fun.

What my friends in the park didn’t know about my lowball resolution amidst their jeering was that my mission was, in fact, already underway by the time I thought of it. Sometime in late August I saw that the first autumn ale of the season had quietly slipped its way onto the shelf at my local C-Town. That moment is always one of mixed emotions for me; excitement over the beer, but utter devastation at what it signals. And when utter devastation rears its merciless form, I frequently find that buying beer is one of the best things to do. Thus commenced the JC Oktoberfest of 2010.

My first taste of fall this year was Blue Moon’s Harvest Moon. Blue Moon always makes a very distinct seasonal ale, uniquely different from the others, and their fall beer is no exception. Harvest Moon has a more intelligent balance than most pumpkin ales, offering the fullness of pumpkin flavor without the overpowering richness of brown sugar that has so many other pumpkin ales thickening my tongue and inducing massive sugar headaches later on. Though ultimately still on the sweet side, Harvest Moon is a well-rounded beer worthy of opening the fall season, if for no other reason than because their brand strategy of naming beer after the moon cycles is really cool.

When push comes to shove, though, I don’t really care for pumpkin ales. The complexities too often turn to riches, which leave me feeling more sick than satisfied. So I drank the Harvest Moon as quickly as I could, anticipating my next stop on the autumn beer tour. Leaving my fortunes to the distributors, I next ended up with Sierra Nevada’s Tumbler, described as an autumn brown ale, though it should probably be labeled an Oktoberfest. This beer makes an uncommon departure from Sierra’s typical heavy-on-the-hops approach, going the traditional autumnal route instead of fresh-roasted malts, leaving less of the bite while hinting at smoke and chocolate. Best of all, Tumbler goes down smoother than other Sierras, which means you can drink them really fast in the interest of moving on to the next fall brew on the shelf. After all, the autumn ale season is about quantity, not quality.

The cornerstone of any fall beer, of course, is the Oktoberfest. The real Oktoberfest started as a horse race in Munich commemorating a royal marriage in the year 1810, during which time a special brew by Spaten was served en masse to the people. The Germans quickly realized that beer was far more interesting and enjoyable than horses or royalty, and so the festival continued annually as a beer fest, inspiring copycats the world round. At such festivals, Spaten’s Oktoberfest is still served in liter-sized mugs, blonde waitresses wear pigtails and the classic St. Pauli Girl corset, and the only thing on the menu is bratwurst. This is what Oktoberfest means to serious beer-drinkers and Germans. However, as I am neither, I’ll talk instead about the festival’s global offshoot: the Oktoberfest brew.

The majority of autumnal ales in America are classified as “Oktoberfest” ales, but I’m pretty sure that very few people know what that really means. We just like the name. And the “k” in “Oktober.” But there’s more to these brews than aesthetically-pleasing misspellings. Oktoberfest seasonals are, unequivocally, the finest beers out there. They make up the sole reason to look forward to the doldrums of fall (that, and pipe-smoking, but that’s for another article altogether). From Blue Point to Sam Adams to Magic Hat, each Oktoberfest is slightly different from its cousins, but they all share similar characteristics: caramel, toffee, heavy malts, hints of hops, and a robust amber color I’m convinced is designed to make me feel like I’m drinking the dead leaves right off of the ground. By nature of the ingredients, Oktoberfests almost always turn out to be the smoothest, most drinkable beers, and as a result, they also almost always lead to late mornings and the distinct impression that fall went by awfully quickly, without leaving much trace of memory. This, I’m assuming, more than seasonal characteristics, is why Oktoberfest is only brewed once a year.

Last year, I remember settling on Blue Point as the superior autumnal ale of 2009, but the jury is still out for 2010. Sam Adams always holds its own as a top contender, but then so do the locals, such as Brooklyn Brewery’s Oktoberfest and Post Road Pumpkin Ale. (Surely there are some tasty local beers wherever you live, too, even if Brooklyn’s are better.) Also not to be ignored is Victory’s Festbier, which humbly foregoes the title Oktoberfest, but brings with it all of the characteristics you’d expect from something effectively called “party beer.” For those of you who, after reading this far, still think drinking beer is classy, I recommend the earthier, more subtle brews offered by Hacker-Pschorr and Ayinger on tap (pass on the bottles) at your friendly neighborhood biergarten. And whether on tap or in bottles, you can rarely go wrong with the pioneer of all things Oktoberfest: Spaten.

But care must also be exercised when sojourning through the world of autumn ales, for there are impostors out there as well. Hofbrau, for example, seems like it should be a pretty authentic contender, but their Oktoberfest comes out more watery than expected, hitting the palate like a pilsner, and a boring one at that, shamelessly blaspheming the holy name of Oktoberfest that it bears. And of course, there’s the laughable contribution from Michelob, which should be outlawed in the very Constitution of the United States. If you venture to drink this, be ready for people to laugh at you, or worse, block you on a social networking site. They won’t be joking, and they won’t be your friends anymore, either. (And remember how important it is to be liked by people.) Responsible drinking means remembering this even when you’ve already had a few and that Michelob is whispering, “Why not?” to your uninhibited ears. Just as you intuitively know not to wear your underwear for more than three days in a row, you should also know not to seriously regard Michelob as a true Oktoberfest beer. Some things are just inherently wrong.

By the time you read this article, the season will be half over. That means you’ll only get to have half the fun I’ll have had by now, but that’s to be expected, since people generally only ever have half as much fun as I do. But don’t let my superiority complex rain on your parade; October still has plenty of beer to go around. Contrary to the example set above, I don’t recommend beer-drinking as an Autumnal Resolution, mostly because I don’t recommend Autumnal Resolutions at all. But if you find that you absolutely must commit to something during this season where all the life around us is dying, then ale is surely the thing, not because fall doesn’t offer anything else to celebrate, but because none of those other things offer clever marketing schemes or an alcohol content higher than 5.5% ABV. And alcohol content is, after all, the most important ingredient for any new beginning.

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Get Found at the Church of Chuck

Oh dear Lost-Lovers,

I know your recent loss of Lost is looming; it’s hard to let go of a love so long in lingering. Even when you had begun to think that perhaps it’s time for less Lost; you feel its absence and know that while the drama’s players are now found, you are lost.

I can empathize; I was lured then left by a long-running love once. And I lived to tell that there is hope. That you, too, will find your way to the church and see there all that you loved about Lost.

In fact, what if I told you that I knew where that church was? What if I said its doors will once again open this fall? And what if, over the summer, it were possible to begin to climb your way out of the purgatory in which you now find yourself?

What if you could have back all of what made Lost your greatest love – and more?

Characters that feel like family, unrequited love, death and resurrection, action and adventure, consipiration, mysterious origins, sub-sub-subplots, high-techery, super-suspension of disbelief, familial über-loyalty, double-crossing, triple-crossing, flashbacks, fabulous acting, rich characterization, profound writing, a weekly abandoning of your mundane existence into a world of enigma and possibility, beautiful people, unlikely heroes and likeable/hateable villains – all of these could once again be yours. And then add to that humor, silliness, stupendous non-sequiturs, elaborate covers, spies, and Captain Awesome.

As much as I would love to promise you tropical polar bears, time travel, flash sidewayses (that is the correct plural of flash sideways, right?), immortals, and smoke monsters, you won’t find those here.

And still, you ask, “Where can I find this great hope?”

Chuck.

Mondays at 8:00 pm Eastern on NBC starting again in the fall.

But don’t wait until then to start healing. Get Season 1 on DVD right now and start to fill that life-changing-TV-show-shaped hole in your soul. And don’t do it just for yourself, or for the good of mankind, or to help keep this show on the air for a few more seasons to generate ad revenue for a company so half-witted that it doesn’t know how good of a thing it has going…

Do it for me.

Do it so that next year – right about now – I am not weeping into my Fruity Pebbles every morning wondering what I will do now that I’m lost.

Just like you.


This article originally appeared on Patrol, an independent daily magazine where young writers explore their interactions with art, culture, politics, and religion.

I Can’t Get Married

Stichting Beurs van Berlage - vrij gebruik
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Years of feminist theory, my inner struggles over critical gender issues (such as who should open the door for whom), individualistic goals to achieve power and prestige in order to bolster the cause of womankind – poof! Vanished, in an instant. In this moment, described by couples as a “love conversion” or by single persons as a “dark night of the soul,” the surging hormones in my mind proceeded to contemplate such dangerous questions as these: Why am I so caught up in this “feminist” thing? Male or female, what does it matter?

What does it matter?!! The ideological side of my brain had awoken and was looking to pick a fight with my heart over the problematic construct of gender reinforced in marriage.

My heart cross-examined: Why do you hold such anger and bitterness over something as beautiful as love?

My brain was in no mood to listen to such a weak, easily swayed, pheromone-altered organ, but my mind felt powerless to stop it all from happening: years of gender discourse on nature-versus-nurture were being washed away by an attractive, masculine tsunami hitting my feebly-constructed feminist shanty1.  My preconceived notions and ideological viewpoints were beginning to dissolve at an alarming rate.

The frightening reality is that we’ve all thought about it. We’ve all found ourselves staring wide-eyed at the ceiling in the wee hours of the morning trying to stop ourselves from thinking about it. We feel so guilty about having thought about it that perhaps we deny how much we think about it to others. Those who pretend they have never thought about it are probably the ones who think about it the most.

And you can even picture every gory detail, from the gold embossed lettering on each vellum-coated card stock name card to the freshly cut flora adorning the tables. Twenty tables because we’d need to seat ten to a table, and we would be looking at a small wedding – about two hundred guests. You picture the dress: white. You picture the guy: dashing. You can even picture the wedding night: Disney magical2.

It doesn’t take much. All of this, and I wasn’t even in love.  I wasn’t even on a date.  I just caught a glimpse of the3 guy.  I was lucky this time.  This was only a minor encounter, yet I could still see my feminist views flash before my eyes.

I only divulge this information as a warning: years of carefully-constructed theories can be washed away in an instant if you’re not careful.  So, like any good Girl Scout knows, you can never be too prepared. With this in mind, I felt it was necessary to create a list to remind myself of the reasons why I can’t get married.

I can’t get married because:
1. I need to accomplish everything I have ever wanted to accomplish in my life before I can get married.
You may be thinking this sounds a little backwards – marriage is only the beginning! The beginning of a better life shared with another! However, the reality is: well, see #2 for what the reality is.

2. After marriage I will most likely get pregnant and then do nothing but obsess over which organic baby food to purchase.
That, and which stroller fits his/her individual baby style, what bedroom color suits his/her personality, which university he/she will attend and how prematurely he/she will sexually debut.

3. I need to exhaust myself with work in the field of study I have pursued or I need to exhaust myself by doing work that I hate, in any field.
This of course is so that when I do have children, I will think there is nothing more relaxing than building forts. Out of couch cushions. On an hourly basis. Every. Single. Day.

4. I’m not thin enough.
Now, I don’t mean this in a “no guys will want me,” “tell me I’m pretty,” blah, blah, blah, kind of way. I’m talking about the very real statistic: women gain an average of fifteen pounds after marrying due to lifestyle changes and sit-down meals. Therefore, to break even post-marriage, I would need to preemptively lose weight to counterbalance the impending weight gain.

5. It could be a year and a half, at least, before I achieve my ideal body which would allow me to put on a few extra “marriage pounds”* without looking like a bleached whale (due to skin tone, typo intended).
(*Explained in #4, if you’d read more carefully.)
Since I am not currently dating anyone, this time frame is only calculating when I will be physically ready to begin dating.  Conservatively, at least another year should be added in order to accurately prepare for the oncoming weight gain as a result of stress during the wedding planning stage and finally, the first year of marriage.

6. I have a job right now, so I don’t have the time to put in the necessary effort to attain sculpted honeymoon-ready bodily perfection.

7. I look unattractive when I have the flu.
Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror whilst in the throes of the worst flu of your life?  Do you really think another person (besides your mom) will want to look at you? No. No one does.

8. I need to go to grad school to study feminist theory in order to squelch my natural desire for marriage and children.
I know I want to get married. Or, at least, I used to think I knew this. Things have gotten more complicated since middle school.

9. I have studied, and taken a liking to, feminism.
You’re thinking: pulllleaase, how clichéd. So she read The Feminine Mystique and now she hates men. But, it’s not true.  I haven’t read that book.  I read The Whole Woman by Germaine Greer.

10. I now feel like a member of the very best kind of club: an exclusive club! (The feminist club.)
Like all good, exclusive clubs, there are rules about who can be a member and what members are allowed to do.

11. Having become one of the elect, an enlightened member of the faithful feminists, I can’t help but feel compelled to honor the club by making my life an example of female individuality.

12. I feel compelled to sacrifice my romantic life in order to honor early Church of Feminism doctrines.
(Come to think of it, the nunnery has never made more sense.  I wonder how Germaine Greer would feel, knowing that she was the impetus for women joining the convent.)

13. I want to be unconventional.
So as to avoid following conventions, or worse, appear to be an un-liberated woman, I would like to follow the non-conformist anti-marriage trend.

14. I’ve never related to Cinderella.
Cinderella’s glee at having a prince effortlessly slide a tiny glass slipper on her feet is all too un-relatable.  Don’t your feet sweat, Cinderella?

15. I am more like one of the ugly stepsisters.
I couldn’t wear those cute plastic heeled shoes they sell in packages for little girls.  I had wide, pudgy feet, a la Drissela.

16. I don’t believe in Prince Charming.
I had no early illusions about my prospects with Prince Charming.  If anything, I feared his impending ride into town to test his “if the shoe fits” hypothesis. I was all-too-keenly aware that no prince would have any luck sliding a glass slipper on my foot – unless, by “glass slippers,” Disney meant Birkenstocks.

17. I do believe in happily ever after.
That’s the problem. And to a greater or lesser extent, we all do. We all believe there is happiness in the after (marriage) life. Now, this is not to say that I am banking on daily pony rides into rainbow-land and evenings lit with fireworks.

But, then again, if that’s what marriage is about, consider me a convert.


1. I know, I know.  Strongman sweeps pseudo-feminist girl off her feet (after all, her protestations are only a mask for her own frustration at not having met Prince Charming) and they get married.  Keep reading, you know-it-all critic.

2. Castles not included.

3. The, possibly as in: “I saw him and I knew he was the one”.

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Bring Back Biblical Video Games

For the past decade, two cultural phenomena have played major parts in American society, yet with curiously little reciprocation: video games and Christianity. Elderly people play Wii Sports, Rock Band is a house party staple – and remember DDR?

And every other week, the cover of TIME or Newsweek says something about the state of America’s faith – or an American Idol contestant sings a song by Switchfoot or Third Day. Nearly half of the country still votes based on whether or not a candidate subscribes to “Christian values.” (If you haven’t realized how massive a force Christianity is in the U.S., you’ve probably been playing too many video games.)

What I can’t figure out is why the two worlds haven’t collided yet. Left Behind: Eternal Forces, the video game about surviving the Tribulation, garnered some attention at its release, but was ultimately a flop. Where’s the Moses video game? Where’s Spiritual Warfare? Where’s David and Goliath?

About twenty years ago, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) did have “Christian video games.” They were only sold at the Family Christian Stores. For this, they were not legitimate NES games at all – completely unlicensed, actually. The cartridges weren’t even the standard shape or color. They were subversive in their religious infiltration, marketing solely to the Christian audience. If you didn’t grow up in an overly-churched family, you didn’t know about these games.

A company called Wisdom Tree released the big three: Bible Adventures, Exodus, and Spiritual Warfare.

Thematically, Spiritual Warfare was like a more offensive version of Left Behind. It played like The Legend of Zelda, with overhead perspective and a square-shaped character. But instead of wandering around forests and collecting pieces of the Tri-Force, a “Christian” character must wander around forests and find various Fruits of the Spirit. Once a new piece of fruit has been attained, it can be used as a weapon. (Were the fruits of peace and kindness left out of the game?)

The “full armor of God” was also scattered about forests and city worlds – shields, and breastplates, and whatnot. And boots, which enabled the character to walk safely over hot tar. The boots were a nod to “feet shod with the gospel of peace,” obviously.

Collecting all of the objects was ultimately a means towards defeating/converting enemies. The enemies in the game were two-fold, physical and spiritual. Simple human beings (graffiti artists, drunkards, Hare Krishnas, and so on) would walk around, apparently trying to hurt you because of your blatant Christianity, so you were forced to throw fruit at them. If enough fruit made direct contact, it would eventually kill these people. But that was never the end of the situation. Once the nasty heathens were dead, the spiritual reality made itself known. A red demon would fly out of their corpse, attacking the righteous Christian fruit-flinger. Luckily the fruit was dualistic, as effective on flesh and blood as it was on metaphysical phenomena.

Exodus was similar to Spiritual Warfare in its gameplay, but much more maddening. The levels were a mind-numbing mix of puzzle and RPG that required players to exhibit the patience of Job. As far as Bible video games go, Exodus was probably the most appropriate adaptation. It likely took about forty years to complete this game, level after level of wandering agony. I really felt empathy for the ancient Hebrews after playing this drag.

Bible Adventures was a real treat, though. It played like Super Mario 2, and there were three different games in one cartridge: Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath, and some sort of baby Moses debacle that required Miriam to carry the future Exodus superstar to the river. The only fun part of this latter game was the ability to toss baby Moses around. He was a tough cookie – inhumanly tough. But apparently this is what happens when you’re predestined by God to lead people to the Promised Land. If anything, it’s nice to see Miriam get a little more credit, even if the game is boring.

Noah’s Ark was good clean fun. An old, bald, bearded Noah had to run and jump around mountains and forests, picking up wild animals and dropping them off in the door of the ark. This really brought the story of Noah to life. If anyone ever wondered how every animal in the entire world, male and female, found its way into one boat in a specific geographic location, this game explains everything.

Animals are wild. They didn’t line up single file as they waltzed into the ark, which would be ridiculous. Noah had to go out and collect these animals himself. Snakes, lions, cows, monkeys and every species that can fit into a little cartridge – they’re all here. All you have to do is pick them up above your head and run them into the ark. But if you don’t move all of the species into the ark, Noah fails. So to avoid partaking in heresy, you have to win this game.

The game didn’t include any dinosaurs either. So maybe the creators of Bible Adventures were theistic evolutionists or progressive creationists, but all that fundamentalist talk about the dinosaurs being wiped out by the great flood seem glossed over in this video game. Maybe it was just a can of worms that Wisdom Tree wasn’t prepared to open.

The best Christian video game was easily David and Goliath. With a trusty sling, your playing character is young David. In the initial stages, the only danger is wild animals. But with dead aim, David can kill lions by flinging rocks. A great prelude to the final battle with Goliath is the fight with Goliath’s shield-bearer, an oft-forgotten Bible character. As far as Bible stories go, he’s very underrated. Verily I say, the shield-bearer was a tougher battle than the 10-foot giant himself.

After beating Goliath, players really come to understand the Biblical concept of violence. All of a sudden it wasn’t just something your parents did on Sundays: Christianity suddenly made sense to the first-grade mind after experiencing it on Nintendo. Christianity was about being better than the sinful world that’s against you.

It should be no different today. Christians still find victory and success very appealing, and what better way to garner accomplishments than by beating video games? Now would be a perfect time to resurrect the Christian video games. There are so many stories that would make for a great RPG. Jonah and the whale (or “big fish”), Joshua’s battle of Jericho, escape from Sodom and Gommorrah, Gideon. How amazing would a Samson video game be!

And if any of these games are successful, maybe they could even do Lego versions.

Diesel Wants You to “Be Stupid”

Like balloons, we’re filled with hopes and dreams. But over time a single sentence creeps into our lives. Don’t be stupid. It’s the crusher of possibility. It’s the world’s greatest deflator. The world is full of smart people doing all kinds of smart things… That’s smart. Well, we’re with stupid. Stupid is the relentless pursuit of a regret free life. Smart may have the brains, but stupid has the balls. The smart might recognize things for how they are, but the stupid see things for how they could be. Smart critiques. Stupid creates. The fact is if we didn’t have stupid thoughts, we’d have no interesting thoughts at all. Smart may have the plans, but stupid has the stories. Smart may have the authority, but stupid has one heck of a hangover. It’s not smart to take risks; it’s stupid. To be stupid is to be brave. The stupid aren’t afraid to fail. The stupid know there are worse things than failure–like not even trying. Smart had one good idea, and that idea was stupid. You can’t outsmart stupid, so don’t even try. Remember only stupid can be truly brilliant.

So “BE STUPID!” – The DIESEL STUPID PHILOSOPHY

 

Pitch Meeting with Diesel Execs and Anomaly Ad Agency

Setting: the top floor of a high-rise office building

DIESEL: Just to reiterate, we’re looking for something edgy here for our new global ad campaign. We sell jeans– jeans with attitude, and the world needs to know. Show us what you’ve got.

AD MAN: Ok, so let me tell you what we came up with. Let’s just start off with what I think is a crackerjack idea. What do you think of this: “Be an a-hole. Diesel.”

DIESEL: “Be an a-hole?”

AD MAN: Yes.

DIESEL: That’s it?

AD MAN: That’s it. “Be an a-hole.”

DIESEL: Hmmm. Maybe. What else do you got?

AD MAN: “Drop out of school.” Diesel.

DIESEL: Ok. What’s next?

AD MAN: “Don’t eat breakfast.” Diesel.

DIESEL: I kind of like breakfast.

AD MAN: “Pee your pants.” Diesel.

DIESEL: Ehhhh, it’s a little too visceral.

AD MAN: “Burn a book.” Diesel.

DIESEL: Interesting. GETTING WARMER, but no.

AD MAN: “Voting is lame. Diesel is not lame. Diesel. Not as lame as voting. Loser.”

DIESEL: Too long.

AD MAN: “Drink Diesel.”

DIESEL: Like gasoline?

AD MAN: Sure.

DIESEL: Or like our company?

AD MAN: Either way.

DIESEL: Could be hazardous. LAWSUIT POTENTIAL.

AD MAN: “Spill Diesel.”

DIESEL: Ok, now I’m just not tracking. Are you talking about jeans or fuel?

AD MAN: “Pour Diesel in your eyes.”

DIESEL: You do know that we sell jeans, right?

AD MAN: “Just do it.”

DIESEL: What?

AD MAN: “Just do it.”

DIESEL: Are you telling me to “just do something,” or is that your slogan?

AD MAN: Which would you prefer?

DIESEL: I can’t tell if you’re being sardonic or if you’ve just run out of ideas.

AD MAN: “Be nothing.”

DIESEL: Ok, I think you’ve just run out of ideas.

(The DIESEL EXECS starts to exit the room.)

AD MAN: Wait! I do have one last idea. Last night, when I was procrastinating for this job because I was busy being spontaneous all over the place, I came up with something I think you might like. It was 2am, and I had just broken into a day care because I was really craving some Nilla Wafers. I got home, pounded a fifth of Schnapps, vomited over my fire escape, and wrote this.

(He hands a crumpled up napkin with the “Be Stupid Philosophy” written in crayon to the DIESEL executive.)

DIESEL: “Be stupid”?

AD MAN: “Be Stupid.” It’s not just a horrible slogan, it’s a philosophy.

DIESEL: Hmmm. Keep going.

AD MAN: Be stupid! All your life you’ve been told, “Don’t touch a hot stove!” Well maybe you should touch a hot stove! Just to see what its like! All your life you’ve been told, “Don’t drink water out of swamps!”  Well, maybe that water tastes great and I just want to find out for myself! To be stupid is to be brave. The stupid aren’t afraid to fail. The stupid know there are worse things than failure, like not even trying, or death, or not being able to afford really expensive jeans, or losing your allowance when you’re 28, or having a warrant out for your arrest for breaking into a day care for a couple of stale cookies and some gummy bears that you found glued to a piece of construction paper. Be stupid. That’s my pitch to you. If you don’t like it, fine! That’s smart. But we want you to be stupid. “BE STUPID!”

DIESEL: I can’t tell if you’re being ironic or if you’re actually telling me to be stupid.

AD MAN: Neither can I!

DIESEL: So do you even know what you’re actually trying to say?

AD MAN: Does a bear cut down trees with a hammer?

DIESEL: What?

AD MAN: Exactly!

DIESEL: I think I like it. It’s so stupid it’s confusing, which makes me want to know more, which would be the exact opposite of being stupid, which brings me back to being confused.

AD MAN: Yeah, ideally we’d like for people to just “Be stupid” and not look into it any further.

DIESEL: Why is that?

AD MAN: Well, you do sell $200 jeans right?

DIESEL: Touche. So, what does this look like? What sort of images are we talking about here?

AD MAN: I’m thinking we get a bunch of models doing stupid things.

DIESEL: Oh, ok. (Pause.) So, just to be clear, we are or aren’t being ironic here?

AD MAN: Yes. We get a bunch of models doing stupid things with dangerous animals. We could have a guy taunting a pack of wolves. We could have a girl in a bikini about to feed an angry lion or something. You know, stuff like that.

DIESEL: Oh, so you mean people actually “being stupid.” Like, you’re really telling people to “be stupid.”

AD MAN: Sure.

DIESEL: Not an ounce of sarcasm?

AD MAN: I honestly can’t even remember what that actually is.

DIESEL: Sarcasm?

AD MAN: No, thank you. I just ate.

DIESEL: Let’s get back to the project.

AD MAN: Right.

DIESEL: Despite an alarming sense of confusion, emptiness, distrust, and utter darkness, I’ve got a good feeling about this. You’re no Don Draper, but I like where your head is at. Or where it’s not at, or, you know, where it is.  Anyway, I just have one last question.

AD MAN: Shoot.

DIESEL: What if people respond negatively to being told to “Be stupid?”  What if people are smart enough to realize that we have no clue what we’re actually saying, and as a result become entirely disgusted by our product? Since we plan on putting these ads in teen magazines, what if we get some parents that are concerned about their kids “being stupid” from our ads that tell them to “be stupid”? What if spontaneity isn’t always the best choice? What if our culture is actually fed up with recklessness and sensationalism? What if people are more interested in a virtuous way of life where advertising enhances the product, the customer, and the culture? What if this whole thing backfires? What if we’re on the wrong side of a big joke?

(The AD MAN stares at the DIESEL executive. Silence.)

AD MAN: To be honest with you, I didn’t hear a word of what you just said.

A Spritz of Patchouli

The North American concept of life relies on a few values: go to school, so you can get a good job, so you can afford a nice car and a big house and other modern luxuries. But what happens to someone who goes to school to study a beloved subject that is neither “useful” nor financially lucrative?

That someone ends up acting like a pretentious snob, to cover up the bitterness.

For example, I was swayed into thinking that making money was boorish (or worse, bourgeois), only for people with degrees in business or marketing – people who become financially successful and marry financially successful persons who share their love of V-neck sweaters and polyester dress pants. These people want a nice life. They want it all, including homes decorated with the latest trends from HomeGoods. (You may ask: “Who doesn’t love to shop at HomeGoods stores?!”, slowly perusing each cluttered shelf for those new, modern accessories we want need to have?)

Unfortunately, my desire to pursue this kind of “good life” has been squelched. I can no longer contemplate this kind of life without a) questioning the motive of manufacturers who create objects that attempt to sell the task of everyday household maintenance to women; b) feeling that it is necessary to find fault with and comment aloud regarding the traditional notions of femininity transmitted; c) decrying the fact that women are North America’s largest consumers, and are therefore the primary target to whom everything is peddled, including pink frying pans, colorfully decorated brooms, and the materialist middle-class ideal of the perfect home.

What sullied my once guiltless consumerism and guileless desire for wealth? Where did these ideas come from? The liberal media? Close. Well, maybe. I don’t know for sure (as knowing would insinuate that there is an objective truth to be comprehended, and I know that this is simply a cultural construct.) I can distinctly trace much of this thinking to what I studied in university.

I’ll give you a hint: no polyester. Think: tights, moccasins, scarves and a spritz, err, drenching, of patchouli.

For most, studying Fine Arts seems to be either a completely useless or (for those kinder souls) utterly trivial pursuit. “Faith’s mother does tole paintings. You’ve seen them, the ones with flowers and birdhouses?  Why don’t you just spend a few afternoons with her?” The choice indicates that you are privileged, or maybe incapable of studying anything “real.” To go into debt to take classes in drawing, or to learn how to design your own paint-by-number pictures, is not valued or comprehended by most.

“Fine Arts? Neat. I can’t draw anything but stick figures.”

(Neither can I. That’s not why I…)

“What was your area of specialty?”

(Photography.)

“Oh, neat. I love taking pictures. I just finished my son’s memory book in fact. I took all my pictures and sent them to Snapfish (it’s so cheap!) and with just one click of the button and I changed them to Sephia. They look amazing!”

(Firstly, it’s Sepia (se-pi-a). Secondly, what I studied was different; it was art, for starters. )

But how do you relay the seriousness of your struggles?  The hours, evenings, and weekends spent in the dark room absorbing carcinogenic chemicals for the sake of art, the offering you have made of your body – cracked and chemical-burnt hands offered to the gods of beauty and the goddesses of originality – in the hopes of receiving affirmation in the form of an A+. Every B.F.A. student wants to believe they can make it as an artist, and consequently, any sign of encouragement, however minor, is immediately etched deep in the brain. A kind word fortifies for months. An off-hand remark such as “I think your work is interesting…” provides the same personal satisfaction as sponsoring a child.

You see, what is truly learned in a B.F.A. degree is not easily conveyed. It has little to do with drawing stick figures. A Fine Arts degree is so much more than the explorations with mosaic pieces in middle school art class might have led you to believe. The B.F.A. has really come a long way. It is largely a degree composed of social, political, and cultural critique with art as the prop, facilitating and driving such exchange. Think of sociology, or literature, but with pictures on the projector screen to hold your attention in class.

The main focus of the B.F.A. is to “encourage” (read: require) the “deconstruction” of everything. This starts with baby steps, learning to question the choice of polymer glue over wood glue for the cardboard box project. At first this seems silly and you worry that discussing these inconsequential matters will never turn you into the cynical, humorless artist so popular in the art world. Your fears are in vain. Little by little, year by year, the constant badgering from your professors requiring you to question every minute detail of your work translates into heavy-duty, real world, cynicism1.

Presuppositions about society, men and women, social and economic factors, personal, political, and religious views are shaken. (This fosters a deep sense of empathy with, and admiration for, all three-year-olds. You relate to them as fellow intellectuals and seekers, so rare today in questioning all forms of hierarchy, and demanding “why?” about everything from their [gender-rigid] blue truck to the reason they have to obey the power structure imposed on them by their genetic donors2. )

This compulsion to question everything, combined with an inability to believe in anything, does put you at high risk3 for leaving art school with your moral compass shattered and in pieces – the pieces you painstakingly glued together in middle school to make a mosaic. However, I have heard that on graduation day some universities add a really nice personal touch: they gift-wrap the remaining pieces of your moral compass and hand you the baggie, along with your diploma, as you walk across the stage, much like a loot-bag at the end of the party. The more shattered pieces you have in your baggie, the more art scholarships you receive.

Years later, many still try to glue the pieces of their shattered compass back together, attempting to merge theory and ideology with lived experience. Still others remain bitter – that they have completed a degree that seems largely useless or irrelevant to most but has left them with more baggage than they can carry, that they will never feel comfortable shopping at HomeGoods again. For some, the discussions are easily forgotten as they move on to grad school or enter the “real world” in the workforce.

But my initial question has been left unanswered: how does one best deconstruct stereotypical manifestations of egoist-driven propaganda regarding financial stability and explain the importance of studying Fine Arts to a philistine using Snapfish or Picnik without sounding pretentious?  The long answer requires a lot of “neo-structural theory” and “dialectic discourse of sub-deconstructive art” and the short answer is that it can’t be done.

Too many times I have made the mistake of taking up my Christian duty to instruct the ignorant. Explaining the difference is a perilous task, a lose-lose battle. However, to fail to question the world with a critical eye, a large heaping of skepticism and an impressive vocabulary, would be a university experience skipped, and to the cultural and feminist historians looking down at us from from a non-androcentric heaven, as problematic as a country music video.


Footnotes:

1 See the author’s above example re: shopping at HomeGoods.

2 “Genetic donor” is the preferred nomenclature, as it inclusively embraces all forms of family.  The word “parent” stems from the Latin parere, which sounds a lot like the French word père, a problematic term perpetuating patriarchal ideologies.

3 There are surprisingly few statistics on such a prevalent social phenomenon.

I Am Free Any Time

I have learned over the last few months that the line between “seeking employment” and “being a card-carrying stalker” is very fine – so fine as to not even be worth distinguishing.  So fine as to run the risk of invisibility.

For instance, one should probably never end an interview with “I will be stalking you for the next few weeks to see who else you’re recruiting for this position and follow through with my next plan of attack to secure this job for myself.” However honestly that statement might relay the reality of the job hunt, employers like to hear about “persistence,” rather than “stalking.”  And any good hunter knows that the game must be played with duplicitous cunning.

There is the initial stage of application, during which you submit hundreds of CVs to everything that pops up in the Google results for any job you have ever thought about and any company you have ever dreamed of working for. You are fresh, willing to do anything and try everywhere.

With your freshness comes a great deal of naïve hope. Or maybe delusion.

Even though you know it’s crazy, you still hold out hope that submitting this one CV or writing that one email will get you that job offer. The job might not have been posted yet, or maybe the perfect slot hadn’t even been created, but they will be convinced they need you after seeing your resume and the titles of your thoughtful and insightful presentations listed on your CV.

Recognizing the stalker can be difficult. Many initially appear charming, though others seem awkward and socially inept.

You’re trying so hard. You check your email at least six times a day, and Facebook three times as much. Not that job inquiry responses will be on your Facebook wall or in your inbox. But you can’t help but hope that an old acquaintance will have known you were looking for the perfect job, and will tell you that their sister works in that field and they would definitely vouch for you.

Besides, you need to feel valued during such an unstable time, and seeing your pile of red notifications alerting you that someone has noticed your new status is entirely intoxicating.  It’ll only be a matter of time now before they see your new glam pics and the right people come knocking.

In high school they told me that I should print my resume on the whitest paper possible so that it would stand out in the middle of a mountain-high stack of resumes like a beam of white light. But that doesn’t work so well when you’re emailing your resume or submitting it online. So I’ve been trying a few digital-age alternatives:

TIP 1: You can adjust the brightness of your computer screen. Yes? Find the button and turn it up, as bright as possible. Like so bright that your retinas are seared. Now when you save your resume, and send your resume, it will be as bright as possible.  It will shine like a beacon of light in their inbox.

TIP 2: Make your subject line count.  You know those spam emails that trick you into reading them since they pretend that they’re responding to your email?  Like the one I just received from Jennifer Johnson today with the subject line: “Does this make you mad too?”  I, of course, had to open it to see what she was talking about, even though I could think of no Jennifer Johnson I knew. Why not utilize this same technique in your hunt for a job? Try this one:  Re: congratulations. It’s simple, elusive, but creates enough interest that they’ll have to open the email to see what it’s about.  Or how about this one: Re: your raise.  Again, just try and peak their interest.  Think Facebook notifications. Everyone loves personal messages.

Stalking is relatively straightforward, and may include the following: loitering, approaching the target repeatedly, and repeated telephone calls, faxing, or emailing.

Send off your final resume to the last place you can think of. You can now preemptively move on to the worry stage.  Oh sure, we all know that any number of people would probably sufficiently fill the position, or would perhaps be a better, more qualified fit than you.  After all, not only are you completely unqualified for the position, but you have chronic lower back aches which prevent you from sitting in your chair at work.  You have been prone to bladder infections in the past, resulting in a weak bladder that must be emptied every thirty minutes, resulting in your inability to log normal working hours.  Your last employers at Cheapo Depot didn’t notice, but you may not be so lucky in the future.

Anyway, relax.  This is where your cover letter comes in.  Here is your chance to elaborate about yourself, to provide the employer with more information than they have gathered from your resume. Like the fact that you are more desperate for work than your resume may have led them to believe.

Take your time.  Phrasing like: “It is my hope that you will look towards my attached resume…” or “I have worked in seemingly divergent fields…” takes a long time to craft.  Don’t be surprised when five minutes have gone by and you are still struggling with your salutation. I can only speak for myself, but I’m sure this is normal.

So now weeks have passed and you’ve been sitting alone in your apartment, talking on the phone with your mom.  Although a doctor has never diagnosed you, your independent research on trusted sites such as diagnoseyourself.com has confirmed that you suffer from mild to severe chronic depression. In fact, you have checked yes to most symptoms: anxiety, indecision, sleeping more than usual, sleeping less than usual, feeling down, difficulty concentrating, feelings of guilt, weight gain, weight loss, headaches, an increase in alcohol intake, and even stomach pain.  You’ve rationalized: these symptoms are just a result of your time of uncertainty, the fact that you can no longer sustain your gym membership fees, or that you have been attending a lot of wine tasting events in the hopes of making some good contacts.

You try to stay positive and remind yourself that you are simply “between contracts” or “exploring alternative pedagogies.” It’s not like you’re without options. There is always the possibility of going back to school. You could study anything. Anything except math and science (you’ve never really excelled at those) and the social sciences (they just don’t take into account the holistic vision of the person that you have acculturated).

On the bright side, you have a very supportive network.  Friends have been very kind, even though they have not been told the full story. You’re not actually taking time off to “meditate.”  It’s called unemployment.

After another session on the phone with your mother, you receive a burst of enough enthusiasm and confidence to follow up on the resumes you have been submitting.  This is where the “fine line” between stalking and job hunting is obliterated.  Here is an example:

Attn: M—— F—
536 B——- 10th Floor
New York, NY 10012

Hi,

I applied for the web video position a number of weeks ago and I just wanted to check that you had received my application.

I love your publication and I am currently looking for work.

If the position I applied for has already been filled, I am wondering if there would be any possibility of working for free for you, or volunteering with your publication.

If so, I would be interested.

I am looking to gain some hands-on experience if I could.

If you would be willing to let me work for you as a free intern, I am in the city now and would like to stop in to meet you in person.  I am free anytime.

Please get back to me if you’ve either received my application or if a meeting in person could be arranged.

Let me know. I am free anytime as I mentioned. If I don’t hear back from you within the week I’ll be in touch via email, phone, or in person.

Thank you,

Me