Saturday, August 12, 2017

Should be an obvious thought

Racism is not OK.

In any form. Against anyone.

No one group of people is inherently better than any other.

Judge people by their words, deeds and intent. Those are conscious actions. Skin color is happenstance.

Don't judge all people by stereotypes or by their worst elements. Don't judge your own by your inner arrogance.

We're all more alike than different, both in good and in bad. All of us are capable of rational thought and empathy, given the right influences. All of us have primal, imperfect sides as well. Everyone feels love, hate, happiness, anger, resentment, persecution and the rest of the behavior scale. Sometimes these feelings are justified. Sometimes they aren't.

But one truth is universal: Bigotry is NOT just another item in the marketplace of ideas. Prejudice isn't something to be tolerated, lest someone be considered a hypocrite otherwise. Yes, freedom of speech applies with regard to these ideas, but we're also free to call anyone out on these poisonous notions. We have the right to express to our children and to society at large that these aren't normal ideas, and that they aren't going to come back into acceptance after decades of lying rightfully on the fringe.

The beautiful thing about a conscious action is that you can overcome it. You can't change the past, and anyone who commits crimes in the name of said actions deserves to do the time. But even an avowed racist can learn and grow and see the light. Many people have. 

Love transcends race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion and politics. We're all capable of it. Love helps you to expand your horizons and appreciate the diversity of life. And, frankly, love feels so much better than carrying around a mind heavy with hate. 

That's true of all of us.

Friday, August 11, 2017

My tortured justification for buying an iPod

I bought an iPod Nano recently. Because I’m stubborn.

My thought process was this: Since 2008, I’ve carried around my music on an iPod Nano. I burned everything I wanted out of my CD collection into it, which filled it up. Thus, I never purchased any new music on iTunes. The iPod was paid for and it worked, which are my main criteria for owning things. I’ve been meaning to update my playlist for years, but only in this past month did I get the triple kicks to do so: 1) My iPod got soaked and the screen hasn’t been 100 percent since; 2) I earned a $15 iTunes gift card through work; and 3) Apple just discontinued the iPod Nano. So, I figured, now would be a good time to upgrade the iPod and buy songs I mostly play through YouTube.

That’s all innocent enough.

I mentioned I was doing this to a few people, all of whom metaphorically laughed in my face. Use your phone, they said in unison that wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1984 Macintosh commercial.

I could do that. In fact, I have no reason not to.

But I hate that.

For reasons I’ll probably never be able to fully articulate, I don’t like doing everything on a smartphone. They’re astonishing devices that were unthinkable to most people even a decade ago. I’m happy to have one.

Nevertheless, as this 1991 Radio Shack ad poignantly shows, smartphones have rendered most gadgets obsolete. When I bought a digital camera three years ago, I felt like I had to justify it, even though I found it superior to my iPhone camera. But a few months ago, I dropped that camera all of five inches onto concrete, which destroyed it. My iPhone, on the other hand, has fallen dozens of times from higher heights and has withstood two soakings, and it bounces back more than any equivalent gadget ever could.

And it’s not just smartphones, either — my desktop computer has better speakers than any stereo I’ve ever owned, so having a stereo is mostly pointless. So, for that matter, is the desktop computer.

As someone who grew up with gadgets and who continues to use several (some of which date back to the 1980s), this obsolescence makes me sad. I don’t quite get the same joy from today’s technology that I got from newspapers, real cameras, boomboxes and the like. At the same time, it’s hard to justify going back to any of those.

I have recurring dreams where I’m back in my 1990s bedroom, where I’ve left my VCR, analog TV and video tapes — and a closet full of magazines — and derive a great enjoyment from watching movies on the completely obsolete setup.

Even when that setup existed in real life, I enjoyed music more from vinyl records than from CDs and cassettes, even though the format was a greater hassle.

Maybe I’m just a martyr who enjoys things more when they take effort to obtain or create.

My other theory is rooted, admittedly, in narcissism. I don’t want to look like I’m doing what everyone else is doing, especially if that thing is something I perceive as mostly vapid.

Virtually everyone has a smartphone now, and everyone looks at them all the time. Smartphones might rank among the greatest inventions of all time, but paradoxically — to me at least — they’ve become symbols of banality, a way for people to have shallow conversations or watch middling viral videos while aggressively not engaging in the world around them.

In 2006 I wrote that 90 percent of people with cellphones don’t need them. I still think that’s true. Maybe not in the sense that society has herd-immunitied us into needing constant contact at all times, but definitely in the sense that people texting while whipping around a parking garage at full speed are communicating messages that could probably wait.

If I put a camera on a tripod outdoors, it’s often the catalyst for conversation about what I’m up to. Pull out a smartphone and they go right back to their own smartphones. Connection not made.

This guy's making something.
This guy's watching Jake Paul Instasnap or something.
Smartphones are so indispensible (and arguably as deadly for the economy as any terrible political policy) that they’ve even rendered the iPod, their first cousin, obsolete. I was actually nervous going into the Apple Store, figuring I’d be laughed out for wanting the last of the iPods. I wasn’t, but what happened was weirder.

“We’ve been selling a lot of these this week. People are getting them out of nostalgia, I guess, because their time has passed,” my salesman said to me.

“Everything I like is something whose time has passed,” I lamented.

Funny thing is, the guy had just copped to buying two iPods himself that week.

For me, though, it isn’t nostalgia — 2008, as far away as it seems these days, wasn’t that long ago. I still wear some of the same shirts I did then. But tech is different than T-shirts — it’s built to last through .1 versions. Half the people who use Facebook today would barely recognize its 2008 incarnation, never mind how far mobile tech has come.

Pretty soon, we’ll never need anything other than a smartphone to do anything, including swatting flies and teleporting. Bleahh.

Perhaps funniest of all, my new iPod kind of sucks. It sounds great and has the profile I want, but it’s a touchscreen, which means I can’t fiddle with it unless I stop cycling/running/driving. And everything I download syncs to all other devices, including my phone, anyway.

The future is here. Yay.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

There's no 'care' in 'karaoke'

If someone sings karaoke and no one notices, has there been any music?

Based on my experience last night, no.

I’m well-known for being, if not a competent karaoke singer, then at least an entertaining one. With the right crowd and the perfect song, I can get an entire dance floor bopping. Seriously. I have pulled this off. There’s proof.

I managed to entertain last night, too, with my first song choice, “I Love You Period” by Dan Baird — a song I picked specifically because 1) I figured my newspaper friends would enjoy it and 2) it was from 1992, so it would be fresh to most of them. And indeed they were into it … until the second verse. Then everyone in my group went back to their phones and conversations. No one else there offered their attention to start with. It was the kind of new experience I don’t collect. Suddenly I felt less like an entertainer not taking myself seriously to a self-conscious performer who was trying too hard.

But my night hit its nadir with my second song, “New Age Girl,” by Deadeye Dick. Not one person reacted. I wound up performing most of the song at my table in monotone with my eyes closed, just to get through what suddenly felt like a seven-minute song. At the bridge, I mumbled to the friend next to me, “This is how I feel when I did stand-up comedy and no one laughed.” Afterwards, she would say, “I’ve never heard that song,” which made me feel old. Almost no applause when I was finished. I told myself maybe it’s just a tough crowd. But starting with the very next song, the crowd whooped it up again for the next two hours, just as they had before my tune. I was catatonic.

Weirdly, people kept asking me what I was going to sing next, and were disappointed when I told them, “I’m not doing any more.” They also seemed surprised that I cared if anyone cared. I guess I shouldn’t, but there are times being ignored hurts, and for me this was one of those times. Maybe it’s a vestigial feeling both from doing comedy and from being overlooked for most of my life. I've always been much better at dealing with adulation and criticism than with apathy.

But as so often happens when a gathering leaves me feeling lonelier than being alone, I was involuntarily snapped out of it. A woman from another group was given a song she didn’t know, and saw me singing along (I didn’t know it either, but I apparently faked it well). She pulled me up to the stage and had me sing with her, so I had no choice but to come alive again. Indeed, the two or three times this type of thing happened that night were probably the best times. People would say, “You saved that,” however jokingly, and that was nice.

I’m not fully sure what any of this says about me, apart from how it exacerbates the lingering feeling that I’ve peaked without quite reaching the heights I’ve sought. This feeling passes, but it’s a sucky thing to endure in the moment. The worst part about this feeling in any of its forms is the inability to see light in the future. I never struggle with change or loss when I can sense that something good will replace what’s past. But sometimes that replacement isn’t immediately evident or desirable, and that brings the dread more than anything else.

What keeps me going in these weird times, when nothing else is around, is that I know eventually something else will be. I will do karaoke or make jokes in the right context and get the fulfillment I seek from it, just as I have in the past. And I will forget this even happened.

As I say so often, this isn’t my planet and likely never will be, a notion that can leave me feeling useless at times. Fortunately, just as happened last night, there are always outside forces that shove me right back into the worldly flow.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

I hope I never fall in love

That was my thought after reading these comic strips about the allegedly beautiful banalities of a long-term relationship. 

OK, I get what the point is, and I'm not immune to the charms. Some of the best times I ever spent with a woman I liked involved a cathartic day or night of doing nothing together. But I couldn't help but feel the same way reading these strips that I do when someone posts a picture of their cat being annoying: "Why does anyone choose this?"

(It's not as if there aren't upsides to both love and cats; I just find it weird that so many people emphasize what to me are adverse side effects. It's not like Viagra touts blue-tinted vision as its selling point.)

Then again, I'm not the target audience for these cartoons any more than I am for the cat pics. These aren't meant as a glimpse into a life people like me don't know. They're meant to broadcast the message of, "Isn't this thing we've got great? Those with emptier lives than ours doooooon't understaaaaaand" to people whose response is, "Awww, that's positively adorbs! I haven't had a non-clingy moment since 2003 and I wouldn't change it for the world lol!"

Perhaps I don't understand. But I guarantee my aversion for obnoxious codependence isn't because I haven't yet been taught its wonderful ways by a long-term relationship. It's just not my style to be someone's everything, no matter how much we're in love.

Thoughts I've never had: 

"I can't wait to meet the love of my life so I can stop all this exercising!"

"Maybe one day I'll get to constantly revalidate someone's existence."

"Loving me, loving the idea of me — What's the diff?"

"It's so lonely having my hands to myself for four seconds."

"I'm tired of not hearing the word 'babe' 400 times a day."

"I want to date a human cat."

"Phew, now I don't have to go anywhere anymore!"

Again, I understand how a lot of the strips are informed by the warm sense of not having to go through this cruel world alone. But as someone who is used to going through this cruel world alone, I don't find this concept of a relationship to be a desirable antidote.

For me, love is about two people who are so good together that there isn't even much thought to it. In my best relationships, I never felt (or felt the least) like the person was sapping up my time. She had her own life and I had my own, and that made us a more formidable team together. We didn't traffic much in sweet nothings, but when we did they were genuine. And, however well it works for the Catana couple, we never acted anything like them. We didn't last as long as she apparently has, either.

Oh well. I guess I'll keep exercising and going places.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Parental guidance suggested

This video about “adulting” classes — where young adults learn common life skills that they otherwise failed to pick up along the way to adulthood — has touched off online debate on at least one very worthwhile point.



Before I get into that point, a couple of qualifiers:

• “Adulting” is cheezburger-level baby talk that should be used only with a high degree of self-awareness that you’re indulging in cheezburger-level baby talk.

• I hope some of these classes have a more practical focus than what culinary tricks will crush at a hipster foodie party. Knowing how to hull a strawberry has its place, but balancing a checkbook, repairing a button or changing a tire are more relevant skills to a wider swath of people.

Anyway.

This video has drawn a lot of critic wrath for suggesting that these classes make up for schools failing to teach basic life skills. “These skills should be taught at home!” they say.

Should be. But you know what? Sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes nothing is taught at home. Sometimes offspring learn wrong things, such as that abuse and bigotry are acceptable. Sometimes school is the best resource a kid has for overcoming the deficiencies of what’s taught (or not) at home.

That’s right — many parents simply drop the ball. Whether it’s because they’re struggling to provide basic needs and thus lack the time and energy to teach much, or because they’re absentee, or they’re financially stable but can’t be bothered, not every parent is equipped to prepare their children for a world for which they themselves might be unprepared. To paraphrase the comic philosopher Calvin, there’s no qualifying exam.

Does that mean school systems should take over parenting? Of course not. Districts vary widely in politics and priorities, not all of which are in the best interests of students — to say nothing of the Big Brother ramifications of such a scenario. But let’s stop with this fantasy that all parents are diligent, de facto educators every bit as qualified as the people who are trained to deal with children. I’m guessing most people who believe this had parents who were heavily involved. Good for them, but assuming that’s the norm is a privileged stance.

(I say this as someone whose parents — and grandparents and extended family — were very much involved in my upbringing. Even as a child, I adulted hard. Yes, I’m aware I said “adulted.”)

So what if a life-skills class is redundant for some students? Better that than some never having it at all. After all, I’m sure some rich kids get private tutoring in algebra, but that’s no grounds to cancel algebra class. (“They should cancel it because it’s hard.” — 14-year-old Ian, a real jokester)

School is so much more than the sum of its parts. On top of the subjects, you learn how to interact with a wide array of people; you figure out structure, time management and prioritization; you have opportunities to pursue activities that interest you; you’re forced to contend with that which you’d rather not; and hopefully, you learn to value critical thinking. All of these are vital to making your way through adulthood. In that sense, life skills should be a requirement.

Who knows, it might raise the tide for future parents too.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Xennial marks the spot (sigh)

Lately, it’s become in vogue to refer to people born between 1977 and 1983 as their own mini-generation. As someone born smack in the middle of this period (1980), I fully endorse this.

For years, I’ve vacillated on whether I consider myself Generation X or millennial, because both seem right and both seem wrong. Generation X began in the early 1960s, whereas millennials tap out sometime in the late 1990s or even early 2000s. I’ve had bosses from Generation X and watched millennials grow up, so the choice feels like a time warp either way.

Members of both generations could accuse me of glomming. And they have.

Early on I considered myself an X, because they were younger than baby boomers and I was young too. On the other hand, all of the major hallmarks of the X generation (cynicism, pessimism, slackership, grunge, Reality Bites) seemed to me to belong to older people — and for the most part didn’t resonate with me at all. (Seriously, angst in the 1990s was adorable. “What are you so angsty about? That the economy’s strong and we’re not at war?”)

Since my mid-20s, I’ve felt more aligned with millennials in terms of social consciousness, economic fragility and digital savvy. On the other hand, many of my current friends were born between 1987 and 1996, and the differences between us can be as drastic as they are between myself and a 53-year-old Xer. (I rarely talk with people my own age anymore because I’m not sure there are any left in public life.)

Chronology aside, the primary hook of the 1977-83 generation is that technology — and the economy — changed our lives at a uniquely pivotal time.

Notice how my high school newspaper class in May 1998 is all looking at the same thing.
Economically, we grew up booming (even if we didn’t necessarily feel it ourselves, there wasn’t an underlying sense of fatalistic doom) and ran into a buzzsaw right as it was our turn.

Technologically, Generation X got the internet, social media and cellphones late in their adulthood; millennials absorbed all of that as children or as teens. But our age group has a perfect dividing line between analog childhood and digital adulthood (and, for the most part, a prosperous childhood and an I-suddenly-understand-my-grandparents'-thrift adulthood). That’s given us a perspective that neither of our flanking generations quite has.

For me, the dividing line is literal. The internet came into my life on my first day of college when I was 18 years old. I knew so little about the information superhighway that when I logged in at the university computer lab and opened up that first browser window, I put in the only address I knew — my cousin’s email address. So the first visit I ever made on the World Wide Web was a screen that said, “site not found.” The second place I went was Entertainment Weekly’s website, because my dad subscribed to the magazine and I knew it had a website.

I got my first debit card at 19. I started my first blog at age 24; got my first cellphone later that same year; signed up for my first social-media account at 25; got my first laptop at 26; and bought my first smartphone at 31. I sometimes look back on my school years and wonder how much harder it would have been to make friends where everyone was always staring at their phones; most friendships I made were products of being near someone and striking up a conversation. But then, I guess I wouldn’t know any differently had I been steeped in millennial-era technology.

Taken with a 35mm camera in December 1999. Has not appeared online until today. This was at the height of my boom meeting people just by grabbing books at Barnes & Noble.
In any case, I’m glad I didn’t chronicle my teenage thoughts where the whole world could see them for all time. My sentiments were bad enough in my mid-20s. Maybe millennials know this and this is why they love the disposable Snapchat so much. I don’t get Snapchat. I also don’t get slackers.

So, yeah, I wholeheartedly endorse a spinoff mini-generation from 1977 to 1983.

BUT CAN WE PLEASE NAME IT SOMETHING GOOD?

Every label I’ve heard is simultaneously the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. 

The one most likely to catch on is "Xennials." Because of course it is. This portmanteau, as accurate as it is, nevertheless feels like the work of a still-slacking Gen-Xer who didn't care enough about this particular declaration of independence to spend more than 24 seconds coining it. Perhaps that particular cynic is still reeling from their failed dot-com startup in 2001, because that's exactly what this term sounds like. 

Let’s parse a few others for their badness:

The Star Wars Generation: This is the one that makes the most sense, given that the original trilogy was released in 1977, 1980 and 1983. But it only makes sense chronologically — few of us were watching these movies that young. The people who saw Star Wars first-run preceded us in years and sentience.

My first recollection of Star Wars was having Return of the Jedi Dixie cups when I was 3. I didn’t actually see the films until the mid- to late 1980s, at which point they enjoyed only a fraction of the mythical status they do today. As Chuck Klosterman wrote, “I don’t recall anyone talking about Star Wars in 1990.” People my age didn’t see these on the big screen with any lucidity until 1997, so this sobriquet is dicey at best. 

Not that Star Wars isn't awesome. It is. But for us, it was a long, long time ago.

Generation Catalano: I had to look up this one. Not promising.

Jordan Catalano was Jared Leto’s character in My So-Called Life, a Claire Danes-led show that captured the emotional zeitgeist of teenagers for the 15 minutes that it aired in 1994-95. I remember when this show was on and having a crush on Danes, but I never watched it. By most accounts, My So-Called Life is a superb series snuffed out before its time — but generational labels should be as close to universal as possible, and supporting characters in cult classics don't qualify. 

Oregon Trail generation: My primary memory of Oregon Trail is watching other classmates play it in my elementary school’s computer room. They were good at it because they had it at home because they had computers because their parents had money because that’s who owned home computers in the 1980s. In my kid mind, Oregon Trail became mental shorthand for, “Thing I don’t have that everyone else does.” So as popular as this label has become, I feel like saying I'm part of the "Oregon Trail generation" is disingenuous, because that would imply the game (which is great, granted) had a heavier impact on my life than it did.

Indeed, any attempt to quantify our bracket with a pop-culture label risks the same exaggeration. The only entertainment I think that even comes close to era-universal is Michael Jackson's Thriller. It'd probably be safe to assume that the best-selling album in history was blaring from everyone's decks in our formative years. But others would disagree. So maybe a more general moniker is best.

Sadly, I don't know what that would be. I've been trying to think of a clever, inclusive name for an entire day and can't do it. I was optimistic in the beginning, but grew more cynical as the minutes grew into hours and my quest to save the world from risible generational labels grew ever more futile. Then I realized that no one would listen to me anyway, and maybe it would harm my reputation by going viral. So I went off and played YouTube videos of old video games to clear my head, then came back and posted this blog.

Like a true Xennial.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What's in store for the future?

Amazon just bought Whole Foods, and business analysts are slamming at their keyboards to tell us what this means for future of grocery stores, and for retail in general. Many are saying — some of them somewhat gleefully — that this could spell the end of brick-and-mortar grocery stores as we know them.

As someone who embraces technology myself … I hope the hell not.

Online grocery shopping is a boon for people whose circumstances preclude them from easy, physical shopping. I get that, and would never suggest it shouldn’t exist for them or for anyone who simply finds it convenient. But I hope we never get to the point where that’s the only option.

I enjoy my ritual of going to the store every week (or more often when needed). I like the selections, I like interacting with people, I like finding something new that I might never have seen otherwise and — most of all, perhaps — I like having the items right away. For me, shopping is one of the few times I get to mix with so many different people. I’ve even made lasting friends here and there.

Society is getting increasingly segregated and divested, and the trend toward online everything (and possibly fear of mass attacks) is only making that worse.

It’s not just about socializing, either: Being among a crowd reminds you that people exist, whether or not you talk to anybody. It can make you feel better if you’re lonely and depressed. When you see different races and cultures going about their business around you, it’s harder to believe hateful caricatures about them. As we already see every day, we need more interaction, not less.

So, yeah, online shopping might be my only route for the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia DVD sets I can’t find on any shelves (assuming technology hasn’t completely phased DVDs out as well). But I hope our technostopia finds a middle ground between the virtual and the physical. It’s good to leave the house — and your navel — once in a while.