Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On Ludditery: Verizonus Cellphonus Abominationus

Merriam-Webster defines a ‘Luddite’ as “one of a group of early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving machinery as a protest; broadly : one who is opposed to especially technological change.”

My predilections towards Ludditery have sometimes made me the butt of friends’ jokes.
Until just last year, my television was of the VCR and antenna variety. I gave it up only when the FCC gave its shit-or-get-off-the-pot warning, likely directed at a group of centenarians with aluminum foil on their rabbit ears. In January 2009, ancient tvs would no longer be receiving broadcasts.

I own a blender from the 1960s. It had belonged to my grandmother—a great classic design, Scandinavian feel, bottom console lined with individual buttons: “chop”, “stir”, “puree”, “mix”. I have had the same alarm clock for ten years, a simple travel alarm. My stereo is from the Cretaceous period and my toaster probably from the Jurassic at least.

I dislike texting, Facebooking and myspacing. I preferred the good old days of not too long ago when people made plans face-to-face or called friends at home to make plans. We would agree to a time and show up. You would show up because, well, you had made plans. All in all, this took three minutes.

Now, I might invite a friend to meet up, leaving a voicemail on her cell. She would respond by leaving a message on my Facebook page. I respond to her Facebook and also text her cell; she leaves a message on my Facebook wall to let me know something has come up, she won’t be able to make it. Meanwhile, I’ve not checked my Facebook, because I’m already enroute to our meeting location. So, I’m waiting and I’m confused and I leave a message on her cell and I wait and she can’t get back to me because she’s in a ‘dead zone’. (I think of the Verizon commercials, or maybe checking in to the Bates motel while the ‘Jaws’ theme is playing.) I think of the gang from West Side Story, hurling rocks at friends’ windows in order to entice downstairs. That probably took about one minute, (excepting, of course, time spent in the fixing of broken windows.)

Is all this really necessary? Bleeechh. Can’t we just call our friends on the phone? Do we really need to Facebook so much? Is it really of dire importance to know what everyone had for breakfast, how well he or she slept and whether it was raining?

Somehow social networking sites and insta-communication have made it easier for us to hide from the real, bricks-and-mortar world just beyond our noses. We are permitted to easily drift into self-absorption, solipsism. It just becomes so easy.

And don’t even get me thinking about technology and dating! As I sit in the coffee ship now writing this, I see a number of people perusing dating sites. It’s, like, hey, get up and introduce yourself to the people next to you! Most attraction is chemical anyways…and a good deal of communication is registered on a subconscious level.

Last week at the bookstore, I came across a very funny book, essentially the conversations between famous authors had they been members on a social networking site. It makes me laugh.
“How wuz ur day?”says Lord Byron.
“It wuz gr8,” replies Percy Shelley.
Ha, ha. I didn’t think so.

So how does a self-proclaimed Luddite react when her cell phone is destroyed?

Answer: Very carefully. And not without a hint of irony!

Only when the low-tech regimen—sticking it in a jar of rice—and the higher tech regimen—blasting it with a hair dryer—failed to achieve the intended results, did I venture off to the Verizon store. I was told I would have to wait a week for a replacement. But, but, but…I stammered… a whole week! The withdrawal set in--No calls! No text messages! No white glowing little box to connect me to family and friends hither and yon. What in case of an emergency?

In some twisted, post-modernist 21st century way, I decided to freak out. Was Mr. Verizon Guy the picture of Zen enlightenment, suggesting I voluntarily obliterate my attachments, my ego, my need to feel needed by my ‘network’? Maybe I had reached the modern-day mountaintop, and there he was, sitting there--cross-legged, top-knotted hair, Technicolor aura, thumbs and pointer fingers gently touching in a mudra, urging me to shed the surly technological bonds of earth. Come with me, my child, he seemed to say.

In the two years following college, I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small northwestern city in Madagascar. A telephone would have been an unimaginable luxury. One week without a phone, my 22 year-old self would have scoffed. Pshaw. I had had a BLU (similar to a ham radio) whereby which we could reach a supervisor in the capital city (or a doctor) if need be. Privacy was a four-letter word and anything uttered on a BLU frequency was fully audible throughout the countrywide system.

The sometimes loneliness that accompanies being a stranger in a strange land made the PC BLU frequency a welcome friend. It was comforting to hear fellow English speakers, if only to hear in painstaking detail, a colleague filing a grant application for a well or getting a herpes diagnosis from who I would imagine to be our bemused doctor. There was a protocol to using the BLU—you always had to pretend you didn’t hear ALL of your friend’s diagnosis, to act nonchalant, before radioing in...."Hey, how are you. No, I just tuned in a second ago. What's new with you?"

The BLU was like a 1910’s audio Facebook of sorts, except oodles more honest and TONS more entertaining.

The other option for accessing the world beyond consisted of a pen, a piece of paper, a once-weekly Wednesday afternoon prop plane and a prayer. It was funny because the customs inspectors always took a little baksheesh from letters or packages. (I once received a package of Hershey’s kisses from home—and most of them had bites taken out of them.)

Letters were treasured-- read, re-read and filed away safely for yet more re-reading during the weeks when I knew there would be no letters.
(To be continued…)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cinnamon Pine Cones

Cinnamon-studded pine-cones. From the moment I walked in the Whole Foods vestibule, I had to have them.

It was the first chilly day of fall and drizzly, a superlethal combination in Pittsburgh, a place where chilly and drizzly days seem to come in threes, or sevens or thirteens. This fact seemed to be written on the faces of the people walking in the door, faces scrunched in the manner of those heading in for an unanesthetized root canal, a colonic, a firing squad.

I set one foot before the sacred door and my personal space is suddenly transformed from honking, exhaust, and flipping-off into some kind of magical emporium. The pinecones marked a sort of liminal space where the profanity of rush hour met the sacredness of the American consumer experience.

In all truthfulness, I used to dream about places like Whole Foods, with its immaculately arranged, glistening aisles of fruits, meat and snacks, when I served with the Peace Corps for two years in Africa. For about two years, everything I cooked was devised from a list of eight ingredients that did not need immediate refrigeration: tomatoes, onions, garlic, fish, rice, green mangos, yellow mangos and red mangos. I used to have very exciting, vivid dreams about devouring gooey lasagna, deep dish pizza, big bags of potato chips. When I got together with friends in the capital city, we would customarily down beers, packs of processed cheese and chocolate bars in that order. Shortly thereafter, we would crash our bikes into trees while riding home. But that’s a story for another time.

I believe the pinecones to be a metaphor for the American self-improvement experience

And we Americans live in such a dreadful culture of self-improvement.

Thinner. Richer. Smarter. Faster. More youthful. People on tv reality makeover shows are always dressing badly, hoarding junk, eating fried lard three meals a day. With a professional team and 5-10K they are transformed into something more culturally appropriate. They become homogenized, transformed into ONE OF US, subliminally bludgeoned with the idea that they are now morally or spiritually better for having become involved in the marketplace in a more savvy way.

At $4.99 the pineceones were, like, the biggest bargain of pretty much all time, self-acceptance for less than the cost of a pumpkin spice latte. With these pinecones, I would be good enough.

No professional teams or sassy host personalities. And no housework ever again. Like some sort of amulet or magic spell--no more worrying about mopping floors, vacuuming, taking out trash. No more being caught off-guard when unexpected visitors showed up. Just place them in a container, near a heat source, kick back, put your feet up, and be transported back to Thanksgiving at Grandma’s.

If cleanliness is godliness, I had earlier been headed to hell in a handbasket before those pinecones. I hang wet laundry from my fan, wear jeans seven days in a row, stack dirty dishes in the fridge to postpone washing them. I don’t clean my oven, and it is currently molting carbon like a lizard. My fridge was filled with healthy leafy greens-turned slush and an old cup of coffee flavored with a bit of leftover hot chocolate.

They are a sort of gateway drug to a never-can-be-good enough women’s domestic rat-race. In all honesty, I dislike how ads for cleaners, cleansers, and appliances are marketed mostly towards women. I am at odds with the concept of a traditional bridal shower where women present the bride-to-be with dishes, cooking pots and household items with the subtext that they belong to her and are her responsibility as such. If a newly married couple agrees to share life together, do they not share equally in the procurement of household items?

I have such respect for women in the 50s, who managed home, family and personal appearance without batting an eyelash, and frequently without much help. I don’t think I would have been able to do it. I cringe sometimes when I watch Mad Men.

But, back to the pinecones.

As I wondered along the perfectly arranged aisles, it hit me again. Damn, I could not feed myself, either. Was I getting enough antioxidants? Enough Omega-3? Enough vitamin C? Enough Vitamin B? Was my stuff hormone free? Pesticide free?

But, these cinnamon-studded pinecones fill me with a troubling sense of ambivalence, even though I am sitting right next to them, enjoying their aroma and avoiding what their aroma covers up--Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns.

As a famous man once said, if you worry about losing your soul, you still have a soul to lose.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Barnum and Bailey

The tents are gone, the performers packed up. The elephants (and, to be fair, donkeys and other animal metaphors (do any other countries refer to political parties as animals?) a memory. Entrance ramps are no longer blocked by camouflaged humvees and downtown no longer resembles a ghost town Wild Wild West scene where, at any minute, one might expect to encounter twangy guitar music, a ball of brush and a good old-fashioned duel. The G-20 has come and gone, leaving Pittsburgh, with that day-after-Christmas hangover. The city has received praise on the international stage--a formerly rough-and-tumble industrial city, which, in recent years, reinvented itself as a center for education, research and development and green technology. This kind of international publicity, observe excited local PR execs, cannot simply be bought; it positions Pittsburgh with the likes of London or Sao Paulo or Seattle. In other ways, the G-20 seems like the errant houseguest who departs and is discovered to have stolen his host's wallet, finished everything in the fridge and Naired the shampoo bottles, for good measure. Did the expected economic benefit materialize? The promised boon has turned to bust for many local businesses, who lost money--and not even the likes of Ben Roethlisberger or Troy Polamalu could have penetrated the Steel Curtain of riot cops blocking off large parts of downtown. We are unlikely to know the minutiae discussed at the forum, but, because much of American society is consumption-driven, we are conditioned to believe happiness is something acquired through possessions or professional achievement--with the latest car, the latest dress, that plasma tv, the corner office--we can be sure that many of the decisions made facilitated this. As John Lennon said, "If everybody wanted peace instead of another tv, we'd have peace." International economic and political progress is assuredly a many sided beast, whose moral calculus may be an infinitely more complex thing to calculate. In general, international corporations benefit from the lax system of treaties, trade restrictions and cheap, expendable labor in developing nations. Indigenous and poor peoples lose their rights to life-affirming employment, land and, in many cases, their lives. I have benefitted greatly from the system when compared with the rest of the world, but I have also inherited a deep sense of existential guilt. What goes on at the G-20 is pretty darn unsexy and unsettling. So unsettling, in fact, that the spouses of delegates were whisked away to dinners and local performances during much of the deliberation. (For some reason, this makes me think of Victorians, in corsets, retiring to chaises in drawing rooms, or Shakespeare in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', warning the ladies of unsavoriness ahead of time. I'm sorry, I just thought it was interesting...) I was saddened to hear University of Pittsburgh students were tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets while trying to flee from riot cops, who posed with detainees as 'trophies'. I was also wearied by the many 'media whore' types who acted as provacateurs for a little excitement. I heard the term 'police state' batted around by friends last week. The tension between human rights and national security had become a cold, hard reality. For the first time, many Pittsburghers worried about taking a wrong turn, wearing the wrong thing, being in the wrong place at the wrong time,worried they might get me gassed or subject to the screeching of LRAD (Long-Range Accoustical Device-- used by militaries in the country of Georgia, authorized for the first time here in the US.) Last Friday's permitted People's March from Oakland to the North Side was a high point of the forum. From anarchists to Falun Gong advocates to dreadlocked sixties leftovers and photogs galore, it was the kind of spectacle which would have made Ben Frankilin, (of "Dissent is the Highest Form of Patriotism" fame) smile down from wherever he must be smiling from. Nearly 8,000 marchers gathered to bring awareness to international issues: human rights abuses, corporate greed, climate change and the Iraq war. As I walked along on a beautifully balmy afternoon, I witnessed street theatre at its finest: the costuming, the signs, the chanting ("You're sexy, you're cute, take off your riot suit!"), a group of what looked like ex-marching banders playing fight songs on trombones, tubas, French horns. There were ladies dressed as Gaia, people dressed as world leaders and, in a bizarre twist, someone dressed as Christian Bale's Batman. The Daily Show's Jamie Oliver was on hand for the action; a friend and I spotted him on Thursday at Shadyside's Harris Brill. People sang, chanted, cheered. Protestors climbed onto a McDonald's billboard to take an ironic bite of McChicken. Photogs climbed to dizzying heights on the Andy Warhol bridge. The march ended on the North Side where a group of people fed the crowd, Biblical fishes-and-loaves-like, by a nice group of people with beans tacos and rice.