Misunderstood at Christmas

I am assuming you’ve seen the ad. If you haven’t, it goes like this: a teenage boy goes away with his family to visit relatives at Christmas. He appears to spend the whole time glued to his iPhone. Come Christmas morning, he commandeers the flat screen TV and streams a beautiful home movie he has spent the preceding few days shooting and editing, right under his family’s loving noses, and they are delighted by the surprise.

It struck me as very heartfelt, and a good exemplar of the human-centric values that Apple has always espoused. Naturally, many people can’t stand it:

The problem is that while he was creating, he wasn’t really living the day, he was a mere voyeur during it. The message? Life is better through video. Don’t live life, tape it.

(Jennifer Rooney, Forbes.com)

I was initially not without sympathy for this view. Smartphones certainly have eroded some of the one-on-one interaction from life, at a time when manners seem to be growing coarser. And when faced with people with antisocial tendencies — teenage boys chief among them — a smartphone is a pretty high barrier to establishing any kind of conversation or eye contact. But the more I read these responses, particularly the piece linked above, the angrier I got.

First of all, if the boy in this commercial had been seen with his nose in a book rather than an iPhone, it would have prompted none of this high-handed moralizing. “These kids today, and their reading.” Smartphones are the bogeymen of our time, the way Walkmans were in the ’80s and comic books were in the ’50s. These things are nothing but a lurid distraction obscuring a universal truth: to most kids in their mid-teens, adults are boring. Look at the kid’s family. He has a baby sister, a lot of younger cousins, a bevy of aunts and uncles and grandparents — and no one his own age to talk to and hang out with. No competent child psychologist would blame this kid for spending his time posting to Facebook or otherwise communicating with friends who actually understand him and like the same things he likes. Except, of course, that’s not what he’s doing.

You see, some of us in this world are observers. Not that we never get into the thick of the action, or that we don’t love spending time with people we care about. We just function better when we can operate with a slight buffer around us, especially when not at our ease. His family gets him; when granddad lobs that mitten at him, he’s being playful, saying in effect, “I’m not going to bother you over there, but don’t forget I’m thinking about you.” And if we’re creative types, as this boy certainly is*, we’re apt to express ourselves best through whatever our particular gift may be.

What we see this unnamed boy doing is, quite simply, an act of love. Cookie-making and sledding and snowman-building were all well and good, but he had an idea for something special he could give to his family, something only he could do. Who else but the kid who doesn’t quite fit in — neither adult nor child — could show his family who they really are, and what they really mean to each other?

And I’ll make one last point, at the risk of taking a little holiday commercial even more seriously than I have already: I’ll bet he was having fun making that video. I’ll bet when his granddad threw the mitten, he was thinking Aw man, that’s gonna look great in the final version. I’ll bet he had just as much fun watching his family sledding as he did sledding himself. And I’ll bet his family will remember that particular Christmas lump in the throat for many years to come.

By all means, let’s be vigilant about the effect that technology has on our lives. But let’s not get so cynical, so priggish, that we assume that the addition of a smartphone automatically renders an experience mediated, detached, invalid. Sometimes this technology really does bring you closer to the people around you.

*I’m not discounting that the Harris Family Holiday video is actually the work of a professional director (though it really was created on an iPhone), but it’s not beyond the abilities of a perceptive and capable teenager — if it were too good, the spot wouldn’t work as well as it does.

Thanksgiving at Home

Midway through a generous helping of turkey breast, gluten-free stuffing, salad and roasted potatoes, a peculiar realization struck:

This year was the first time I ever ate a full Thanksgiving dinner in my own home. I never realized how subtly unrelaxed I have been at every previous Thanksgiving celebration until I experienced the ease of having one in my living-slash-dining room. There is a certain satisfaction in celebrating an occasion like this in your own space, with your own things — and of course, with the people you love. I noticed, too, that it made me determined to eat all the more; after all, I had paid for all this stuff.

In the spirit of the season, an incomplete list of things for which I am thankful:

  • My health, such as it is
  • My wife
  • My family
  • My wife’s and family’s health
  • The reelection of President Obama
  • Our cat
  • My brain
  • The music of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and about a hundred other people and bands; I shan’t bore you
  • Agave

There is more, but those are the highlights. (The couch, for instance, is nice and comfortable.)

Elvis on My Elbow, Dylan on My Calf: Tattoos

Some time ago, I decided to get a tattoo.

There was a time when a statement like that might have inspired anything from a raised eyebrow to a rueful shake of the head to an incredulous gasp, but I confess I have no idea when that time would be. Most likely it wasn’t even within my lifetime. Tattoos are so ubiquitous today as to be something a little worse than banal — they’re predictable. In the suburbs, it’s tramp stamps and tasteful ankle and shoulder decorations; in Chicago, where I live, half-sleeves are apparently the minimum in order to get hired in any restaurant, bar or Apple retail store. Any overtones of rebellion or non-conformity that tattoos might have had are long gone. For a substantial portion of my age group, getting inked is simply an ordinary aspect of becoming an adult, about as out-there as getting a passport.

Back in the ’80s, George Carlin complained that wearing an earring had been drained of all its revolutionary impact: “It was supposed to piss off the squares. The squares are wearing them now!” Likewise, whereas getting tattooed once (literally) branded you as belonging to a group situated a marked distance from mainstream society, today it means almost the opposite, a necessary signifier of a certain urbane, would-be sophistication. It’s strange to think that something as radical as painting your own skin would become common enough to carry a faint whiff of conformity.

This has always presented something of a dilemma for me. I am a non-conformist of the quiet type, meaning I don’t have the balls to chuck my nine-to-five job and become a freegan with a vegetable-oil-powered van, but I do take a quiet pleasure in steering clear of the most egregious fads. Tattooing has reached the point of cultural saturation where my contrariness reflex normally kicks in. I ought to hate the whole idea of it. The proliferation of tattoos today, hundreds and hundreds of them everywhere I go, bothers me. I don’t want to be like these people (even though I probably already am, in more ways than I care to admit) … but then, I don’t want to be like any people.

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How Hot It Was, How Hot

Summers didn’t used to be like this. As a kid in the suburbs, I would run from the coolness of our front porch into a street warmed to perfection by a sun that never seemed to overstep its bounds. Temperatures tended to hover in the low eighties most days, with the occasional bursts of rain or heat. There were breezes that actually felt refreshing, rather than like blasts from an oven.

This is not nostalgia for the past. A lot of things sucked back then. But in general, the weather wasn’t one of them.

I know this because the kind of hellishly hot days we now experience all the time in Chicago — days when the air lays on you like a searing blanket, thickening your breath, impossible to ignore — were the days I looked forward to as a kid, and there weren’t all that many of them. Hot days were swimming days. When I was young, my neighbors had a pool; later on, we had one. I was never one of those kids who could swim in any kind of weather. Eighty-two degrees is a perfect summer day, but too cool for swimming, at least for a skinny kid with a poorer-than-average ability to regulate his own body temperature. When the weatherman forecast a day in the nineties, it was a treat — it meant there was definitely going to be swimming somewhere, and on a warm day like that, there was no reason to get out of the pool, save for the occasional food and bathroom break. (There is nothing quite like the mix of pleasure and icy agony of going into an air-conditioned house wearing a wet bathing suit on a ninety-plus-degree day.)

Various children of the '80s beating the heat. I'm the kid at center left with the somewhat skeptical look on his face.

I don’t recall precisely when I noticed that this fine homeostatic balance was upset, but I’m pretty sure it was before I had a real understanding of what “global warming” meant. Seemingly all of a sudden, air conditioning went from being an occasional amenity to a vital tool for survival, running for days and even weeks on end. When I began driving, I rarely used my car’s air conditioner: better to feel the wind in my face, I thought, and besides, it’s not that hot out. Now it’s constantly that hot out, and that humid on top of it.

The only consolation we have is that the heat affects pretty much everyone to the same degree. There is a sense, at least on my part, that everyone is in the same boat, dealing with the same back sweat, the same lethargy, the same lingering sense that one should never be outdoors and among strangers while feeling this sticky, smelly and gross. Even with air conditioning, the heat cannot be managed away. It is nature intruding on us coarsely, insisting we give it its due. It’s a little humbling, when all is said and done, and in some lobe of my brain capable of abstract reasoning, I think that’s a good thing. But I still hate the goddamn heat.

The Last Pepsi

We were a Pepsi household growing up. We bought it in glass bottles, eight to a case, which we had to return to the store once they were empty; I remember riding my bicycle to the store holding a rattling case of empty Pepsi bottles on the handlebars. During the summer, some stores would sell them chilled, but usually the cases came home with us at room temperature and sat on the floor between our refrigerator and cabinet.

I loved it, when I was permitted to have it. My parents were responsible enough not to permit me to feed my soda monkey at will. I could not drink it at dinner, unless the meal was pizza; my mandated beverage at meal times was milk. I could get away with it in the evening, or with an afternoon snack. Gradually, as I came within sight of adulthood, I drank milk less and less, and Pepsi more and more. I went away to college, where no one was around to tell me what I should be drinking with dinner, or lunch, or in between meals.

I have easily drank 10,000 Pepsis in my life; the real number could be half again as high. I drank it out of cans, glass bottles and, when neither of those were available, plastic bottles, and could taste the difference in each container. I figured out just how much ice to put in a glass to chill the liquid without diluting it too much; if it got flat, I threw it away. If I were looking for a place to grab lunch and had no particular taste for anything, I would pick a franchise that served Pepsi over one that didn’t. I didn’t drink it at breakfast, but I drank it pretty much any other time, with every food short of chocolate cake.

And now, to quote Henry Hill, it’s all over. I have been diagnosed with seriously high blood sugar and a severe (and surely not coincidental) sensitivity to cane and corn sugar. I drank my last Pepsi this past Tuesday, May 8, at lunch.

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They May Take Our Lives, But They’ll Never Take Our Freebird

Today on Popdose I published a piece making fun of people who yell “Freebird” at concerts. (I know, I know. Tomorrow I’m going to write a piece making fun of airline food.) I don’t usually post links to stuff I write on other websites, but I wanted an excuse to use the above graphic. I created it to go with the story but ended up using another one, and didn’t want this one to go to waste. It kind of freaks me out, truthfully. Don’t look at it too long.

Check out the piece here.