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.)

The Republican Party in a Second Obama Term

I read Andrew Sullivan’s recent Newsweek cover piece on how a second term could elevate Obama to what is sometimes called a “transformational” president, one who leaves the country profoundly altered in his wake. I resisted its conclusions at first, mostly because they are predicated on the assumption that Congressional Republicans will stop fighting the president tooth and nail and actually contribute somewhat to the stewardship of the nation. I couldn’t see why they would bother. After all, it’s not like anyone on our side thought any more highly of George W. Bush in 2008, did we?

But I thought about it some more, and I begin to see how cooperating with the president might be of strategic importance for the GOP.

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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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Samsung, Stop Your Photocopiers. (And Apple, Stop Your Lawyers)

“They sat with the iPhone and went feature by feature, copying it to the smallest detail. In those critical three months, Samsung was able to copy and incorporate the core part of Apple’s four-year investment without taking any of the risks, because they were copying the world’s most successful product.”

Thus spake Apple attorney Harold McElhinny to the jury during closing arguments of his company’s lawsuit against Samsung. I don’t think there is any disputing that McElhinny is right. In fact, what reads on the page as lawyer’s hyperbole is really a simple statement of fact: Samsung really did crawl through the iPhone feature by feature, stacking it against its original Galaxy S and concluding that in any instance in which the two devices differed, the latter should adopt the look and functionality of the former. There’s something almost admirable in the very brazenness of it.

What is not so admirable is the spectacle of the world’s most valuable company — not technology company or electronics company, mind, but most valuable, full stop — trying to stamp out one of its imitators not through the competitive marketplace but through the court system. To be blunt, Samsung indisputably copied Apple’s designs, but I don’t see anything in the law that ought to prevent them from doing it.

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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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