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.

How pretty is *your* iTunes library?

I am more-than-averagely obsessive about my iTunes library. And yet, this is what most of it looks like. Ever see those pictures of ancient relics being restored in museums, when they’ll have exactly six pieces of some ancient textile and try to somehow fill in the gaps? It’s kinda like that.

Assuming I am more diligent about matching graphics with my albums than most people — and assuming most people acquire their music the way I did, rather than buying it exclusively through iTunes or Amazon — then it stands to reason that most iTunes libraries in the world look like this, or worse.

Kinda depressing, somehow.

24 Cigarettes and One Pipe: Hammett and Chandler

When I was a writing student in college, I came across a how-to manual called The Essence of Fiction, by Malcolm McConnell. It was not like most other writing books I had read before or have read since. My professor, to whom I showed it, was mildly appalled at its strict focus on the mechanics of story construction, and indeed, The Essence of Fiction has no clever exercises a la John Gardener’s The Art of Fiction, nor does it inspire you to live a life devoted to creativity a la Natalie Goldberg’s excellent Wild Mind. Essence is plain and direct and even, to my old teacher’s point, rather crude, but one of its precepts has stuck with me over the years: the rule against “cigarette action.”

Cigarette action is McConnell’s term for the meaningless physical business a writer will assign a character in order to pace a scene. When writing a dialogue scene, you can’t simply follow one speech with another and then another: it gets fatiguing to read, and the scene gradually loses its sense of place, its physicality. (Not that that stopped Elmore Leonard.) So writers solve this by having their characters do … something. Get up and look out the window. Check themselves out in the mirror. Change positions on the couch. And, of course, light cigarettes.

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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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