Thursday, February 28, 2013

The here and now and then

This morning I was trying to remember a song. I pulled an image, a feeling and half a line out of the dark recesses of my still-waking brain and tried to put myself back where I was lo, those many years ago to try and get a handle on what I needed to remember. Then I just went to the internet and asked it to remember it for me, and it did.

We outsource our intellect via technology, but this is not new. We are willing to trade some advantages for others and this has been part of the progression of humankind for a while now (the tension between trading freedom for safety is an echo of this...we let others guarantee our safety but to do so, give up some of our unfettered liberty) and I am not going to wish to undo hundreds and thousands of years of evolution and progress so late in the game.

Instead, I will do what comes naturally to me -- I will point out that what we are doing NOW is somehow different, unprecedented and qualitatively worse and more evil so I can complain about it without sounding like I am complaining about everything. So, yeah, we introduced printing, which relieved us of the pressure to remember everything; we introduced radio and TV which eliminated the invocation of imagination from story telling; we introduced calculators so we no longer have to (or often, are able to) perform basic math functions alone. VHS, DVD and DVRs mean we no longer need to schedule our lives or carve uninterrupted time from our routine to be entertained. But the internet has gone one step further.

I remember reading something years ago which said "we are at the end of history." That phrase has almost 2 billion hits on google but I don't think that most of them are pointing to what I heard it to mean (and I admit, I have only read the first billion entries so I might be wrong here). On one hand, we are developing hindsight substantially faster. We don't wait for the past to be past before we train our cynical sights on it and revise its meaning. We allow ourselves to become nostalgic for yesterday instead of for 100 years ago. Warhol's notion of 15 minutes of fame is broken into

15 seconds of fame
15 seconds of notoriety
1.5 minutes of irritating persistence
5 minutes of absence
1 minute of rejuvenation
2 minutes of notoriety
3 minutes of absence
2 minutes of retro status
1 minute as a guest star on a reality show

With the advent of memes we have seen fame arrive, flash and return to the depths of anonymity before most people over the age of 26* even knows it existed.

On the other hand, though, if we have learned one lesson from the internet, and I'm not sure we have, it is that nothing ever disappears. We have no more history not because we turn everything into history immediately, but because nothing ever becomes history. Everything is always here and available. A PBS tv show from 1978? You can find it online. The weather for all the January 26's over the past 10 years? We have that. Now you might think that this persistence of memory is fabulous, but the thing is, all it means is that we don't feel the need to remember anything any more. This goes beyond abandoning the bardic rhyming couplets when we were finally able to, for a price, print up our odes -- at least then we needed to have money and the ability to read. Now, we can use the cloud to save our memories and never have to learn to compartmentalize our brains to prioritize what needs space and what can be forgotten. There are now contests for memory as if remembering things is a freak-show skill to be paraded down whatever that street is that is, you know, over there by store...hold on, let me get mapquest. We can take pictures of the "right now" and not wait for them to be developed -- but that time, that distance was crucial to appreciating them (and choosing which picture to take because of a limit on film was also important in developing a discerning eye and an awareness of money) and creating memory. We cannot yearn for a past that we never, even for a time, let go of.

Our children will carry their brains in their pockets. Might this free them up for more creative thinking? We all would like to think so. By not having to focus on the basics, we can work on the more advanced concepts. Isn't that great? Since no one has to learn the multiplication tables, we can have 8 year-olds learning calculus, right? Since no one has to remember anything because the past is always with us, can we assume constant knowledge of everything so we can focus on more advanced thinking skills? Or maybe, the process of deciding what to hold on to, and the ability to hold on to memory and recall it is a necessary prerequisite for advanced thinking and we are dumbing ourselves down by relying on the electronic and virtual brains to do our thinking for us.

There is value to knowing things and remembering (or not remembering! I believe that we gain a lot by searching and develop an emotional depth by feeling a sense of loss for the missing past) in a traditional sense. Writing things long-hand, doing math with a pencil and paper, dreaming, and sitting with others and recalling a shared experience by struggling to fill in the blanks in fragmented memories of the past are all essential moments in brain development.

I'm not a Luddite. Well, I might be. I don't know what a Luddite is. But if I wanted to know, I could just look it up. I love technology and rely on it. But I also know that there have been some serious sacrifices that we have made on the altar of progress and that just because stuff is not cutting edge doesn't make it useless.

* ages have been changed to protect the innocent.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Idiot proof

I'm working on a new definition of the word "stupid" as in, "I'm surrounded by stupid people." I find that many don't know what I mean by the term "stupid people" so I want to make my meaning crystal clear so that when I say it, any individual can know if that label applies to him at that moment or not.

I started with a standard definition related to innate intelligence. You don't have it, you're stupid. But then I was confronted with a few truths. The first is that people who lack intelligence sometimes work harder to compensate. And that isn't stupid by any stretch. And the second is that some people who have plenty of IQ points still sometimes do and say stuff which is remarkably stupid. Next, I saw that English (which has no true and pure synonyms) has plenty of words which reflect a lack of intelligence so why waste "stupid" duplicating the efforts of a perfectly reasonable word like "idjits." Finally, I noted that sometimes stupid people are defined by their poor driving which is not a function of innate intelligence or its lack.

So I moved on to a notion of stupid which might presume a limit on intelligence but which did not demand or hinge on it. So I started with the driving. A guy cuts me off, or merges poorly, or is putting his makeup on while shaving his phone which is reading the newspaper. He's stupid even if he has a PhD. Stupid, there, seems to be more about egocentricity. This person believes that he is the only person in the world and doesn't care about the needs or even existence of anyone else. Yep. That sounds stupid to me. But is that the only definition?

Then I was answering someone's question and another guy looked at me and said "I don't see how you can say that."

And it hit me. That's stupid. That's stupid because it assumes not that I don't exist, but that I don't have a reason for having said what I said. That is an uber-egocentricity. Sure, someone else exists, but I can't lower myself to see things from his jaundiced point of view because even if there is a reason, I am too smart to consider it. How does this apply to driving? It is the guy who swerves into my lane while he is busy texting and looks at me as if to say "what right did YOU have to be in the lane I was swerving into?" He can't imagine that I have a reason to exist where he will end up.

Look, I hear people say all sorts of dumb things. I hear them show a lack of knowledge, insight, appreciation or subtlety. I see people lack imagination, or sensitivity. But to hear someone say "I can't fathom how you came up with what you said so either you are way dumber than I am, or you used NO logical reasoning to get there while I always do" is to hear someone be stupid. How tough can it be to consider that someone else has a point of view which is based in a way of looking at the world which is informed by a different, yet equally valid understanding of things? And if that understanding is in error, how difficult would it be to try and draw out the error and correct it rather than dismiss the entire statement?

Will there be situations where some other guy's statement defies any and all logic or reflects a lack of process? Yes, but isn't it smarter to assume that what is said comes from a place that at least the other person thinks is reasonable, and try to figure out what that place is before simply dismissing? A little intellectual empathy is not a bad thing.

So that's my definition of stupid -- egocentric to the point where one condescends to point out to others how dumb they must be and to show that one can't even deign to think on their level.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Harming Kardon

There are a bunch of phrases that we use all the time even though we really don't know what they mean. At least I do. I use the phrase "seeing the world through rose colored glasses" at least 4 times a week (5 times during October) and I have no idea how one colors glasses to look like roses and why though would be any better than looking at things through glasses colored like chrysanthemums. mums. So I have to take note when a phrase that I have been using finally makes sense. That happened this morning.

The phrase in question? "mixed emotions." How often do we say "I'm having mixed emotions"? I'm not even talking about the Rolling Stone lyric which we all probably quote daily. I know you do, and you're not the only one. HA! And do we really know what it feels like to have mixed emotions? Oh sure. You think you do. I used to think I did also so I can laugh knowlingly and in a smugly superior way at your false sense of understanding. Oh, ho ho ho. condescend condescend. Ho ho ho ho.

But really. In the past, I have used the phrase mostly to mean "I want you to think that I'm conflicted about this and though I might have a few misgivings, I actually am pretty clear on what I want. I'm just lying about it." So when the situation arises and someone says "would you like another hot fudge sundae?" I say, "I'm having mixed emotions about that. It looks yummy but I don't need the calories." What I mean is "Stupid question, jackwagon. Shovel that baby down my gullet and be quick about it. I have a nap to take." And while, somewhere on one of my shoulders, the good, dieting angel is trying valiantly to whisper "no, don't do have had 3 and that's fine" in my ear, all the other angels are holding him down and shouting "Maraschino! Maraschino!"

And even if I were to have misgivings about my decision not to run that jerk in the Smart Car off the road because he cut me off without using his blinker and who does he think he is driving a Smart Car like he's trying to make me feel bad, is that really a case of mixed emotions? No -- the emotions are clear but I have mixed priorities (crushing that guy in his tuna can on wheels vs. being not in jail for my children's nuptials in 10-12 years).

So yesterday morning I posted a snide comment (I Well, sometimes I can't be all happiness and gumdrops) about a news story. Not so much a comment as a vicious pun. I felt good about it. It was quick. It was mean spirited. It was (I'd like to think) witty. And when others reacted with shock and revulsion, I felt I had been validated. The goal of a good pun is to induce groans. The goal of a great pun is to induce vomiting. L'Ipecac, c'est moi.

If you aren't familiar with Facebook, I'll explain how things work. I type something and you like it. That's a rule on Facebook. You can check. And then never come back. Otherwise, take my word for it and like me, dammit. Occasionally, swept up by the brilliance that is me (or I. Or both.) others add comments to my post, often in the pun family. And I smile and nod, acknowledging attempts to approach the level of my original statement.

And this morning, David Kardon (if you don't know him, you should introduce yourself. None of this will make any sense if you don't introduce yourself. I'll wait.) added a comment to my post. And it was brilliant. I say this as a fan of the pun -- if I had a hat, I would doff it out of repsect for Dr. Kardon's pun. Sure, it took him 24 hours to come up with it. Sure, he has extensive medical training which gave him access to concepts and vocabulary which is closed out to me (he used the word "knee" which, I assume, is Latin for something). Sure, he was standing on the shoulders of my genius (and getting his dirty shoes all over my lapels). But, as the young people say, OMG. It was fabulous.

Now, I truly have "mixed emotions." Strong, strong emotions conflicting and battling for the supremacy of my soul. I want to jump up and tell the world about how great this pun was. I want to celebrate it with a joy most deep and profound. And I want to cry. Cry that I didn't think of it and I am poorer for that void in my joke craft. I am angry -- angry at Kardon for thinking of it, and at myself for not thinking of it. And yet I am calmed by the knowledge that there is brilliance in the world and I am not alone in my work. Never before have I had such a raging conflict in my emotions. In fact, I wasn't even sure that I had emotions, let alone more than one at once, and ones which are enemies in the wild.

It has been a crazy morning in my psyche. I say with all sincerity, thank you David Kardon, and go to hell. I'm getting more ice cream.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Read book

So I was sitting reading Redbook this afternoon. Shut up. Don't judge. I was eating my dinner for one, all alone at the table and there was this Redbook. Isn't the point not "what we read," but "that we read"? And what's wrong with Redbook, anyway? So cut it out.

So I was reading Redbook. Dumb magazine. And I leafed through the selection of "50 great gifts for under $50". That sounded interesting. A watch? Well, sure, some people want to know what time it is. A fashionable power strip shaped like a powder blue lightning bolt. OK...why should my dongles not be color coordinated? A knit winter hat. Um, ok, though I can't imagine that costing MORE than 50 bucks. Lip gloss. Not for me, but maybe for a friend and at $2.99, I should stock up for the upcoming zombie apocalypse when second to brain eating, chapped lips will be the most common scourge. Colorful vegetable slicers. Who wouldn't, I mean, right? A set of 4 typewriter themed place mats. Hey -- that's kind of kooky. Forty-eight bucks for 4 typewriter themed place mats. Wouldn't that be a great gift?

Well, no. No it wouldn't.

Look, I appreciate that it can't be easy coming up with new and different ideas for a magazine whose primary theme seems to be "I am woman, hear me." Articles about weight, and money, and makeup and health, and relationships. A vital link in our chain of journalistic integrity and excellence, no doubt. And gifts under $50 bucks? Well, that just screams "Urgent!" But typewriter themed place mats? Let's break this down.

First, and foremost: I love typewriters. I used to collect them. I may even have one stashed away in the house. And I use the one at work. Most people think it is just there for show, and to hold down papers, but I know that it can do stuff, so I use it. No boot up time. No driver errors. Instant gratification. I love me a typewriter. But does that make a stylized QWERTY (I had to look up the spelling of that word) keyboard on a plastic sheet a reasonable dinner surface? If it does, what doesn't? Then I began to consider the place mat on the whole.

Growing up, we had place mats. One was shaped like an animal. A sheep, I think. Four were themed after the state of Israel, and at least one was made by a child in school. Adorable. We used them on those rare occasions when we were having a meal formal enough for plates, at the big table, yet with no table cloth. They were more often used simply to be used than because there was a protocol invoked that required place mats. Tuesday was not Place mat Day. And the choice of place mats was often about childhood favoritism ("I want the one with the sheep!" "You had it last time!" "But you don't even like the sheep!" "Yeah, but I don't want YOU to have it.") or which was on top of the pile. They were not fashion statements and we did not use them when we had company. If we invited you over, we were going to honor you by putting down an actual tablecloth from the tablecloth drawer. No plastic which caught spills and channeled them into your lap for you. No "you have 4 inches on each side of your plate -- please confine your crumbs to that area". Place mats were about how we eat when we stop being polite and start being bored and lazy. So for them to be a gift? If I were to get a gift of any place mats I would be sure to leave them wrapped and then regift them to someone I don't particularly like and to whose house I hope never to be invited. I might ask for the receipt so I can return them for something useful like a monogrammed compact ($38, I might just smile and say something polite like "What the hell is this crap?"

And if you have up to fifty bucks burning a hole in your pocket and decide to spend it on someone else, you might want to consider a gift which doesn't make its primary message "wipe me."

So maybe you still use place mats. Maybe you grew up as part of a long established place mat dynasty and the place mat has an important part in your family's storied history. Maybe the dying wish of your favorite half-uncle was that you spread the joy of whimsical place mats to all your friends. Maybe I should stop reading Redbook. But whatever the case, it is a dumb gift. Give me the cash if you feel the need to waste it. I'll go out and 9 colorful vegetable peelers and have a much neater dinner just by using a table cloth to hold elegantly peeled carrots.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Wedding speech, take 1

I spent a wonderful morning at a lovely affair -- the bat mitzvah of a young woman I have known since she was born, if not before. The food was too filling, the coffee was poured liberally and the speeches got me thinking. The next set of speeches I figure I will have to deliver will be at my kids' weddings. No one wants to hear me pontificate at a sweet 16 or a graduation and I don't anticipate any other important life events till then. And the host with the most this morning commented on how he started his speech 8 days before the big day. That's not enough, I thought. So I decided to start writing wedding speeches now. Here's my logic.

I have lots to say. I am a font of wisdom and everyone should be taking notes whenever I open my mouth, even if just to yawn. Especially if just to yawn -- the profundity of my yawning is legend and should not be taken lightly. If I write this now and then, god forbid, something dire happens to me, and this speech is delivered, I will come off as having been prescient and that will cause my stock to rise from beyond the grave. Imagine how spooked all the guests will be when they hear a speech written years ago because I was concerned that I wouldn't be at the big day. "Ooooh" they'll all whisper, "It's like he knew the future or something." Well, I don't, but if the rumor that I am psychic is to be propagated, then so be it. Please throw money at my children in my honor or I'll haunt you via a blog post from the other side.

So I have been working on the speech for the kid who gets married first. It will need to be tweaked to connect to the Torah portion of the week of the wedding (unless I can include the Torah portion I want, now, and then guilt the kid into getting married on my schedule. That'd be sweet) and I will have to insert the proper daughter's name in it. And I may have to insert some current event type reference in there to show that this is not a prewritten speech but you and I will know that this was developed over many years. So here it is -- and from this point on, I'm gonna have to hit the "serious" button. So the yucks are over jimbo. Move along.

Kid, this is big. This is it. The day that you enter into a covenant to create a new house, a new home and a new identity. The day you will go from trying to avoid all my speeches to trying to solicit my advice and the day when I go from being an annoying father figure to a wizened role model. So I'd like to shift into the proper role by giving you some advice and have it not be in the form of a lecture which you half listen to while you check your phone and think evil thoughts about why I am grounding you again. I'd like to tell you about the key to happiness.

You may not know it but I am generally deliriously happy. I keep it a secret because I don't want to make everyone else feel bad. But the fact is, I've got it made. A while back, I stumbled onto the secret to happiness and I have been cashing in ever since. In this room full of doctors and lawyers and clergy members, I would like to reveal that secret because I can conveniently invoke confidentiality from all the professionals here so that they may not divulge my secret after they leave. And for you who are not in careers which demand confidentiality, please take and sign the non-disclosure agreement folded into the bencher and return it as you leave. Otherwise, please submit to a lobotomy. Either is fine.

Look around. Look at your family. Look at your friends. Look at my friends. But don't let them know you are looking. That's just weird. But look at them without looking like you are looking at them. These, my child, are quality people. That's the secret. Surround yourself with the kind of people who make you smile, who make you think, who make you love and who make you want to do all those things more. Surround yourself with people you would choose to hang out with if you didn't happen to be getting married today. Surround yourself with people whom you like and appreciate for who they are right now and who make you want to be a better person every day. I hope that as a father, I have been a person whose presence you don't dread. I hope that I, by choosing to marry your wonderful mother, have modeled for you how you can find a soul mate who challenges and amuses. Who is never boring and is always just what you need. I hope that we have shown you a relationship which is made up of two equals who look forward to each day with each other as a new experience, a honeymoon that doesn't end and a fresh chance to make a best friend proud. I hope that we have brought you up with a sister who taught you about looking out for someone else because you'd want her to look out for you. And in whom you see the best of yourself and those around you -- something you should be protective of.

I hope you see in your family the respect and love for heritage and collective memory and that you are surrounded by people who ask questions, dig for answers and love the process. And who share that adventure with each other because we all value growth and advancement. I hope that at every shabbos meal, we have surrounded you with people who push the envelope and make you think, even while you laugh, cringe and pretend you either aren't listening or don't understand. People who have shown you that divergent ways of living and life are not always mutually exclusive and that, more than "life is pain" life is dealing with pain and rising above it. People who surround you with love and both the willingness to compromise and the stubbornness not to when it isn't the right course. People who do the right thing even as they gripe and grouse about it, because they know that it is important to to do the right thing.

Through high school, college and life and into new relationships, you have been looking for people. I hope you have found and will continue to forge circles of friends who help you be the brilliant, funny, cutting and insightful person that you are. I hope you surround yourself with a household which celebrates every day as a victory for the good guys and which makes you go to bed tired each evening because you had to rise up to face what life has to offer and you emerged unbroken. I hope you surround yourself with friends and relatives, peers and colleagues who drive you to care about your world and bring others up to where you are, instead of people who drag you down to their level.

As you begin this new chapter of your life, do so with a strong support group. People to eat and drink with. people to go out or stay in with. A spouse who wants to be there for you and whom you want to be there for. Happiness is not a solitary venture -- it is the function of comfort. And yes, sometimes being alone is comforting. But knowing that when you are done being alone, you have the best friends EVER to go back to is real happiness. Do as I hope I have shown you I have done: find quality people. Our circles, our families and our friends are some of the most incredible people who have shared the experience of raising you. I am proud that they are here today and in awe of all they have helped me become. Find people about whom you say, as I have often said about many of my friends, "bottom line, he's a really good person." Those are the ones who will bring you happiness. Find that world and be that person for everyone else. Have your own family and teach what it is to be a good person the way I hope your mother, your family and our friends have tried to teach you.

And I hope you come back to me for advice often because I see you as one of the quality people I would want to surround myself with and I value all the time we get to spend together.

I'm sure I am supposed to say nice things about the groom but as my elder is only 16 and is already aghast at the prospect of my writing this speech now (she just walked in and told me so) I will skip trying to make a hypothetical guy like me. Suffice to say, if he passes the muster of my girls' judgment then he is probably a pretty good guy.

So this is a first draft. I anticipate that I will have a few years to polish it. Or trash it and come up with a totally new tack. Fin.