Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Battle on the Homefront

Yesterday was Memorial Day, and I hope we all took a moment to remember the many people who have died in war. We should never forget that millions of human beings have lost their lives in combat. Let us honor their memory by working toward a world where such violence no longer exists.

On a lighter subject, I wish to discuss briefly a battle being waged here, at my very own house. This is a war of brains and brawn which already has produced many casualties. On one side, we have my control freak roommate whose determination knows no bounds. On the other, an army of highly-trained military ants who have set up base in the cracks in the cement in our garage.

I’m sorry to say that my roommate struck the first blow in this conflict. He noticed the presence of the ant forces in our territory some time last week and declared war immediately. A can of Raid was deployed over the enemy base, destroying targets with deadly precision. My roommate declared himself the victor and went inside to gloat over his total domination; but he underestimated his foe. A few days later, there was a scuttle of activity in the enemy camp. It became abundantly clear that, though wounded, the ants were not yet defeated. Their morale was still high, and they began expanding their operations further into the driveway, toward the house.

My roommate, the clear superpower on our property, was shocked at their resilience and was forced to rethink his strategy. An upgrade in weaponry was acquired: an innocent looking white powder that was in reality one of the most deadly chemical weapons known to ant-kind. My roommate used this new weapon of death without mercy or restraint, and within minutes the battlefield was filled with the fallen troops of the enemy. “I am victorious!” my roommate announced to me, elated. “The enemy has tasted my wrath!” He was in a good mood the rest of the day.

The next day, however, his good mood was shattered by a shocking discovery: the enemy still lived. Over night the ants had been hard at work, clearing the battlefield of their dead and, somehow, freeing the entrances to their bases of the dangerous poison. One had to admire their determination. Had they been up against a lesser foe, perhaps their persistence would have given them victory in the end. But, unfortunately for them, they were facing my roommate, and now he was really ticked. I could sense that a massacre was brewing, and I did what I could to stop it. Throughout the entire conflict, I had acted as a war correspondent, an objective party taking no sides. Now I became mediator, trying to resolve the situation without further bloodshed. I tried to persuade my roommate to consider peaceful options, to open channels of diplomacy, to use economic sanctions. My efforts to maintain peace were disrupted; my roommate ignored my pleas, and I was too lazy to mount an effective protest. I was, it seems, not unlike the UN. In the end, no treaty was signed, and my roommate employed his chemical weaponry with impunity.

This time, the morale of the enemy troops was thoroughly broken. More enemy soldiers died in that battle than in the entire war to that point. Since that day of death, the enemy camp has been silent. There have been a few pockets of resistance, but the once mighty army of the ant people was shattered, their glory days over. My roommate takes no prisoners, shows no mercy, leaves no stone unturned. Every day brings repeated bombings with the chemical. The war is over. Yes, the humans won. Yes, my roommate has made the driveway safe for our children. Yes, my roommate has protected our home from invasion. But at what cost?

Lest we forget…. Lest we forget…

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Job Search Update / Economic Class in America

The laws of the universe were defied yesterday: somebody actually called me for a job interview. I was beginning to think there was some sort of huge conspiracy amongst all businesses in the Provo/Orem area to specifically bar me from any kind of employment. Even McDonalds turned its nose up at me (ok, I didn’t really apply at McDonalds, but don’t think I wasn’t starting to consider it). Anyway, I was all in a flutter because the interview was for a nice position in the Q&A department of a large company which happens to have a factory in the area, paying far more than what I had to expected to get just out of college with an English degree. With my savings slowly yet inexorably dwindling, I received the call somewhat like a choking man receives the Heimlich maneuver: with great relief and gratitude.

I went dressed to the nines. My roommate has a high profile fancy pants job so he has lots of nice formal clothes he let me borrow. I wore his expensive suit, and a nice dark blue shirt and a dark tie. I wore shiny black shoes that hurt my feet. I parted my hair in the most conservative manner I could. When I stood back and looked at myself in the mirror, I hardly recognized myself, for two reasons. First, I looked good. Damn good. Like some sort of millionaire playboy with a huge mansion, a yacht, and a secret cave where I keep my high-tech super suit I use to fight evil at night. Second, I looked so corporate, like one of those guys you see hustling importantly through the airport with a briefcase while shouting into their cell phone, “Tell Johnson to fax those PD6 forms now, dammit!” As someone who characteristically raves about the evils of corporate culture, it felt very odd to see myself dressed up in the uniform of the enemy. But I needed this job badly, so I needed to make a good first impression; and anyway, at least I looked hot.

I was expecting to meet with a big-wig at the company, so I practiced acting professional and confident. You’d think as an actor this would be easy, but let me tell you its likes apples and oranges. We’re talking about two entirely different arenas of performance here. Anyway, you can imagine my chagrin when I arrive at the address given to me to find myself at nothing less than a shoddy-looking temp agency. The waiting room was filled with what I would call “the dredges of society” if I wasn’t such a Marxist by principle and therefore a supposed friend to the working classes. I was dressed for prom, while everybody else looked like they grabbed whatever was on top of their clothes pile that morning. Nobody had told me that the position I was going for was “temp to hire” meaning I would be hired as a temp first with the possibility of being officially hired as a full time employee later, based on performance. This was more anticlimactic than disappointing; the pay was still good and it’s a way to finally get my foot in the door somewhere.

Interviews were conducted at a desk in the middle of the large room from which everything could be heard by the people waiting their turn. Because of this, I was given a fascinating glimpse at the lives of these employment-seeking proletariats I was sharing the room with. They all seemed to be going for temp work on the factory floor, running machines and lifting heavy objects and the like. One fellow wearing a baseball cap was apparently trying to return to the factory after having been fired almost three years ago for “excessive absences.” He explained he wanted a second chance because it was the best job he’d ever had. I guess it took me by surprise that anybody anywhere considered standing on the factory assembly line a good job. The lady doing the interviews tried several times to politely tell him that it was highly unlikely he’d be hired again considering his past record, but he never seemed to take the hint. He burbled enthusiastically to some girl in the waiting room he seemed to know about how close he was to being re-hired.

There were others too. One enthusiastic young lady just couldn’t seem to wait to stand in one place for ten hours a day. She had previously been working at some kind of CD case assembly factory, and I guess it seemed to her that making frozen TV dinners would be a step up. Another very young looking girl explained she could only work the night shift because she just had a baby and she couldn’t get a babysitter during the day. I wondered when on earth she was going to sleep if she was watching the baby all day and working all night. There were also several people who had been here more than once. “Well, hi there, Guadalupe!” the interview lady said, “Welcome back. How are your kids?”

This is the side of America so many of us smarmy middle and upper class college graduates never get to see. The uneducated American working class, largely the same as the proletariat of Europe that Marx wrote about: still without any means of production, still forced to sell nearly every minute of their time and every ounce of their labor just to survive. I sat among them in a suit that probably cost more than what they made in a month, feeling sorry for their plight in a sort of condescending, bourgeoisie sort of way and trying to decide how best to exploit the experience for my blog.

All hope is not lost, however. I listened to an inspiring story on NPR about a young girl from the working class whose parents were Mexican immigrants. Through hard work in school she was accepted to Stanford and was able to attend due to the large number of scholarships and federal aid she received. Her father worked his whole life digging irrigation ditches all day, and she was able to pursue a college degree at a prestigious university. If that’s not the American dream, I don’t know what is. It's nice to know that, for some people some of the time, that dream can actually come true.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Needlessly Personal Self-Evaluation

I was once told that I have a tendency to analyze everything about myself; that I spend a great deal of time and energy trying to understand what I do and why I do it. I think that’s true, not only because the source of the comment was highly trustworthy (my former therapist) but because its something I have noticed about myself and have, ironically, tried to analyze.

In that spirit, I feel like blogging about a peculiar aspect of my personality that, due to some recent trivial events in my life, has been on my mind lately. I have this strange quirk which often exhibits itself. It is by no means unique, I’m sure, and at first doesn’t sound much like a bad thing, but it causes more problems than you might think. What I’m talking about is this: I often feel compelled to do what other people want me to, or be what other people want me to be, even when it goes against my personal desires. After all, what they want is clearly more important than what I want. And I'm so worried about hurting or disappointing them that I comply with their desires. For example, if a friend wants me to go with him to some activity to which I have no desire to go, the odds are very likely that I’ll go anyway, because that’s what he wants. If for some reason I don’t go, I torture myself with guilt afterwards.

This is by no means a surreptitious attempt to praise myself for my inherent altruistic nature. In the first place, it’s a selective phenomenon, and there are many times that I’m so wrapped up in myself that the thought of other people doesn’t even cross my mind. And in the second place, even when I do end up doing what other people want at expense of my own desires I’m almost always very bitter about it secretly. But the worst part of this, by far, is that it has by and large resulted in hurting people’s feelings very badly.

If there is something about me that is altruistic, its that I can’t stand the thought of people’s feelings being hurt because of me. I’m a good guy, I help people, I make them happy. I go crazy if I feel like I’ve been the bad guy in any given situation. This leads to a lot of deception. I lie to make the person happy. And if, by chance, I really don’t want to be in the situation and try to get myself out, I can’t just say “No,” or “This is how I feel,” I have to lie through my teeth to get out of it in a “graceful” way. I’m the king of pathetic excuses. But afterward I feel guilty for days both for lying and being so selfish.

This is a problem when it comes to mundane, everyday activities with buddies, but its really an issue when strong feelings are on the line. Lets say, for example, that somebody is desparate to be loved, to, indeed, have a boyfriend. They begin to be very flirty to me and send out signals. Odds are I don’t have any feelings in return for them except that of friendship. However, I can’t stand the idea of hurting them by totally shutting them down. So I play along a bit. I become what they want. I flirt back, in my way, and treat them special. They begin to feel like its true love and everything they’ve wanted and more. They ask me, “Why aren’t we dating yet?” at which point I make some kind of pathetic excuse. Eventually, the stakes are high and emotions are really invested and when pushed into a corner I have to admit that I don’t really have any desire to date and/or marry this person. This shocks them, because I had acted so amiable and because they only see what they want to see, and of course breaks their heart. This has actually happened to me. More than once. It also makes me easily manipulated. This has happened too.

I know, in my head, that I’m not doing anybody any favors by deceiving them this way. I know what years of children’s TV taught me: honesty is the best policy. Yet when it comes right down to it, I continue in this pattern almost sub-consciously. Even knowing it hurts people and, by hurting people, hurts me. I don’t think I’m a bad person. I have good intentions. I simply need to learn to be honest. I need to learn that you can’t go through life without letting people down sometimes, without hurting them a little. Trying to avoid that has only hurt people worse.

Oops, sorry. Your hour session is up. See you next week.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

In Which the Author Joins the Health Club Culture

Last night I went to a gym for the first time, and let me tell you, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had first supposed. I used to think gyms were a realm exclusive to all negative aspects of masculinity with which I had come to distance myself: a zone of flowing testosterone characterized by aggression, competition, arrogance, and stupidity. I imagined it a modern day pagan temple, where people offered up themselves as sacrifices to their own bodies, which have become their own personal idols. I had imagined our society was sickly infatuated with self-image and personal beauty.

Well, it turns out that’s all true, but there is more to it than I had previously imagined. For one thing, recent studies have showing the high level of obesity among Americans started to shake me up. It was easy to imagine, as a young skinny adolescent, that I’d always be young, skinny, and healthy without any effort on my part. I see now that this is not the case, and if I don’t do something about it within a few years I’ll be joining the ranks of unhealthy, overweight, and under-exercised Americans. In order to counter-act my natural laziness, I’ve set up a program with my roommate which will require us to go to the gym together. This should keep either of us from flaking out.

With this new mindset, I saw a different aspect of the people at the gym. Sure, many of them were obviously dripping with narcissism, but many seemed genuinely interested in living long, healthy lives, and I can’t say I have any problem with that. And after a thirty minute jog on the treadmill I felt worn out, sweaty, achy, and wonderful. I’ve decided that being the introverted intellectual that I’ve become does not require being out of shape. It’s been quite a revelation.

In a stroke of twisted genius, my roommate and I decided to take pictures of ourselves in order to compare our old bodies with the new ones we will hopefully shape in the coming months. Perhaps, if the results are noticeable and encouraging enough, I will post these before/after shots of myself on my blog for the world to see. Then again, maybe not. We’ll just have to find out just how much of an exhibitionist I really am.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Solitary Resignment

Call me crazy, but I’ve often thought about what it would be like to be completely cut off from the rest of the world. I have a recurring day dream where I’m shipwrecked on a desert island, alone or with one other person, and forced to survive for months before I’m finally rescued. It’s a silly fantasy, and in real life I’d probably starve or die from heatstroke. But the daydream keeps coming back, so the idea must have a certain appeal.

I read a short story once (I can’t remember who wrote it) about a young man who bets a rival that he can stay cooped up in a small building with no outside contact for an entire year. Food is delivered to him through a small hole, and he is granted a piano and all the books he desires to read. I remember thinking that this sounded like a pretty good deal. As long as I had those things, and maybe some video games or something, a year would be a piece of cake, I thought. In the story the man went crazy and broke out just days before the year was up, and was never heard from again or something mysterious like that. It seemed to me like kind of a cheap ending. Surely it couldn’t be that bad, could it?

Well, for the past week I’ve lived a life of quasi-solitary confinement. Both of my roommates are out of town, and with no job or life that leaves me home alone all day. Of course, I do go out at night to perform at a local theater, and then there was Star Wars, but the overwhelming majority of my time has been spent alone. I didn’t think, beforehand, it would be a big deal. After all, its only a week. Within days, however, I was already losing my mind. I would wander from room to room of my empty house, not sure why or what I should do next. I tried playing computer games, but my interest waned. I tried watching TV, playing the piano, reading books, all those things I thought could easily occupy me not only for a week but for a whole year, like in the story. One memorable day I stretched out on the floor of my living room, face down, and remained there for at least an hour, failing to see any reason for moving.

I’ve never really considered myself a people person. In my childhood I was often content to play completely alone, which was fortunate because at that age I wasn’t very good at making friends. By the time the week was halfway through, however, I was desperate to make contact with another human being. I called up some friends, knowing they were probably busy or at work, just to talk. This is quite remarkable in my case because I avoid using the phone as much as possible and never call somebody just to chat. None of my friends answered the phone. Sanity was slowly slipping through the cracks of my pseudo-prison, leaving only a frenzied wreck that was once me behind. I tried to occupy myself, but none of my distractions could interest me for long. I tried looking for a job, which only depressed me further. Finally, when the silence was unbearable, I put myself to work.

I did the dishes. I washed my laundry. I got online and learned a bunch of exercises I could do to work off some of this extra flab I’ve earned from just sitting around all day. I went for a walk to the mall and the bookstore. I cooked dinner and made a smoothie. I started a blog. And then it struck me, today, at the end of my week-long hermitage, that this really isn’t so bad after all. The trick is simply to create a routine. Fill up your time, get things done. The fun stuff like computer games are much more fun after you’ve cleaned the kitchen. Maybe, just maybe, I could win the bet and survive the year alone through total mastery over self, sheer guts and willpower, and incredible discipline. Or maybe the author of that story was right, and I’d just go crazy.

Either way, when I pick up my roommate from the airport tomorrow, I expect I’ll wave my hands in the air like a maniac, signaling for a welcome rescue from this blasted island.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Revenge of the Ticked

For those of you still living in your proverbial cave, last night was the grand opening of the final Star Wars film, and yours truly was there with baited breath along with a whole host of strange creatures who had dared to slink out into the real world in order to see George Lucas’ latest concoction. Yes, I know that his last two attempts had some problems, to say the least. Yes, I know that the franchise has turned into a spectacle-driven load of corporate drivel meant to squeeze money from the very blood of the masses. But there I was, giddy with anticipation while I waited an hour and half for the thing to start. For one brief fraction of a second, I actually considered wearing the Jedi costume I have in storage somewhere (to my everlasting shame – because not only did I considered wearing it but I also actually own one (don't tell anybody)).

What gets me so worked up? Star Wars is my childhood. For me, there has never been a time when there wasn’t Star Wars, and I wasn’t in love with it. I have video of myself at two years old swinging a long balloon around like a lightsaber. So the idea of Star Wars taps into the most fundamental memories of my happy childhood; when I was innocent and carefree and could watch the original trilogy all day. And let me tell you, Episode III did not disappoint. I was mostly expecting a lot of crap that I would have to pretend to like out of principle, but there was actually much to like about it. I highly recommend all you doubters out there to give it a shot, it’ll probably surprise you. I was very pleasantly surprised.

Problem was, I almost didn’t get to see it. You see, I bought two tickets online for my old roommate and me over two weeks ago. So when Dan and I showed up at the theater, tickets in hand, we assumed there would be a seat waiting for us. Not so. Every seat in the theater was either taken or saved. “There’s no seats,” Dan said. “But there must be,” I said, “We have two tickets and that means there are two seats here somewhere for us.” You see, I was operating on the assumption that the theater would not sell more tickets than they had seats. This seems like a logical assumption to me, but apparently not to our friends at Cinemark. We asked the usher guy if we were in the right theater (they were showing it in three) and he said we were. We said that there weren’t any seats left and he said, “Yeah, the show is sold out,” in a tone that indicated that was an obvious explanation of the situation and his final word on the matter. I pressed him, because whether the show was sold out or not was irrelevant. I had two tickets, and that meant I had two seats. He explained, very wearily and with a great show of patience (as if it made total sense and I was the only one who didn’t get it) that the internet sales sold more tickets than seats. This was the overflow theater and it was first come, first serve. Nobody was guaranteed a seat.

Only a true capitalist would have come up with such a stupid idea (if indeed it was on purpose, and not simply some kind of computer error, which I suppose is possible) but what really ticks me off is that I was never told that this would be the case, and that my ticket did not guarantee me a seat. Had I been informed when I bought my tickets I would have got there much earlier. Has anybody else heard of this? Is this some kind of common practice and I'm just not aware of it? At any rate, Dan and I were lucky and found two seats right on the front row. But there were other groups of people, including families with exuberant children, who had assumed for weeks that they had tickets for the opening night of Star Wars, only to discover on arrival that there were not any seats and that they couldn’t see it. I would hope the theater gave them free tickets and lots of other stuff for their trouble because that really stinks. That’s the kind of unfair business practice that can start riots.

Never mess with Star Wars fans.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A clever little slice of satire for your intellectual digestion.  Posted by Hello

A New Start

I recently moved into a house. This is quite a refreshing change from the cramped college housing I've grown used to over the last two and half years or so. The reason such a move is now possible is because, somehow, I have graduated and can live wherever I want. I began the work of settling in, and soon started having a few friends come over and see my new place.

Showing people around your new house or apartment has always seemed a bit silly to me. You lead them from room to room as if you were a tour guide at an English castle, throwing in bits of guide-like commentary from time to time. "This is the kitchen," you announce, as if you might have placed the fridge in the bedroom. Your friends nod and say something polite and complimentary. In their position, I never know what to say. "Well, the bathroom certainly appears functional," I'll say, forgetting that this isn't really the point of the exercise. I have the same problem when it comes time to congratulate people for having a baby. I mean, I suppose its a great accomplishment, but its hardly something that hasn't been done before. I don't really have any difficulty with the mothers, but you're expected to congratulate the father too, who didn't carry the baby or squeeze it slowly from his body. "Congratulations on successfully procreating!" I want to say to him, as if his part were difficult too. Of course, if pregnant mothers are half so difficult to deal with as I hear, maybe the guys do deserve some credit for surviving the gestation period at all.

Speaking of births, last week was my twenty-fourth birthday. Were I more considerate, I would have called and thanked my parents for successfully procreating me back in 1981, but somehow it slipped my mind. I did, however, receive some gifts and notes of appreciation from family and friends. Thanks, everybody. One letter, written by an aunt, who I adore and who shall remain anonymous, said, "Congratulations on your birthday and on graduating! They are both great accomplishments." Call me picky, but I couldn't really see, at first, how my birthday was supposed to be an accomplishment. It seemed to me like congratulating the father for the birth. My birthday wasn't really my accomplishment at all, I didn't really do anything. My mom did all the squeezing (and I love her for it). If anyone should get the credit, its her.

However, I have managed to stay alive for twenty-four years, and perhaps thats what my aunt was referring to. Is that what birthdays are, really? A celebration of your continued survival in this dangerous world? When we say "Happy Birthday" we are really saying, "We're so glad you're not dead yet!" or (for those in their later years of life), "We can't believe you're not dead yet!" Do we start to fear birthdays because we know they are finite, limited, numbered? Or do we look forward to them as a sign of another year's succesful existence? A birthday is a new start. You say, "OK, I made it this far. Lets try one more year." And you keep on doing that until one day you don't make it. If you're lucky, you'll succeed many many times before then, and reach a ripe, old, wise, and satisfied age. That, I think, would truly be an accomplishment worth celebrating. So, congratulations everybody. If you are reading this, you are still alive. Keep up the good work!