Friday, December 26, 2008

#125 - Another Father's Day

Another Father's Day

12/26/08 (#125)

I could hear my daughter's hurried footsteps behind the creak of the front door as I came home from work, moments before her urgently blurted, "Dad, I'm learning to play Scrabble!!!" She's six, and has been watching mom and dad play the game for her entire life, and now that she is actively reading and spelling, Sage's mom decided to initiate her into the game. It was obvious that Sage saw the invitation as an acknowledgment of her maturity, a rite of passage into something closer to adulthood. (I was also delighted to hear her first phrase upon returning to the game, a lamentation to her mom: "I wish I had another 'O', I could make 'zoo'." Ahhh, The frustration of not having one crucial letter for a big score---she sounds like a veteran Scrabble player already.)

Before I became a father, no one mentioned to me how thrilling it would be hear that phrase exploding from my daughter's soul. It's one of myriad things that no one ever told me about, because these things are both frequent and fleeting, the day-to-day deliciousness that makes parenting a pleasure. When I was younger and asked people how they liked being parents, their responses rarely indicated that fatherhood was worthy of pursuit. The responses were enthusiastic, but they offered unconvincing moments of evidence because it was the language of their life, not mine. Ever hear someone say, "When you have kids, your whole life changes"? I got that impression, because parents described a life that was unfamiliar to me. No one ever mentioned, and I lacked the foresight to imagine, that my six-year old daughter would one day lay "gland" on the Scrabble board and immediately defend it with, "It's a word. It's in my body book." I've had many great days in my life, but none better than this one.

I've come to realize that parenting is impossible to accurately convey. Non-parents are inundated with too much information, accurate and inaccurate, to have any context for processing it all. It's like flying into Tokyo and 20 minutes before landing, every person on the plane starts simultaneously telling you where to go and what to do and what to beware of, most of the voices in broken English with foreign words. By the time you land, you've learned nothing, you've simply been overwhelmed with mostly irrelevant information. (At least that's how I felt when it was happening to me.) My advice to the curious is not to ask everyone; just look for folks on the plane who dress a bit like you, maybe read the magazines that you like, and quietly ask, "Any favorite places in Tokyo?"

My friend Doug was the first of my close friends to have a child in our adult life, and I recall asking him what it's like to be a father: "You never know how much love you have inside you until you're a dad." Doug seemed to understand that there was no way to put his feelings into a context I would understand: People can love their nieces and nephews, can adore their coworkers babies, can revel in a talkative toddler on the bus, but in the end, the age-old adage "it's different when their yours" is astoundingly profound. (Despite it's common use as explanation for how one could endure the crying of an infant or the tantrums of a toddler.)

To use another travel metaphor, imagine describing a trip along the Columbia Gorge to someone who has never taken the trip. If you're like me, you'll mention the expansive view from Vista House, the awesome magnificence of Multnomah Falls, the delightful collision of quaintness and cool that is Hood River. These are all wonderful stops on that journey, and shouldn't be missed, yet what makes that drive wonderful to me isn't those items: It's the little fruit stand just south of Hood River that offers samples of their ridiculously delicious jams (blueberry amaretto is a favorite) and serves improbably fresh-tasting huckleberry shakes; it's the moss-enveloped stone of the guide rail along the old scenic highway that offers a momentary feeling that I am driving through the past, a lifetime previous, when this two-lane road was enough and the six-lane freeway below would have been a farcical idea; it's the miles of conversation with my wife, who after sixteen years together is still my favorite companion for that (or any) drive. It's these personal things that make that drive a pleasure, just as you have your own secret stops that make that journey special for you.

The same is true for parenting: It's a road traveled by many, but there are uncountable numbers of rest areas and detours and travel rituals that make the journey yours alone.

I'm reminded of the art of Jan Vermeer, the Dutch artist whose paintings transcend mere realism and achieve an accuracy that so-called reality doesn't offer: The bricks of his buildings look more realistic than actual bricks; the light through the window is so true that if you look long enough, you expect it to change as the sun in the painting slowly sets. To describe the subject matter of a Vermeer work is meaningless: The joy is in the details, tiny brush strokes that reveal a secret that seems to have been spoken directly to you.

What's it like to be a father? For me, it has revealed that the world is made up of an infinite number of tiny brush strokes; has reminded me that the milestones are nice but happiness lays between them; that Doug was right about the capacity of love; and last but not least, life is sweet, with or without that second letter "O".

©2008 wpreagan

Monday, December 1, 2008

#124 - All in Stride

All in Stride

9/27/08 (#123)

I take the same bus to work every day, at the same time, so despite my journey including splendid architecture, views of several bridges, even passing under the odd and intriguing Portland Tram, my reality is like that of everyone else who does the same commute each day: scenic redundancy is a fact of life. Sure, the National College of Natural Medicine is a great building, but except for variations in which windows are illuminated, it looks the same on Friday as it did on Tuesday. Since the physical landscape rarely changes, my eyes gravitate to more transient visual stimuli---namely, people. But not just people. Particularly, stride.

I read a factoid long ago that in all most cultures, all other things being equal, women are attracted to men who walk quickly. (A bit of information that briefly inspired me to adjust my gait to something closely resembling speed-walking.) The theory is based on primal survival instincts: Men who walk quickly have more energy, will get more done, and are more likely to be good providers.

This science came into my mind as I stared out the bus window one morning and watched a woman with a strong, confident stride navigating the morning crowds on Third Avenue. She easily outpaced everyone with whom she shared the sidewalk, yet she looked completely unhurried, as if her speed resulted not from effort but from efficiency, the sum of mechanical precision and natural grace. Our paths were parallel for a couple of blocks (a red light helping to keep the race close), and I was riveted: I could not see her face, her November clothing disguised her figure, yet my eyes followed every step. She turned the corner on Jefferson while my bus continued on Third, the rhythm of her stride resonating in my mind.

While I grant that, as that old factoid implied, I may possess a subconscious attraction for physical proficiency (if it’s true for women, it’s likely true for men), the lingering essence of this woman was her beat. Think of drumming as an art form: A good drummer can play in odd time signatures, cleverly massage the downbeat or perform complex polyrhythmic patterns, yet it’s usually a strong, simple beat that convinces people to tap their feet and wiggle their hips. Our bodies respond to certain rhythms, which goes a long way toward explaining why James Brown sold a lot more records than Frank Zappa. I think that’s why the graceful woman was so compelling to me: She demonstrated a simple, solid beat that perfectly accompanied the rhythm of the morning.

Such rhythms are uncommon in the people I see walking downtown. While the average American worker on the average workday walks with an obligatory sense of meter---without it, we would lurch and stumble like drunkards responding to the opening strains of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”---our walking, to continue the drum metaphor, tends to be full of flams and slippery downbeats, adhering to strict-time with the same accuracy that an all-audience clap-along follows the beat at a music concert. Our thoughts are diverted elsewhere, our eyes are diverted elsewhere, and our stride reverts to a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other autopilot, completely functional but with the time-keeping skill of the drummer in your junior high school orchestra.

In these pre-coffee hours, the downtown sidewalks feature a variety of walking styles: Shufflers, who seem as if they are not walking toward their destination so much as simply walking to the next spot on the sidewalk; Plodders, whose feet seem to be unfairly affected by gravity, their steps landing like magnets upon metal; Sherpas, whose gait is sullied by the collective weight of an inexplicably large load of shoulder bags and briefcases; and Tumbleweeds, whose inconsistent pacing results from being unwitting pawns to random neon signs and window displays, recognizable because the person walking behind them wears a fierce grimace as they try to find a comfortable pace of their own. At different times, I am each of these types (sometimes simultaneously) but I searched my muscle memory and could not recall the last time I had strode as fluently, as easily as that one woman did.

In high school, my friend Bernie confided his methodology for walking across a gymnasium or cafeteria floor when eyes are upon him: Recall the opening strains of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and walk to that imaginary beat. Good advice---the song’s anthemic muscle and militaristic snare beat offers a perfect soundtrack to a strong, steady gate, and by keeping that song in one’s head, it naturally trickled down to the feet. As the years passed, the duties of that song as an imaginary metronome have been transferred to Young MC’s “Bust a Move”, which has a similar insistent rhythm but adds an element of shoulder-swaying strut. (Plus, you get to smile over lines like “every dark tunnel has a light of hope, so don’t hang yourself with a celibate rope.”)

I wonder if the woman I witnessed on Third Avenue has a song that she conjures to provide a soundtrack to her stride---perhaps silently singing Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” or The Roots’ “I Don’t Care”. Or maybe she is like any good drummer, so thoroughly practiced that she creates the illusion that it’s easy. I’ll likely never know, and that’s fine: I’m not interested in mimicking her method; I’m interested in achieving her results, in adding a little more funk and a little less function to the beat of my feet. I want to feel in my own stride the feeling I had when I watched her walk: That her gait was not in rhythm with the world, but that the world adjusted itself to follow her rhythm. From the confines of the bus, it looked like a wonderful way of walking.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

#123 - Badminton Fever

Badminton Fever

9/27/08 (#123)

Last month during the Olympics, I watched a ridiculously broad array of sporting events, including one particular day that featured water polo, soccer, badminton, basketball and diving, a mix so diverse that it felt like a marathon episode of ESPN's Sportscenter. The game that hooked me most? Badminton.

In the past decade, my only badminton experience involved an impromptu game at our neighborhood block party, an event that featured a level of play that looked less like Olympic sport and more like a YouTube video of a Blind Flyswatters convention: Birdies lost to house gutters and splashed into courtside beverages, racquets colliding with a disconcertingly brittle tone, and a tremendous amount of hilarity that fell short of "sport", or even "pastime", and landed squarely on "screwball comedy".

Frankly, it did nothing to prepare me for the spectacle of Xie Xingfang vs Zhang Ning, the glorious and fierce women who battled in the gold medal singles match. The back-story played like a scene lifted from a Sylvester Stallone script: Zhang, the aging defending gold medalist (an archaic 33 years old) who barely secured the last available spot on this year's Chinese team, versus Xie, the 27 year old Chinese phenom who entered the Olympics as a heavy favorite for the gold. The action was intense, the crowd roaring with delight on every volley, the two competitors leaving everything on the court as Zhang came for behind for a stunning 21-18 victory in a thrilling third set. (The only disappointment of the match was that it didn't conclude with the heroic "Gonna Fly Now" soundtrack that it so richly deserved.)

These women played with a strength and grace that enthralled me. Performing with improbably precision, the shuttlecock traveled upwards of 200 miles per hour yet rarely crossed the back line, the player's reaction time boggling my mind. It was like watching a game of tennis that had been spliced into alternating portions of double-speed and slo-motion action.

Of course, I wanted to drive to Target immediately and invest in my own badminton set. Neighbors would suspect I was training Sage to be a future champion, but the truth would be darker: I'd be training her to play so that I would have someone to play with, as my wife would be as unlikely to revel in the sport as she would if I asked her to---well, actually, there is no reasonable analogy; suffice to say badminton would be my hobby, not hers. Before rushing out to make the purchase, I decided to do a little research online, where I discovered a secret world of badminton thriving beneath the traditional sports radar.

First, I went to (of course!) who assure on their home page, "Looking for a Badminton Website that has everything? Then look no further!" It's hard to argue with that claim, especially if you've never seen another badminton site: news, tutorials, videos, glossaries, player interviews, even a badminton blog. (Posts are not dated, so I am unable to gauge frequency of posts.) One of the pages even introduced me to three badminton magazines.

I shouldn't be surprised that such magazines exist, since there are ample glossy mags devoted to cats, model airplanes, camping, space travel, and a thousand other topics with dubious need for a monthly chronicle. The site kindly gave a summary of the three magazines, ensuring that a novice like me didn't foolishly subscribe to the wrong badminton publication. My favorite quotation came in the description of Badminton Asia:

"...a relatively new badminton sports and lifestyle magazine"
A badminton lifestyle magazine? My head began to fill with images: Luxurious homes with posh foyers featuring marble inlays in the shape of a shuttlecock; badminton champions lounging by lagoon-esque pools flanked by a perfectly manicured grass playing court; champagne parties at trendy restaurants where elite players laughed and celebrated their fabulousness. In short, MTV's Cribs, but with Xie Xingfang replacing Beyonce in each photo. (Sadly, investigation of the magazine led me to their website, which currently offers a preview of their Jan-Feb 2007 issue; more sadly, the preview had no pictures of Zhang Ning leaning casually on a Rolls Royce.)

Next I visited, which doesn't claim to be the only badminton retailer you'll need, but should, since they offer more gear than I ever would have imagined: Over 80 rackets ranging in price from $9.95 for the Qiangli 5328 ("ideal for backyard play and beginners ") to an astounding $239.95 for the Yonex NanoSpeed 9000 ("realizes a player's dream--high elasticity and high strength in the same frame"), as well as birdies made with actual goose feathers and cork---for those who find the nylon-and-rubber versions too synthetic. (Though the folks at warn that goose feathers are brittle and often need to be replaced several times per game.) While I love the look of the real thing, the thought of fishing goose feathers out of the Bloody Mary that I left too close to the playing field is a bit unsettling---with the plastics, a quick shake and you're good to go, with no worry of contracting some bizarre strain of avian flu. (It would be just my luck to be the first-ever badminton-related fatality.)

As I continued to search, I became overwhelmed by the topic, imagining soccer-mom-style scenarios in which my selfish desire to teach Sage to play awakened in her an unknown passion that had to be fulfilled: Waking up at 5:00am to take her to doubles practice; driving her around the Pacific Northwest to compete in badminton tourneys; investing in a collection of $200 rackets because c'mon dad, you can't use a Yonex on an outdoor court if there's a breeze, you obviously need a Joobong for that circumstance, or a Winex if there breeze is coming cross-court (duh); PETA marching outside my house because she's sponsored by Golden Vulture real-feather birdies.

But then I imagined the pride I would feel to have her featured in a badminton lifestyle magazine, her growling face on the cover with the headline "Badassminton", and inside a smiling photo of her standing in her expansive living room beneath an enormous chandelier, each bulb ensconced in its own hand-blown glass shuttlecock.

Enough. I'm off to Target.

©2008 wpreagan

Saturday, September 13, 2008

#122 - Hair Today

Hair Today

9/13/08 (#122)

In North Portland, the paths of the various public buses overlap, including the #4 and the #44. They eventually service different sections of the fifth quadrant* but travel through similar neighborhoods for the early parts of their journey, allowing some residents to take either bus. I was riding the #44 last week when we pulled into the Rose Quarter Transit Center, a hub for bus and train transfers, and as we pulled up alongside a large group of African-American high school boys, one of them looked in the window and remarked, "Damn, it's all white people. Let's wait for the next one." And wait they did---our bus pulled away without picking up a single rider. (It's worth noting that I do see a broader racial mix on the #4, as I often take that one too---unlike that young man, I take whatever bus will get me home soonest.)

The decision of those boys stuck with me. It didn't feel like a "racial incident" (as the news would call it), as we all tend to gravitate to people who look like us: I'm a blue-collar man at heart, and if I had to choose to eat lunch with a table full of folks in three piece suits and a table full of folks in work shirts with embroidered names, I'd opt for the latter---I have nothing against suits (heck, I ear a tie to work every day), but my experience has been that the salt of the earth tend to be more welcoming and open. Is that any less (or more) of a judgment than what that rider said that day? I don't know, and frankly, I don't care. What stuck with me was the frankness of his statement: There was no lie told to disguise the truth, just a blunt exclamation of why he wanted to wait for the next bus.

Courtesy of the 2008 political race, America has supposedly been talking about race this year, still wrestling with an uncomfortable history and the enduring impact of that history. Yet most discussions offer theoreticals and hypotheticals in a language that seeks not to offend.

The blame for this non-discussion could be blamed on the censorship known as political correctness, which allows a racist to adjust his vocabulary to mask his motivations, but political correctness has done nothing to tighten our tongues on many matters: Most people have no compunction with mercilessly lambasting those who espouse a different political vision, making grand statements of damnation with no regard to sensitivity. (Just listen to a conservative talk about Liberals---if you substitutes "white" for conservative and "black" for liberal (or vice versa), and it would qualify as hate speech.) Race remains the proverbial elephant in the room, the topic most of us identify as a significant issue in America yet few of us (including me) will discuss with the passion we display for politics. Is it because ideologies tend to have unifying characteristics while people of a particular skin color can collectively possess a diverse array of opinions, and thus a blanket statement about liberals is simply more accurate than a blanket statement about Latinos? Is it that subscription to an ideology is a decision while our skin color is involuntary, and it's impolite to talk about something over which we have no control?

I think the discussion of skin color in America could learn a lot from the the discussion of hair color in America.

The discussion of hair color, you ask? Unsure where to find the forum that is hosting such a conversation? I'll end the suspense---there is no discussion of hair color in America. As a rule, nobody cares what color your hair is.

This puzzles me---have you noticed the incredible follicular diversity that exists in our country, with every camp daily flaunting their differences with casual nonchalance? Blond, black, brunette red---and those are just the catch-all adjectives. Within the category of blonde, there are strawberry blonds, golden blonds, platinum blonds, dirty blonds, honey blonds and more, and every other color has similar subcategories to further define the nest of threads on our respective heads.

Yet somehow, we all manage to live in peace. No one complains about certain jobs being primarily filled by redheads; there are no events downtown that attract disproportionate and disconcerting numbers of blonds; when you're looking for an apartment, no one points at a map and says confidentially, "Just so you know, there's a large brunette population in that neighborhood"; no brunettes accuse other brunettes of "acting redhead"; I've never heard a teenager assess the riders of a bus and say, "Yikes, look at all the black hair---let's wait for the next bus."

Yet hair color is just another genetically predetermined pigmentation, a chromosomal coincidence that has no impact on our intellectual and emotional abilities. Hair color is an irrelevance because we have, collectively, made it an irrelevance.
With the exception of blond jokes (which are usually inaccurate---and blond self-esteem gets balanced out with the perception that blonds have more fun), we don't pass judgment on hair color. Sure, we all have our preferences, but no one at the office goes to their boss and says, "It's just really hard working with people with chestnut brown hair. I mean, I'm not saying their any different than we are---some of my friends are chestnut browns---but when you get a bunch of them together, it's like they're talking a different language." No brown-haired man wonders if their wife was having an affair just because their baby has born blond.

I was blond as a child, and my hair gradually grew darker, and I'm convinced it has grown darker with each passing decade, a crayoned self-portrait once requiring tan, then raw umber, then brown, until now, burnt umber peppered with flecks of silver and white. No one has ever called attention to this fact, never accused me of "acting brunette". My hair color is a non-issue.

Perhaps we don't judge hair color be because we do not have to accept out hair's birth color. Hair dyes allow us to slip incognito into another sect, so brunettes can become black-haired and blonds can become redheads and the casual observer is generally unaware. Imagine if we had that much flexibility with our skin tones, greeting a long-lost friend on the street and saying, "Wow, you've gotten so much more caucasion---last time I saw you, you were more like a mocha, now you're a vanilla latte. It looks good with that outfit."

I don't have answers, just questions: Why do we make assumptions about people based on one inherited trait yet disregard the impact of another? Why is skin-color something we are uncomfortable discussing, yet hair-color is something that doesn't warrant discussion?

I can't figure it out. Maybe because I was born blond?

* The Fifth Quadrant is an increasingly common sobriquet for North that amuses me for its embrace of the annoying disregard our section receives in the city---for instance, the Willamette Week continues to categorize its eating sections as NW, SW, SE, and N/NE, despite N/NE comprising nearly 40% of the city real estate.

©2008 wpreagan

Saturday, July 12, 2008

#121 - The Template

With my daughter's impending ascent into kindergarten, my mother sent out a small spiral bound book called School Days, a chronicle of my academic years from Pre-School to graduation. It's a scrap book of sorts, featuring pocket pages stuffed with report cards and class pictures, each page printed with spaces to document the particular information that made that school grade the blockbuster year of life that it was---favorite subjects, lists of friends, and spaces for various other information that will surely prove embarrassing if I ever ran for public office. ("Mr. Reagan, I refer to the Additional Information section for 1974, fourth grade: Do you have any evidence or corroboration of your claim, ‘I am the Fonz’?”)

Perusing the material, I was fascinated to find that I was not at all the bright student I remember myself to be. In fact, the boy chronicled in those pages wasn't me at all---I never recalled myself as a stellar student, but as it turns out, my high school grades were awful: I would have had to put in slightly more effort to have achieved mediocrity. I have regularly asserted that Mrs. Murphy's senior year English class is what directed me to my later BA in English, but the report card indicates Cs and Ds with a note, "Bill is bright and very capable to do his work. However, Bill is lazy." I flipped to junior year, another English class that I remember distinctly (perhaps because Ms. Campbell could have stood in for Jaclyn Smith on Charlie's Angels), but more Cs and Ds. I was genuinely shocked to realize that reality and memory could be so divergent. (Perhaps I wasn't the Fonz after all?)

I was heartened by my strong junior high scores, but I attended three different junior highs and thus had no social activities to distract me from school work. Elementary school guidance reports were riddled with surprising comments: in fourth grade, a check mark under needs improvement for "practicing self control, open to criticism, gets along well with others, respects authority, accepts responsibility, ability to share with others, concentrates on work, works well with others, takes pride in work." Second grade, "a sunny disposition, but needs to improve work habits greatly," then three months later, "Has not shown any improvement in work habits---does not seem too concerned with school." (But I take solace in this comment on my language Arts performance for both second and third grades, I was praised for my ability to write an imaginative story. I'm just hoping that's not a scholastic euphemism for lying.

What must have been frustrating for my parents is the national testing scores. On every standardized test, from grade 4 to grade 11, I consistently scored over the 90th percentile, often in the 98th percentile. Apparently Mrs. Murphy was right: When it came to school, I was lazy.

I had begun the School Days book at my senior year and worked backward chronologically, savoring the trip down memory lane and boring my wife with my reminisces until I finally reached the first grade. I pulled the class photo from the pocket, and my laughter stopped mid-exhale. Had I been a cartoon character, I would have had to pick up my jaw with my hands and hold it to the bottom of my face.

The cause was the amazingly beautiful Amazon woman who stood in the picture. She wasn't an actual Amazon---in fact, she was probably 5'9"---but when you are the only adult in a photo of 5 year olds, the camera adds 30 inches. A moment before I'm not sure I could not have named my first grade teacher, but I found myself involuntarily saying her name aloud: "Ms. Ryan". In my mind, it sounded like "Rosebud".

What came rushing through me was a sense of puzzle pieces being rapidly assembled, bits of history linked where no logical connection was previously found. At that moment, I realized that despite having slipped from my radar for a few decades, Mrs. Ryan was the template, the model I had unknowingly used throughout my life to define what made a woman beautiful. I'm sure I had no idea at the time, but staring back my life, I knew this to be irrefutable truth.

Fissures immediately began to form in the foundation of my psyche. I have long insisted that my first definition of "sexy" was provided by the same woman who had informed many of my peer's fantasy world: Batgirl. Skin-tight leather, flowing red hair, a no-nonsense attitude----let's face it, Batgirl could have worked days fighting crime and nights as a dominatrix without having to change her clothes between shifts. (Lest Batgirl be offended that she could be ousted from the seat of sexual power by a mere first grade teacher, I feel confident that she still deserves credit for my affinity for knee-high leather boots on a woman--frankly, any woman.) Mrs. Ryan versus Batgirl---now that is a comic book I would like to see. (In the version I see in my mind, Mrs. Ryan would surely kick her ass. Her catch phrase? "Time for your lessons, Batgirl!") While DC Comics dreamed up a smart, provocative woman worthy of stirring strange prepubescent longings, at her best, she amused in two dimensions, a mere cartoon. Mrs. Ryan existed in---and thoroughly occupied---three dimensions. I once asked a woman who she thought was more beautiful, Lauren Bacall or Marilyn Monroe: "Lauren Bacall, of course. Marilyn Monroe is a kitten; Lauren Bacall is a thoroughbred." Insert Batgirl and Mrs. Ryan into that analogy.

Considering that I was five when I knew her, I'm aware that I might be revising history. But seeing her picture, it immediately felt like an ingrained truth, knowledge I had always had but simply hadn't accessed. Beautiful, yes, but what she defined is laughter and intelligence, two things far more attractive than skin tight leather clothes. The first-grade photo seemed to catch Mrs. Ryan mid-chuckle, probably responding to the corny humor of a flirtatious photographer who surely wanted to snap any old shot of the brats and say, "Okay, get lost kids, just a couple of the teacher now." I have always been partial to genuineness over affectation, kindness infused with honesty and directness, beauty as a state of mind rather than the state of one's face, and she embodies all of those things. (Of course, my mother is all of these things as well, so credit given where credit is certainly due, but I never pursued woman who looked like my mother; I can attest from that picture that the same cannot be said about Mrs. Ryan.)

It's funny to think back and imagine her having an adult life, with dates and rent payments and eagerly anticipated summer excursions to distant ports. For a first grader, the teacher has no life outside of the classroom---she is there as the children rush out to catch the bus at the final bell, she is there the next morning when they return to class. She is "the teacher", not "a person who teaches for a living." So maybe she was two dimensional to me then, too. But it’s clear to me today that the elements of the essential third dimension were under construction even at that early age, to be assembled years later from a forgotten blueprint long filed away in the pocket of a School Days album.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

#120 - Idiot's Guide, Simplified

Idiot's Guide, Simplified

5/8/08 (#120)

I like shopping at Barnes and Noble. I prefer buying my books at locally-owned shops (for the purely selfish reason of wanting them to remain in business), but the chains stores cater to that romantic notion that one should be able to curl up with a book for a few pages and get to know it, make sure it's the right book for you. Thus, they furnish their warehouse-size spaces with overstuffed chairs and Mission-style tables that put my living room to shame, and offer an attached coffee bar staffed with lovely hipsters gyrating to user-friendly indie rock. My punk rock friends would likely consider this a form of shopping hell, but for me, Barnes and Noble is the opposite of shopping: I spend no money (except on caffeine), I escape from any retail flurry behind kiosks of Yoga how-to guides and topical political non-fiction tomes (doesn't "political non-fiction" sound like an oxymoron?) and for an hour or so, I read gorgeous, glossy magazines that I can't afford.

On my last visit, as I muled my latest stack of free-preview mags back to the rack, I was distracted by a rack of color-coded laminated pamphlets glistening in a stylish metal rack. Since I enjoy jolts of random information I stopped to investigate.

I have previously written on the ridiculousness of the so-called (and self-called) Idiot's Guides, and of how sales indicate that self-proclaimed idiots were a burgeoning demographic among the American populace. I had no intention of broaching the subject again, but those plastic-coated instructionals, a new product line from, claim to provide "how-to guides for absolutely everything." Everything. Best of all, every how-to guide is exactly six pages in length.

The six-page tutorial isn't a new concept: Several companies have issued these tri-fold glossy pamphlets as quick-reference tutorials for various software programs, offering users a chance to grasp the basic functions of a program without having to tackle the daunting 300-page user guide. I have several of these guides, mostly because I am an eternal optimist and when I received my pirated copy of (insert most of my software titles here) I thought it would be so much easier to learn via a few spill-proof pages than to purchase a full-on, requires-reading book that will discuss the infinite minutia offered by Photoshop, Illustrator, or whatever. Invariably, I have put those mini-manuals aside because these are complex softwares, and their possibilities are rarely unlocked by a seven-point bullet list of basic commands.

With the success of the software volumes (perhaps "volume" is inappropriate for a document smaller than the menu at a nice Thai restaurant), next came similar-sized documents intended to demystify similarly beguiling topics: Algebra, Geometry, Physics, and other mysterious concepts you might have missed in high school.

That this fold-and-go format should conjoin with the Idiot's guide topic comprehensiveness was an inevitability.

The how-to guides offered by quamut span a comically large array of topics, color-coded by the categories "House & home", "Hobbies & Liesure", "Money & business", "Computers & Tech" and "Mind & Body".

Of course, Barnes and Noble carried a stock intended to reach the broadest demographic, displaying a wide range of titles from each of the categories. The result was a hilarious juxtaposition of how-to handbooks---in one row, you could choose "stain removal", "Baking Cookies", "Beading" and "Pregnancy."

I am not a medical professional, but I am a parent, and I assure you that pregnancy is a topic that warrants more understanding than can be offered on a laminated placemat, even if the placemat is printed on both sides. And while I confess to have never delved deeply into the art of beading, I find it hard to believe that "beading" and "pregnancy" are two topics that require exactly the same amount of advance knowledge.

Jumping down one row, the topics included "Dog Breeds", "Baby Names", "Knots", and "Stock Trading." All fascinating topics, to be sure, and a simple tutorial on knots would surely prepare me to impress my Coast Guarder brother when he asks me to tie up the canoe and I knock out a half-hitch or a...well, I can't name drop any other fancy knots, so clearly, that how-to guide is for me. But learning to tie knots is considerably more hobbie-esque than floating the family savings on the stock market, and if one has intentions of doubling their retirement nest egg on the stock market, perhaps they should consider a more thorough education than that which can be obtained from a leaflet that contains fewer words than the user manual of a low-end VCR.

Lest I seem judgmental, the example of the knots belies the uncomfortable truth that I fall somewhere into their target demographic---I'm definitely one of those people who enjoys satisfying my curiosity about obscure and irrelevant topics, but I have no time for extensive research. For example, I wish I could identify breeds of cows, so that when I'm driving through back roads I could tell my daughter whether we're seeing Guernseys or Jerseys or Herefords; I wish I could identify more trees by their leaf pattern---I know maples, oaks, chestnuts and the other biggies, but the finer nuances of coniferous needles are a mystery to me. There are so many of these topics that metaphorically speaking, I feel like my intellect is more chinks than armor, and Quamut wants to help, $5.95 per repair. Of course, in my case, acquiring the knowledge isn't the issue: retention is my albatross. I've learned about knots several times in my life, and yet today I can barely tether the dog to a signpost.

Somehow, my capacity for information that offers no value outside of a game of Trivial Pursuit 80's Edition is endless (Bass player for Aerosmith? Got that. Songwriters for Cyndi Lauper's hit "Time after time? Got that. Names of television's Facts of Life ensemble? I even have room for that.) But information that I would like to have available, like birthdays, exotic cheeses I have purchased, eaten and loathed, and stories I've told so that I don't repeat them too often, keeping these bits in my mind is like trying to store smoke in a net.

So the concept, I like. What concerns me is the misconception that six pages is sufficient to cover any topic. (I hear people speak of the "dumbing down" of the nation, but no one mentions that this is largely a voluntary transformation.) A basic tutorial on dog breeds may well be contained within the confines of six pages (though I doubt the Leonberger gets a mention), but shouldn't we be investing more time into "planning your retirement" than a how-to that can be read on a three-zone train ride? Just as a career in graphic design requires more training than the perusal of a 6-page cheat-sheet designed to appeal to the average reader of USA Today, "Domestic Adoption" (one of Quamut's "House & Home" offerings) should require a more thorough investigation as well.

8 pages, at least.

©2008 wpreagan

Saturday, April 12, 2008

#119 - Hiawatha and Harry Potter

Hiawatha and Harry Potter

4/12/08 (#119)

There were two essential lessons that the boys in my neighborhood learned from mid-20th-century American cinema:

First, villains make atrocious marksmen. You can put four of the antihero's henchmen in a hallway with semi-automatic rifles, 30 feet from the star, and the sum damage inflicted by 1,000 rounds of ammunition will be the shredding of every door jamb between the shooters. Apparently, villians are not allowed to go to the same practice ranges as the heroes, each of which possessed uncanny shooting abilities rivaling Natty Bumpo's improbably accurate musket shots in J.F. Cooper's The Deerslayer, able to deliver a head-shot in the dark while simultaneously ordering a pizza and balancing their check book.

Second, a villain being an atrocious marksmen is an irrelevancy, as heroes are not affected by bullets. You can disable a bad guy with grazing gun shot across the thigh or even with a hard-thrown walnut, but the hero can take four shots to the torso and still manage to kung-fu his way through a Shriner's parade of enemies and escape, leaving the room looking like the aftermath of an earthquake at the mannequin factory. Better still, each bullet exponentially increases the drama of the event, even if the event is eating breakfast: Will three caps popped into the belly of the star stop him from finishing his Denver omelet? Of course not---what kind of hero loses his appetite after ingesting a few tiny chunks of lead?

These lessons held true for war movies, westerns, spy movies, et al, so their accuracy was irrefutable. Thus, when we engaged in role-playing games, every boy wanted to be the hero, so every boy in my neighborhood considered himself a master at getting shot.* Even the most errant issue from a fictional rifle, shot from behind a bush and midway through a forward roll, offered the opportunity for an overly dramatic blow to the body that would make even the hammiest community theater hack scoff: Slow motion was never slower, the shroud of death never pulled so languidly as it was over the eyes of a victim of one (or fourteen) of our imaginary bullets. Of course, we lived to get shot---maybe in real life the combatants would find effective hiding spots and stay low for hours, but our backyard games featured Hollywood editing, the dull stretches conveniently removed.

In the early 1970's, our most common playtime adversaries were cowboys and indians. Being children, we were unaware of the nuances of the Vietnam war, but at least one of the "big kids" on our block had gone off to war, so it felt too close to home to be an enjoyable game. Cowboys and Indians offered a less ambiguous framework for a shoot 'em up, as the movies had clearly defined the roles: The cowboys were heroes, white-hatted and worthy of adoration; the indians (who were still years away from being called Native Americans) were villains, dangerous and untrustworthy and certain to lose any mock battle.

Since we all wanted to be heroes, almost every boy wanted to be a cowboy; fortunately, there were a couple of kids who regularly volunteered to be the Indians, children who likely grew up to be either liberals (whose early sense of racial justice encouraged them to offer the Indians a fair representation on the fictional playing field) or corporate barons (whose sensed early that much could be accomplished while attention was focused on the so-called hero.) Being an Indian offered the same advantage of volunteering as an outfielder in little League Baseball or opting to play bass when every teenage peer is playing guitar: Less limelight, but more consistent playing time. Indians could plan their attack, develop signals that impersonated sickly birds, sneak up and ambush the enemy; the cowboys, on the other hand, were just waiting for the opportunity to be shot. Not killed, mind you, as our fictional ammunition depots didn't hold enough firepower for the Indians to win. It just didn't happen that way---refer to any movie as evidence.

We didn't have any Native Americans in my neighborhood, so we were never concerned (or even cognizant) that the game was stacked against the Indians from the outset. (In that way, our play was likely an unfortunate reflection of what the Native Americans faced in everyday American life.) The cowboys were valiant and virtuous, saving the day from the heathen hordes who had the audacity to defy our pale-face manifest destiny. We never pondered how the Cowboys and Indians game was played amongst a large Native American population: Was each game a new reenactment of the Sioux and Cheyenne victory at Little Bighorn? Did some Iroquois children grudgingly play the cowboys, requisite roles that were necessary for the game but doomed from the start? I imagine so, as an intrinsic element of these childhood games was a sense of good defeating evil, no matter who you defined as the good guys. Evil needed to be vanquished---I've never heard of kids playing war games where one team was soldiers from Switzerland and the other from Sweden. ("We don't pretend to shoot each other, we just pretend to report on the wars being waged in the next neighborhood.")

The Indians were only one example of Hollywood's history of presenting a contemporaneous version of evil, with art reflecting life with regards to the vilified: In the middle of the 20th century, the Germans were cast as evildoers; during the cold war, Russians and communists received the choice arch-enemy roles; as the date odometer on the 20th century rolled over, the likely nemesis was someone of Middle Eastern persuasion. For a nation that prides itself on being a melting pot, we have a disconcerting history of defining our adversaries based on broad-stroke stereotypes, cultural inaccuracies and irrational fears. "C'mon, they're just movies," some insist, but repeated inaccurate representations establish equally inaccurate perceptions. (If you disagree, ask the nearest blond how they feel about blond jokes.)

Stating the obvious, defining an enemy by race and/or culture has the unfortunate impact of defining anyone of that race or culture as an enemy. In the battle of Us vs. Them, audiences are attracted to these simplified ideas of "them" because it allows for easier sorting; unfortunately, as Timothy McVeigh, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo, and the rash of teens who have dispatched their classmates over the last decade will confirm, the so-called "them" often looks just like us.

So what is the proper Good vs. Evil scenario today, when political correctness (a term I use here to describe racial sensitivity, not inaccurately euphemistic language) makes playing what would now be called Cowboys and Indigenous Americans offensive to more than just those folks who no longer want their high school team to be called the Braves, and war is once again a topic too close to home to allow for enjoyable role-playing activities? How can 21st century children explore the classic conflict without associating a real face with the fictional foe?

Enter Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling's incredibly creative books are worthy of all of the lauding they've received, masterfully imagined and cleverly penned, but they also allow children to take sides in the eternal struggle between good and evil without giving either side a particularly distinctive face. Rowling's characters, generally, look alike. (Okay, when I say "look alike", I'm referring to the characters in the movies, but my wife, whose enthusiasm for the books was such that each new release ensured a day or two of "Mom's busy right now", assures me that the casting was consistently satisfying.) Severus Snape and Mad-eye Moody are both suspicious characters, yet in the battle of Good vs. Evil, they play for opposing sides. (Though perhaps with limited team spirit.)

In Rowling's world, evil is revealed as arrogance, avarice and conceit---a choice of actions, not a color of skin or a cultural birthright. General Custer versus Geronimo involves real people whose successes and failures appear in historical records (though perhaps with limited accuracy); Harry Potter versus Draco Malfoy allows for a battle of apparent peers, even though we're obviously meant to hope that little Malfoy brat will soon be the victim of the Cruciatus curse.

My friend's son is having a Harry Potter themed birthday this week, and I'm eager to observe the role play at the party. Of course, what I really want to see is how many times these faux Potters and Weasleys can be hit by a spell and remain standing, ready for more battle against the fictional Lord Valdemort---if Harry absorbs half a dozen hits of a magic wand and then pause to wolf down a few bites of cake, I'll know the adage is true: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

* This is not a gender-biased statement, but an accurate reporting of facts: The girls on my block never showed any interest in dirt-diving for the sake of collecting fake lead pellets in the chest. Perhaps because they had no role models in the movies, or perhaps because the boys looked like buffoons.

©2008 wpreagan

Saturday, March 15, 2008

#118 - Caesar's New Clothes

Caesar's New Clothes

3/15/08 (#118)

I didn't discover the Caesar salad until I was in my 30's. We stood at the counter of Pizzacato, my wife eager to split the salad and assuring me that any horror stories I had heard about the dish were surely fabricated, or at the very least greatly exaggerated. I had heard no such stories, my only recollection of the salad being a query to my mother when I was a teenager, her reply being, "I don't think you'd like it." That was sufficient (as the primary curator of my simple palate, she was probably correct), and never gave them another thought. I saw them on menus for decades, but took my mother at her word until that day at Pizzacato. We ordered the salad, toted it back to the apartment, and I was smitten.

A good Caesar is to the garden salad what a big, juicy backyard barbecue burger is to a McDonald's "hamburger" (how they use that noun with a straight face is a mystery to me), or what a succulent seafood fajita at a gourmet Mexican restaurant is to 99 cent burrito from the 7-11 cooler. (And no, "gourmet Mexican restaurant" is not an oxymoron, despite Portland's spate of mediocre taquerias.) The Caesar is an explosion of flavor, the garden salad a tolerable penance eaten to atone for the sin of fried foods.

For those unfamiliar, there are a variety of salads that fall under the definition of Caesar: Some are spinach based, others feature romaine (I eat only the latter); most utilize a garlic-based dressing, but a few use an anchovy-based dressing (I enjoy both, but prefer a slightly creamy Caesar, not a garlic vinaigrette); some come with chicken, but that's usually an optional side. The key to the salad is the dressing---other than that, it's just lettuce, shaved parmesan cheese and a handful of croutons.

For aficionados, you will likely appreciate both my affection for the salad, and my one complaint with the dish: The Caesar is exorbitantly---and inexplicably---overpriced.

As a rule, restaurants set their prices based on cost of product: Take the cost of the ingredients, add other overhead expenses, multiply the sum by a house-standard percentage and you have your menu price. That's why shrimp costs more than chicken---because shrimp costs more than chicken. Yet the Caesar defies this process, apparently priced by flavor rather than cost of product: The romaine Caesar has no tomatoes (whose fickle value depends, literally, on the weather), no boiled eggs or bacon or strips of prosciutto, no labor-intensive chopping of carrots or celery or radishes or onions. Yet despite this simple list of ingredients, most restaurants have the audacity to charge $7 for a Caesar while selling the garden salad for $4.

It's true everywhere---in even the most paper-napkin of places, the Caesar has a white linen price tag. The Caesar appeals to discerning tastes, which restaurateurs seem to equate with financial liquidity, like it's some kind of fine wine rather than a bowl of lettuce with some cheese shavings and chopped up bread heels on top, as if anyone ordering the Caesar must be stopping for a bite to eat before going back to the yacht or needs nourishment before the polo match. Comparing the cost to make a Caesar to the cost to order a Caesar, you would swear these salads are being assembled by a government contractor.

I am not familiar with the internal machinations of the restaurant business, but I refuse to believe the occasional (and only) alibi that I've heard offered in defense of this obviously-colluded pricing scheme: "It's expense to make the dressing." Okay, maybe making a gallon of it requires a large initial investment, but considering it's then doled out by the tablespoon (and no, you can't have another tablespoon), the economy of scale contradicts that theory. Every dressing other than sour-cream-and-a-packet-of-spices Ranch takes time and effort to repair, but no one is trying to get rich on Raspberry Vinaigrette.

I suspect the reality of overpriced Caesar is this: The garden salad is commonly ordered as an additional item, a side to accompany an entree, so restaurants need to price it reasonably enough that the diner's tab doesn't resemble a premium-channels cable bill; the Caesar, on the other hand, is often ordered as a main dish, being so aggressive in flavor that ordering it to compliment your meal is like asking Don Rickles to compliment your wardrobe. ("Hey, why don't you order the garden salad, take the four bucks you save and replace the light bulb in your closet. Whose your tailor, P.T. Barnum?") A restaurant is never going to be successful if patrons can leave having spent only $4, so the Caesar gets promoted from mere salad to economic manipulation tool.

This blatant gastronomic discrimination has been festering the dark dining rooms of America's restaurants for too long, and only by exposing this Caesarian chicanery to the harsh light of public opinion can we make this stop. Diners need to put their collective feet down and say, "Hey, until this plate of leaves stops costing three bucks more than a burger and fries, I'm not supporting your anti-garlic-lovers agenda!"

I would start this revolution myself, but as I said, I'm smitten. Throughout this protest, I will have to order wilted piles of "mixed greens" (read: weeds), each with a couple of slippery tomato wedges, a lonely cucumber slice or a few shreds of carrot topped with a so-called Thousand Island dressing that ably doubles as a cheeseburger condiment. I know I should celebrate this battle, that I should imagine each boring bite of garden salad as possessing the sweet flavor of justice; but then I imagine iceberg lettuce with bland ranch dressing and...well, that may be too a high price to pay for reform.

©2008 wpreagan

Monday, February 4, 2008

#117 - Barbecued Pennies

Barbecued Pennies

2/4/08 (#117)

"Don't mock him, Kas, he was just raised with a simple palate."

Prior to hearing that phrase, I had never considered that my palate required a modifier, let alone "simple". Sitting there at the white Formica table in Kassie's white Formica kitchen, I thought about the adjective, used in that pre-politically-correct era as a euphemism to describe a person who would repeatedly rotate a balloon in his hands in search of the elusive front. I winced at her easy summarization---after all, I was a teenager, and like all teenagers, my complexity was too vast to be detected by adult methods of measurement.

I can't recall what plated item I had been carefully avoiding to instigate the put-down, but it was probably something pungently unappealing like sauerkraut (which always seems either not yet done cooking or cooked for too long), gorgonzola (a flavor that offended even before I learned about the mold injections) or mushrooms (someone's practical joke that backfired into culinary acceptance.) Kassie's mom often cooked as if she were daring the family to eat it, and while access to Kassie meant spending enough time with her family to prove I wasn't a danger to her either her chastity or her future, I tried to schedule my visits around their appointed dinner hour.

If I had been asked to produce my own descriptive rather than having one assigned to me, I would have claimed to possess a discerning palate: I steadfastly refused to eat anything that a panel of judges would not unanimously define as "food." (Fish got all thumbs-up; potatoes made the cut; Brussels sprouts would have split the panel's votes between vegetable and vampire repellent, so they were off my personal menu.) I didn't subsist on peanut butter and jelly (good thing, as I only liked grape jelly) or grilled cheese (American cheese only, please), and I didn't deserve to be pigeonholed as some gastronomic imbecile just because saffron made me slightly nauseous.

I suspect the comment was an innocent jab at my mother as much as at me, since it would be my mother's fault for not introducing me to the finer nuances of cabbage and for treating Cheddar as an exotic cheese. But I would later learn that my mother's appetites included an array of flavors to which I had never been exposed, and that the lack of international flair in the Reagan household was not a failure of mom's dietary ambition. To illustrate, I present Barbequed Pennies.

It's unlikely that the 1970's will be remembered as a culinary renaissance (despite thorough representation in the Casserole Hall of Fame), a context that is essential to a discussion of Barbecued Pennies. I had three siblings, and while Kassie's mom saw the dinner table as a daily training exercise to prepare her three girls for a future that included snails, seas urchin and ham hocks, my mother wanted to find something that we'd all agree to eat in the present-tense. One of those items was barbecued pennies, a meal that consisted of hot dogs sliced the short way (hence pennies), sautéed in a barbecue-type sauce and served over mashed potatoes. Julia Child might have brushed it off as a meal invented by a cook who was snowed in by a blizzard with a near-empty fridge, but I didn't need Julia Child's approval: My review? "Delicious." 30 years later I still have clear mental images of the red-stained potatoes, the plate looking like the set of a claymation murder/dismemberment scene. ("Officer, the victim seems to have been stabbed repeatedly with a circular cookie cutter.") Barbecued pennies was one of my favorite meals, though at risk of supporting Kassie's Mom's assertion, I enjoyed almost any non-vegetable entrée over mashed potatoes. (Heck, even a few vegetables.)

I did not notice when Mom stopped serving barbecued pennies, and since our plates always had something else in its place (American chop suey, cowboy casserole, shepherds pie, etcetera) no one called attention to the missing entree. Time passed, years even, and one day Mom was making her grocery list and asked if there was anything I'd like for dinner. "Barbecued pennies", I enthusiastically replied, "We haven't had those in forever."

"Yeah, but Dad doesn't like them. Anything else?"

Dad doesn't like them? There were six of us in the house, and his vote alone was enough to make it law? Was this any way to teach one's children about democracy? I offered that Dad could just have the potatoes and vegetables, or Mom could cook his franks and remove them from the pan before adding the sauce. This did not seem to be a complex work-around.

"Well, he doesn't like the smell of them cooking, either. How about fish sticks?"

The smell? It was at that moment that I understood who wielded the scissors that had clipped my culinary wings. How many other entrees had been sacked by the delicate sensibilities of that nose? How many flavors had been forbidden from our refrigerator because they failed to pass muster with one set of Reagan taste buds? (Not that this gastronomic censorship offered no benefits, as I am still grateful for growing up at a dinner table that had never hosted either lutefisk or calamari.) I would have asked him to explain himself, to justify his totalitarian domination of our dinner table options, but I had eaten enough of my Grandmother's cooking to know why he was the way he was: Her cooking skills were culled from a volume apparently called "The Joy of Boiling", a book she likely inherited from her mother. My father and I were products---and victims---of the same meat-and-potatoes lineage. I resigned myself to accept that barbecued pennies were a treat to be enjoyed only when Dad was out of town.

The "simple palate" condemnation stayed with me longer than Kassie did. I became Dicken's Pip to Kassie's Mom's Miss Havisham, vowing to expose my sheltered taste buds to the vast array of flavors that the world had to offer: I embraced the full spectrum of offerings from the local cheese counter; I explored the cuisines of Thailand, India, Jamaica, Latin America and a dozen other pastel-colored nations on the family globe; saffron once made me queasy, now I count scallops and saffron rice among my favorite meals. I have benefited greatly from these explorations, and I sometimes marvel at the impact that one little comment had on my life. I'm sure Kassie's mom had no idea that I would be quoting her over a dinner table 20 years later as I stabbed a tiny fork into my third garlicky escargot.

Of course, while that offhand comment catalyzed a lifetime of expanded menu options, genetics has not completely relinquished its influence: I still wretch at wine vinegar (bleach and sulfar are air fresheners by comparison), sauerkraut (smells too much like vinegar) and mushrooms. (In my own defense, I have genuinely tried to develop a taste for the foul little spores, if only because eating at a vegetarian restaurant and not liking mushrooms eliminates more menu choices than eating at a steak house and not liking beef. Unfortunately, without success.)

These dietary decrees make dinner more enjoyable for me, but they have also instilled a fear of the inevitable, that my daughter will develop a love affair with shitakes, porcinis and morels (oh my!) and question the fairness of the democracy in our house. (I'm certain that my wife, whose courtesy of depriving herself of mushrooms for my benefit is sure to expire eventually, will not defend me with the stealth that my mother showed my dad. In fact, I'm sure she'll offer to script the prosecutorial opening statement.) Will I be forced to acquiesce to the will of the masses and allow the addition of that most-dreaded of pizza toppings? Perhaps---but on that day, I intend to broaden the lessons on democracy by demonstrating another element of the process: "Yes, you do have the votes, Sage. But before you make that victorious call to Nicola's, let's talk about a concept called gridlock."

And on that day, grilled cheese sandwiches it will be. (They can order that pizza when I'm out of town.)

©2008 wpreagan

Monday, January 21, 2008

#116 - A Ginormous Problem

A Ginormous Problem

1/21/08 (#116)

Just as it is fascinating to live in a city on the cusp of exponential growth, the skyline growing more jagged by the week as each new junior-varsity skyscraper arises to hold another few hundred Portland couples and there .2 children, it is enjoyable to live in a language that perpetually expands and contracts with each passing fad. Sure, it's disconcerting to hear a fifty-something white man use the word "shiznit", but it's also disconcerting to see a fifty-something man in a bikini---and that's hardly the fault of the bikini. For the most part, I embrace such linguistic developments (even if don't adopt the new terminology into my daily vocabulary), but there is one word that I hear with growing regularity that causes me to lament that the English language has no bouncer at the door:


This adjective is apparently a mash-up of gigantic and enormous, emerging to describe that specifically particular size that is slightly larger than gigantic but not quite enormous. Or perhaps enormous is the lesser adjective? Considering that they're nearly perfect synonyms, ranking them is like identifying the largest egg in a full carton of "large" eggs.

When I began contemplating the growing ubiquity of ginormous (both number of users and number of uses seem on the rise) I suspected the origin lay in each generation's desire to create a language of their own: The flappers of a century ago spawned an amazingly creative argot full of reinventions (Fire Extinguisher: The chaperone on a date; Smudger: A person who likes to dance closely) and creations (23 skidoo: To ask/order someone to leave), a manner of speech that surely sounded like a foreign language to the generation that preceded them. (Peruse the "Flapper" section of any slang dictionary and you'll see how extensive their reinventions were, and how influential their vernacular was to our modern English.) After that, the Beboppers arrived with another personalization of the available language, and the soldiers of World War II generated new phrases of their own. Then came Bobby Sockers, hippies, hip-hoppers, gen-Xers, skateboarders, ad infinitum---each generation modifying the language to suit its new tastes. Just as General Motors urged young drivers that "this is not your father's Oldsmobile", the latest generation doesn't want to be saddled with having to use their parent's vocabulary; just as Kerouac doesn't mirror the syntax of Shakespeare, modern generations want to redecorate the sentence to reflect their new personality.

While I thoroughly support the mashing of two unrelated words to create a new adjective (I've created many of my own, collected in my Ridictionary), the vocabulary mash-up requires the application of creative sensibilities: The new word should shine in a way that the old words no longer did. For instance, I coined the word "Spamphlet" (a mash of "spam" and "pamphlet") to refer to the unsolicited handouts one sometimes receives when accosted on the sidewalks downtown. I'm not bragging that the new word is brilliant, but it's a more modern and enjoyable way of describing those unwanted items versus "tract" or "handout".

But with ginormous, there is no creativity displayed at all: The mashed words have nearly identical meanings, and the word produced by their union is yet another synonym. That isn't expanding the language, but merely cluttering it, like a person who gets three copies of "Huck Finn" and then claims to have a collection of works by Mark Twain. Think of the $100 bill, which once garnered the nickname "the C-note" (based on the roman-numeral "C", meaning "100"), later re-dubbed the "Benjamin" (a reference to Mr. Franklin, whose visage adorns that denomination), and how both new descriptions bring more color and playfulness to the English language. But by the ginormous method of word manufacture, that currency would become a "hundobill"---sure, life is short, but not so short that we need to save the time of two syllables with that clunky term.

It's the lack of newness that makes the use ginormous inexplicable: Why would one use the wrong word---or in this case, a non-word---if it sounds similar to and means the same thing as an existing English word? But perhaps its value lies not in what it is, but in what it is not.

Many of us have an gnawing suspicion that some of the people with whom we talk are marking our conversations with a red pen as the words come out of our mouths. We are all subject to the fear of appearing uneducated, and if we use a word with a real meaning, we can also misuse it---for instance, "that enormous matchbook" or "the gigantic cotton swab." Both of these are likely inaccurate (unless you're at a Ripley's Believe it or Not museum), and may expose the speaker as dictionary-challenged. But by using a non-word, the speaker has tossed Strunk & White out the window at the start---there's no misusing the word because the word has no actual meaning.

Think of diction as table manners: Attend a formal dinner and with each course you'll have to decide whether to use the salad fork, or the dessert fork, or the dinner fork; as the flatware inventory increases, the diner is faced with the awful prospect of exposing themselves as incapable of dining with the queen. But add a curling iron along side the plate and even the most snobbish will refrain from saying, "Did you see the barbaric manner with which he used that curling iron?" The curling iron has no correct or incorrect use as the dinner table, and thus all use of it is correct. (Though plugging the curling iron in before eating is universally frowned upon.) Obviously, ginormous is the curling iron in that analogy.

My adviser in college once told me, "It takes a great deal of courage to use the English language properly", his assertion based on the reality that our language suffers from so much widely accepted and regularly perpetuated misuses that wielding it correctly may cause the speaker to look foolish, supported by the style manuals but mocked by a group of people who think that stating "I'm not averse to it" demonstrates a hilarious lack of knowledge of the word "adverse." I suspect ginormous is a manifestation of that fear, a linguistic Golgotham conjured by speakers who seek protection from those judgmental coworkers and dinner guests who mistakenly believe that vocabulary is the hallmark of intelligence. (While it does reflect the attention paid in secondary school and/or a voracious reading habit, vocabulary is unlikely to help you compute the interest on your mortgage, solve a leak in your bathroom sink, or help you escape unscathed if you accidentally fall into the tiger cage at the zoo, so its value should be kept in perspective.)

Whatever the origin of this unnecessary etymological redundancy, I hope its life span will be worthy of measure by the Macarena standard. I fully support the continuing evolution of the English language, to the point where I'm even willing to let "shiznit" sneak through the door. But ginormous? 23 skiddoo.

©2008 wpreagan

Monday, January 7, 2008

#115 - Santa's Secret Service

Santa's Secret Service

1/7/08 (#115)

Watch any movie that involves a fairy tale ending and you will surely see some straight-laced, overly-sober "realist" chastise the hopeful hero with a variation on, "you want everything to be like a fairy tale, but that's not how things work in the real world." (Usually delivered one implausible-plot-twist prior to the ensuing fairy tale ending.)

The problem with the fairy tale is not its incongruity with our so-called reality---after all, all the world's a stage, and for the duration of our show, we are the primary scriptwriters for our own stories: Penning a fairy tale isn't a lot harder than writing a drama about family conflict. (Though on the latter, you'd have the advantage of collaborators.) Unfortunately, the curtain rises on our play at the same time is rises on a thousand other plays, and they're all being acted out on the same stage---if can be hard to concentrate on the Princess' soliloquy if Blanche Dubois keeps interrupting the scene.

The key to staging a successful fairy tale is also the key to planning an elaborate surprise marriage proposal in a crowded restaurant: Getting the bit players to cooperate with your script. And just as the future groom must contend with some members of the impromptu cast caring more about their poached salmon than the ceremonial ruse concocted for his fiancée, there are more than a few bit players who will volunteer to improvise the role of the ogre in your fairy tale.

Santa Claus is a central character in the most perpetuated of our common fairy tales, and over this past Christmas season, I began to realize how difficult it is to protect Santa, to maintain the illusion that he is the real deal. Frankly, even the logistics of that fairy tale are a bit preposterous to maintain in the 21st century: One man with one sleigh delivers a billion toys in 24 hours? Heck, even our UPS driver had a helper with him for most of December, and they worked five days a week. And they could deliver to the front door.

My daughter is five, and while she started the Christmas season as a true believer, there were several incidents that led me to lament the previous year's tutelage in the value of analytical thinking, occasions when this production of the fairy tale seemed genuinely threatened:

Previous Scripts for the Same Story: We watched a lot of Christmas movies this year, and I was flummoxed to find so many tackling the question of "believing" in Santa Claus. From Charlie Brown to a pint-sized Natalie Wood, children are presented with an array of variations on faith and frustration. The trouble is, even though Natalie Wood eventually believes in Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, the damage was done with the initial expression of disbelief: Midway through, Sage turned to me and asked, "Why wouldn't she believe in Santa?", as if she had heard someone refuse to believe the ocean is blue. Any explanation I could offer was irrelevant, because the seed of doubt had been planted. (Hollywood is the most difficult bit-player to urge into cooperation.)

Casting Overlap: Santa came to Sage's school, a larger-than-life man in a flawless costume (complete with a bushy, real beard) who distributed presents (supplied by the parents) to the students and told trie little elf stories with perfunctory Kringlese. (Though after he asked the children, "Does anyone know who Jesus was?" I suspected he was going to refer to his reindeer as "Peter, Paul, John, Matthew...".) Afterward, Sage asked if that was the real Santa. "It sure looked like Santa", I assured her. "Yeah, but he looked different than the one at the mall downtown." (We had not "visited" that Santa, but he had come into view when we breached the border of the Pioneer North Pole when looking for something for Sage's mom.) It's tough to keep up a fairy tale in which the hero continually changes their physical appearance---it's like trying to believe "Darren" was actually Darren when he seemed to be a completely different person in random reruns of Bewitched. (Worse, imagine Bewitched with dozens of different Darrens.)

Prop Problems: Sage and I sat watching one of the holiday cartoon movies when she asked, "If Santa comes down the chimney and out the fireplace, where does he get out at our house?" Her curiosity was genuine: Our 1924 bungalow has no fire place, no wood stove, no possible portal between the rooftop and the living room. It was one of those moments that you see in an advertisement, the dad speechless to such a simple yet complicated question, except there was no voice-over narration to mask the awkward silence that followed. I goggled my brain for something...anything...plausible. "There's a little door in the base of the chimney", I explained, then immediately recalled that the little door I was picturing was actually located on my parent's chimney, in a house they sold 20 years ago. I don't like fibbing to Sage (though when necessary, I will obfuscate the truth verbal gymnastics that would leave even the Dad in Calvin and Hobbes dizzy), and this was a lie that she could fact-check during a commercial break. A man shouldn't be subjected to such dilemmas---parenting is expansive enough without an additional section of the test featuring logic puzzles.

Too Many Writers: In our family, Santa brings one gift; Mom and Dad supply the rest. (Santa already has a billion toys in his sled, he can't be bringing the whole Smurf village to every little girl who asks.) But in Sage's cousin's house, Santa brings most of the gifts. Thus, when the kids got together that night, Sage's cousin rattled off a long list of gifts delivered by jolly old St. Nick, while she stood by with her single Santa-supplied toy in her hand, a puzzled expression on her face: Why is Santa so disproportionate in his generosity? Was her letter to Santa too specific in its request? Or had she deceived herself into thinking she would be on the "nice" side of Santa's ledger, and in fact had a line reserved for her name under "naughty"? I watched from across the room as she wrestled with these puzzles, knowing that my involvement would only exacerbate the problem because it would give her a forum for articulating her uncertainties, each question (and its noncommittal answer) begetting another question. She shrugged it off as they got down to the serious business of playing with their new toys, but at that moment I felt Dickens' ghost of Christmas Future creep onto the stage.

He looked like an ogre in a fairy tale.

What surprised me this season is that I had not anticipated any of these spoilers, yet they were hammering me on a near-daily basis, making the holiday season feel less like reveling and more like spin control. I think we managed to keep the ruse in tact, and next year she will again be excited to believe that this particular fairy tale will come true again. I just have to remember: First, don't let Santa tell any Jesus stories; Second, keep a keen eye out for rogue Santas lurking behind department-store snow drifts; Third, investigate financing on the installation of a fireplace, and finally....well, sorry Sage, Santa's going to stick to the one-gift-only rule. More than one gift for each child and, well...then the story just wouldn't work in the real world.

©2008 wpreagan