Friday, November 5, 2010

#137 - Marriage (A Primer)

Marriage (a primer)

11/5/10 (#137)

Talking about marriage is like talking about religion — it means different things to different people. Even to people in the same marriage. You've got your Orthodox Married who believe that everything after "I do" is a compromise of one's personal self for the good of the institution; you've got your Reformed Married who are willing to compromise but have recognized that two televisions in separate rooms is a matrimonial blessing; there's your Born-Again Married, who keep a Deepak Chopra book in the drawer of the night stand because marriage is too complicated to get through without an owner's manual; you've got your IRS Married who tie the knot for financial reasons, though with the US tax system, getting married to save money is like swimming in the Willamette river to save laundry money. None of these are necessarily better than the other, because there is no right or wrong marriage — you get from it what you invest in it, and it's yours. For all the discussion of the "meaning" of marriage on a public and political level, the people who define each marriage on a personal level are the two people who say, "I do."

But marriage is more tangible than religion. Marriage is like family, except you volunteer for it, which means that when you get to challenges, you have to accept some of the responsibility for the circumstances. With the family you grew up with, you can blame them for everything — all those weird little foibles and flaws ingrained in our personalities? Most of us trace them back to the family dinner table. Of course, all the weird little strengths and specialties we proudly claim as our own can be tracked to the same roots. We marry a person because we love them, and their family is included in the dowry, the bonus and baggage DNA entwined in their psyche. But your spouse understands that. Even embraces that. Otherwise, why would they agree to attend big family gatherings, the type preceded by a roster of warnings about this one's politics and that one's biases and so many other one's peccadilloes. Few things prepare a person for life with another as well as watching the family dynamic when it comes to seemingly simple events — for example, taking group photos. You can learn a tremendous amount about a person and their family in the brief (or often excruciatingly long) duration between "Okay, let's get a picture" and the actual click of the shutter.

But the family gathering isn't the most reliable crash-course in life another person. A more stringent test is the long drive. And I'm not talking about a couple of hours across the state line, I'm talking about a driiiiiiiive — a map-unfolding- cross-border-multi-day mobile living excursion. The depth of one's affection cannot be accurately measured in living rooms or restaurants or even at family reunions because these places allow too much breathing room, too many escape routes, too many buffers, either intentional or accidental. The confines of a car, endless hours of humming tires, enduring a CD you wish you never lied about liking, bare and unwashed feet on the dashboard, splitting a bag of pretzels and a Mountain Dew and calling it dinner…again. A long drive is a concentrated imitation of life: adventure, anticipation, anxiety, excitement, fatigue, monotony, redundancy - but best of all, intimacy. Not honeymoon-style intimacy, but the deep backstory that gets shared between mile markers 71 and 134, tales that simply don't come to the surface amid the bustle and distraction of life. Memories jarred loose by radio songs or roadside diners, dusty tales that lack the practiced fluidity of our standard storytelling repertoires. The irregular flashes of oncoming headlights are like camera flashes, snapshots of tired eyes and relaxed smiles or the quiet repose of an exhausted head pillowed by a folded sweatshirt against the car window. These snapshots endure in our memory, reminding you of the reason you were excited about this journey. Even as the journey takes you past creepy roadside rest areas and countless mediocre chain restaurants, as weary eyes try to focus on the task at hand, these snapshots remind us that life is good, and even better with a copilot you can count on.

Most importantly, marriage isn't the same thing as love. Love is like an idea for a movie, unlimited in scope and ambition; marriage is that same movie when it's exposed to budget constraints, impromptu script changes, bad lighting and confusing, unexpected jump cuts. As you make your movie, don't focus on how the dailies aren't matching your imagination; instead, look closely at the reels and try to make it the best film you can. That movie you have in your head is just one version of the story, limited by your imagination. The one you make every day is a collaboration, and it has every potential to exceed anything you could have imagined by yourself. Share the writing, share the editing, and most of all, make sure both of your names get equally billing in the credits.

©2010 wpreagan

This piece was originally written to be read by several readers at a friend's wedding. I have modified it to commemorate my 11th anniversary with my wife. I am grateful every day to have her in my life, and look forward to every moment of the proverbial car ride ahead. (Though I'm probably going to ask to skip a few tracks on that one CD.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

#136 - Audible Residue

Audible Residue

9/23/10 (#136)

At this moment, I am humming Buddy Holly's "Everyday." You know the one: "Everyday, it's a-gettin' closer, goin' faster than a roller coaster..." and so on. Buddy's charming paean to the promise of impending love is a sweet little ditty, but frankly, after more than an hour of it, I want to carve it out of my cranium with the thin plastic knife that I got with my bagel at the same time I got this freakin' song stuck in my head.

The café in my office building is notorious for such subliminal gifting. I stop in to order a latté or some peanut butter toast, flip through one of the newspaper sections left on the tables while waiting for the item is toasted/steamed/whatever, grab my purchase and jump on the elevator. It seems innocuous enough, until there in the empty silence of the elevator car the thought crime is revealed — suddenly I'm whistling the opening synth riff from "The Final Countdown" or realizing with great alarm that I have been reassembling the lyrics to "Hotel California" in my head. It's enough to sour the taste of whatever treat I have in my hands.

The bizarre array of music that sneaks from their speakers and into my brain on successive visits makes it clear that the various employees take turns choosing the playlist, and I'm willing to bet, often choosing a station for ironic effect. I've worked in such environments, where it's fun to pick stations that will playfully annoy particular coworkers or set a strange mood for the work day. The trouble for the customers is that we don't have Madonna to cleanse our audio palette after Bad Company has muddied up our short-term memory — we exit while the latter is still playing, and the offending chorus follows us around like an inescapable pest, nipping annoyingly at our thoughts every time we have an idle mental moment.

It's not just that café, of course. Ambient music plays almost everywhere we go, which explains why we can be sitting somewhere quiet and some long-forgotten melody will suddenly be front and center in our mind. I usually leave my bank with some passé radio hit by Alanis Morissette or Crowded House burrowing into my psyche, and leaving Target empty-handed rarely means I'll leave empty-headed. Worst of all, it's the catchiest songs that cling tightest, sonic burdocks that can't even be loosed by a headphone session with the iPod: I once pumped a blissful medley of irresistible Guided By Voices songs into my ears in order to flush a freeloading 80's hit, and ten minutes after turning off the device, I was once again banging my head on the table to shake loose the cloyingly effervescent da-da-da-dum-dum intro of A-ha's "Take On Me."

I know there's someone reading who is thinking, "Wow, I haven't thought about Alanis in a while. I'd love to hear 'Ironic' again." And therein lies the problem with these unavoidable soundtracks that fill our air and our ears — everyone likes different things, so a business has no idea how their so-called mood music is impacting their customers' moods: one might find Peter Cetera to be the ideal background music for filling out a deposit slip, while the next might close their account simply to avoid the risk of ever having to withdraw money to the strains of Jewel.

It's not really about Alanis (who, I confess, is one of my guilty pleasures) or Jewel (whose voice is impressive even when her songs are not.) It's about the reckless use of these voices in public settings. Companies constantly remind me about the convenience of online banking and online bill paying and online shopping, but it isn't the convenience that attracts me: it's the fact that all of these transactions can occur without the fear of some schlocky Heart ballad pirating the mental radio in my brain. Am I ready to skip the in-person retail experience completely? I don't know. But everyday, it's a-gettin' closer...

©2010 wpreagan

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

#135 - Lovely Weeds

Lovely Weeds

6/15/10 (#135)

"It's like being inside a model train set." That's how my father described the few acres of college town that surrounded his business. The century-old paddle and oar factory sat next to train tracks that, ¼ mile north, carried freight cars across a picturesque trestle bridge that spanned the jagged rocks that made up the bed of the Stillwater River. To the south, the train rails passed a old New England homes adorned with painted porch chairs and bright potted flowers before crossing several roads in quick succession, each intersection, each featuring the flashing lights and ringing bells of classic black-and-white "X-ing" warnings. When a train passed, it was easy to imagine it had all been laid out by some fussy hobbyist, intent on making an improbably accurate scale version of an idyllic Maine town.

I worked at the factory for 10 years, and never tired of walking out to the trestle for my lunch breaks. The primal force of the river as a whole was a satisfying sound, but just as an orchestra sounds like a cohesive unit until we begin picking out the individual melodies of each different instrument, there were rich layers of sound that could be picked out from the river's white noise: The low-end rumble of the major flows, the hollow midrange as it met the resistance of the rocks, the high end "shhhhhh" that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. It wasn't a mystical experience or a metaphor for life — it was simply a roaring, awesome soundtrack for eating a turkey sandwich and escaping from the smell of varnish and sawn wood.

When college was in session, I often saw students crossing the trestle, an easy shortcut from the rental houses across the river to the charming couple of blocks called downtown. In the summertime, I usually had the whole trestle to myself. One sunny late July day, I took my chicken salad and a soda and set out for the bridge, turning the corner behind the factory store to see what seemed like a scene from a movie: a beautiful woman I had never seen, gleefully tromping through the tall grass and picking weeds.

I'm never been much for horticulture, so I'm sure they were officially known as flowers, but when something grows everywhere, uninvited and untended, we tend to call them weeds. All along the unkempt paths along the train tracks, tiny wild flowers grew and bloomed and died without anyone taking notice, yet this college-aged woman was plucking them with the enthusiasm of a six-year old. As our paths converged, I marveled at her smile, her long blondish hair, her deep suntan, and risked making a fool of myself by momentarily pretending to know something about flowers: "Making a bouquet?"

She smiled wider with a nod, reaching down to add another spindly yellow stem to the couple of dozen sprigs in her hand, and gushed, "These are so wonderful!"

I looked at the collection: a couple of pale purple buds about as big as your smallest thumbnail, a few of the miniature daisies that grew throughout the neighborhood, and a random scattering of other miniature flowers that would grow and whither along the tracks until the railroad company did their annual mow. A less impressive bouquet could not be assembled unless it featured clumps of overgrown grass, but I was far too impressed with her face to tell her that, so instead, I said, "Great colors. Though pretty common flowers."

"You're so lucky", she replied, looking at them one by one as she continued, "I'm here visiting my aunt. I'm from Hawaii, and all of our flowers are big and bold. I love them, but they're almost ostentatious. We don't have anything like these," and she pointed to the purple buds, just like the patch I had scythed the day before to allow air to flow around our stacked ash lumber. Recalling a few small orange flowers on the backside of the wood pile, far enough from the stack that they were spared from the blade, I walked behind the pile, picked them from the long grass, and offered them for her collection. More delight, more smiles, a quick thank you, and her eyes went back to the ground.

In the movie version of the moment, the act of adding the orange to her bouquet would have allowed our eyes to meet, and the scene would jump-cut to the two of us sitting on the rail sharing a chicken salad sandwich, the roar of the river requiring us to lean in with unexpectedly comfortable intimacy. Sadly, it wasn't a movie. Instead, it was clear she had barely noticed me, my being too big and bold to hold her attention. She moved south through the model train set, and I went out to the trestle to eat my lunch and imagine how the rest of the movie might have gone.

Years later, a friend described her reasons for quitting a landscaping job: She loved working with plants and digging in the dirt, but one day saw her boss ruthlessly tearing up a cluster of flowers. She asked why. "Because they're weeds." She explained that they weren't, naming the flowers that now lay in a dead pile, and he replied, "It's a flower if it grows where I want it to grow. If not, it's a weed."

I suspect we all do that a lot in our lives — deeming something worthy or expendable based on its value to us, not its intrinsic value. I often think about that woman from Hawaii when I'm out walking with my daughter, seven-years old and yet to "learn" how to separate the world into flowers and weeds. I'm glad, because it's amazing how many lovely weeds she is able to find.

©2010 wpreagan

Saturday, June 5, 2010

#134 - The Brighter Side of OCD

The Brighter Side of OCD

6/5/10 (#134)

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, commonly known as OCD — especially by people who have OCD and don't have time for so many syllables because there are sock drawers to organize — is the bastard child of logic (the nurturing mother) and insanity (the demanding father.)

This disorder (as clinicians call it — people with OCD call it "hyper-efficiency") is easily misunderstood by people who think that putting the crayons into their cardboard box in correct spectral order is a waste of time. Of course, some adherents to OCD also think that putting the crayons into their cardboard box in correct spectral order is a waste of time, as the satisfaction of even the most attentively ordered rainbow is offset by the frustration of finding a proper home for burnt umber and timber wolf. (I have a functional form of the condition, so my solution for the 64 pack is to populate one of the eight rows of eight with all of the misfits, including black and white; it's unsatisfying, but at least it corrals the dissatisfaction into a single tier.)

If you say to a person with OCD, "I know it seems pointless, but in the spoons slot of the silverware drawer, I stack the three types of spoons in groups so they don't mix," these folks won't roll their eyes or stare in disbelief. Instead, they'll usually respond with some variation of, "As opposed to what, haphazardly tossing them into some willy-nilly collision of flatware? Stacking is the logical thing to do. Duh." Others may even contribute advice: "I used a glue gun and some 1/8" clear plastic strips to subdivide the fork section between dinner and dessert forks. Not only is each type isolated, the plastic wall keeps both piles neatly stacked."

I use this example for a reason, which I will get to in a moment.

To be clear, I have never been diagnosed with OCD. Nor have I ever asked anyone to explore such a diagnosis, because I am not afflicted with any of the symptoms that make OCD an obstacle for my life. (One look at my home office demonstrates that I am not fetishistic about order or cleanliness, as the shelves around my desk look like the aftermath of an explosion at a paper recycling depot.) For some, OCD is genuinely debilitating, and it's not a joking matter. For me, it's more like an idiosyncratic anomaly, a quirk on performance-enhancing drugs.

So back to the spoons. Over the years, our silverware drawer has evolved by necessity only. When we moved into our house a decade ago, we gave ourselves a housewarming gift of a great set of silverware, tossing all of the mismatched pieces we had acquired through hand-me-down generosity or Goodwill necessity. The new set was gorgeous, felt great, and was worth every penny.

In the ten years since, the collection has suffered the standard homeowner attrition, pieces of the collection whisked into the same black hole that consumes single socks and Tupperware lids. Each time the count of a particular utensil type drops below a usable number — that number defined by the inconvenient frequency with which we must wash the remaining items — we purchase a small set to supplement the collection.

We now have three types of spoons: four from the original set, six acquired for a comically low price at Ikea, and four found in the close-out bin at Marshalls. Each is a different size and shape, so when they're randomly placed into the silverware drawers spoon slot, it's an ill-fitting mess. To solve this, I stacked them in like piles after taking them from the dish drainer — the spoons better suited for ice cream, the others for stirring coffee, and the third for meals (though I use those for ice cream, too.) Rather than having to rifle through a disheveled array of utensils every time I wanted a cup of yogurt, the sorted piles saved time and accelerated yogurt enjoyment.

But I was concerned that this preference for order would mutate into a demand for order (I'm even obsessive about my compulsions), so I decided to let go of this one — to let spoons be spoons, freely intermingling within their designated silverware slot. One small step for me, one too-small-to-be-noticed-step for anyone else who opens that drawer. It hardly qualified as a milestone, but I congratulated myself as I closed the silverware drawer. I had tamed the OCD beast.

Until the next morning, when I opened the drawer to get a coffee stirrer and witnessed the utter mayhem that lay before me, the haphazard tangle of spoons looking like it had been picked through by a swarm of indiscriminate yard-sale shoppers. I tried to extricate a stirring spoon from beneath the pick-up-sticks array of flatware, but the pile kept rearranging itself with a frustrating clatter. What had once been a simple matter of sliding out the drawer to make a simple selection had become an annoying game of three-spoon monte, and I was the sucker.

So much for minor victories. I immediately took the time to sort all three types of spoons and stack them neatly within their designated slot. It would have been nice to not care, to take any old spoon for any old task, but the inefficiency was unbearable. I hated giving in to the beast, but what choice did I have? It was the logical thing to do. Duh.

©2010 wpreagan

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

#133 - A Parental Perspective on Math

A Parental Perspective on Math

5/19/10 (#133)

Every few years, a new study points to American children's dismal math capabilities compared to students around the globe. These mediocre showings usually trigger a string of efforts to improve math education in public schools, to bolster interest in mathematics, and to find the reason that American youth fail to compete in this educational category.

As a parent, I know the reason. The cause is evident, even obvious, nearly every time I hear a parent speaking to their kids. Even talking to my own daughter, I sometimes catch myself unintentionally sabotaging her academic future. The root of the problem is Parent Math.

Parent Math is a calculation system that relies on the language of traditional math, but discards the requisite rules that tether abstract concepts to real-world results. While academic math pursues an objective truth, Parent Math is a means to an end, utilizing a flexible set of rules that are unencumbered by consistency. In academic math, two plus two equals four; in Parent Math, two plus two might equal four, depending on whether the desired sum is four; if the desired sum is three, then two plus two can equal three. It's not math at all, frankly, but because it shares the same language as math, it sneaks into the brains of our children and irrevocably dooms their math SAT scores.

Here are a few common examples of Parent Math at work, and how it renders number-based phrases meaningless to a young mind:

Five Minutes: This all-purpose phrase can be used as either an ultimatum or a promise, with equally inefficient results. The way parents use it, a "minute" is like a "donut" - there are a thousand varieties that all fall under the same descriptor, yet there are few similarities between a glazed chocolate cake donut and a yeast-type maple bar.

As an ultimatum, it is issued anywhere from two to twenty minutes before actual departure time, making the conceptual value of five frustratingly fluid. For instance, if my daughter is playing with friends at the playground and the cacophony of screaming children has frazzled me like the participant in some graduate-level college psychology experiment, then "we're leaving in five minutes" means that she has 90 seconds of swing and slide time left; if my wife retrieves our daughter from a play date at the home of another interesting mom, "we're leaving in five minutes" allows the children enough time for several costume changes, a quick board game, and a languid goodbye.

As a promise, the words "give me five minutes" literally translates to, "I will come inspect your block tower or answer your question about leggings when I complete this entree/project/email/thought." The phrase has no regard for the accuracy of the words "five" and "minute" because the goal is simply to prolong the duration the parent has to focus on their own life. Sullying the meaning of "five" is unfortunate collateral damage.

Two cookies: You might think that the concreteness of cookies would make them less suspect mathematically, but in some homes, "You can have two cookies" is the serve that starts a long volley of negotiations and compromises. I've seen conniving kids argue with the craft of a seasoned attorney, citing precedent ("At the apple orchard you said I could have two apples and I ate three") and extenuating circumstances ("the first cookie was twice the size of the second, so really, two smalls and a large are equivalent to two cookies") until the fatigued parent will acquiesces, thereby damning the number "two" to an eternity of representing two, sometimes three, and occasionally more.

100 times: It's amazing how many things have been said or done 100 times. For instance, at various points in recent history, someone in our home has announced that we've watched iCarly 100 times, we've read Ferryboat Ride 100 times, and we've eaten cheese quesadillas 100 times. (Most of those were sighed by exasperated parents; the last one came from Sage as part of her petition for Pizza - as the house quesadilla chef, I struggled to shrug it off.) The problem is, my daughter goes through life as if she were an umpire with that little balls/strikes/outs clicker hidden in her hand, noting the frequency and duration of nearly everything, and we haven't experienced any of these things exactly 100 times: Quesadillas for dinner? 25 tops in my culinary memory. Ferryboat Ride? Closer to 75 times in Sage's life. iCarly? It's been on at least 600 times in our house this month. (I swear it's true.) The collective effect of these inaccuracies is the complete bastarization of "100" as a descriptor.

Is there anything that can be done? It's hard to say. Mathematical inaccuracies remain an essential child management tool, providing a foundation of so-called facts to support a desired agenda. Changing that mindset in order to improve our children's math comprehension is a noble goal, yet at the end of an exhausting day, the path of least resistance is an alluring route, and that path usually circumvents any noble goals.

I should know, I've taken it a hundred times.

©2010 wpreagan

Thursday, April 15, 2010

#132 - Past Life Regression

Past Life Regression

4/15/10 (#132)

There are two kinds of bad memory: The first is like having a great collection of photographs that have faded over time, yellows and whites merging, crisp edges of foreground objects slowly assimilating into the background. The other is more like a great collection of photographs all categorized in folders in a cabinet, and over time, folders inexplicably disappear. The latter describes my memory.

For instance, I can recall hundreds of mundane moments of my high school English classes, ridiculous minutia that has no value to warrant such long-term storage; yet I can't recall the name of a single science teacher in my high school. Not one. I'm not confident I could even pick one out of a multiple choice list. That file folder is gone. Maybe I took it out to make room in the cabinet for something more valuable - but of course, I don't recall.

The joy of this type of memory loss is that I can't remember the things I've forgotten, so it hardly seems like I've forgotten anything at all. The downside is that people with better memories than I can make me feel like an amnesia victim --"So the Emily you're talking about went to our high school? That doesn't ring a bell. And she was in my Biology class? Huh, I don't remember her - or Biology, for that matter. And you're sure I went to the junior prom with her?")

I've long acknowledged the particular inefficiencies of my memory, and accepted them. So I don't remember my Science teachers - big deal. I can't think of any reason why I need to remember them. (Of course I can't.) But that inefficiency is becoming a problem because of one fairly recent addition to my life: Facebook.

As Facebook users know, the social networking site is uncannily adept at dredging up ghosts of people who had, for all intents and purposes, died to me over 25 years ago. Every few months there is a new wave of Friend requests from people who went to my high school - sometimes identifiable because I remember their name, and sometimes only because Facebook has anticipated the massive holes in my memory and added a version of, "Seriously, you went to high school with him" in the thumbnail caption.

One person sent a "Friend request" that included a personalized note that clearly made reference to some inside joke we had shared in the early 80s - but I couldn't remember the joke. I couldn't even remember the person. It would have seemed like a hoax if we didn't share a couple of dozen common friends. Apparently, the referenced inside joke was something we shared in a Science class.

My failure to remember her makes me feel bad - what kind of unsentimental monster can't remember the people he shared the socially formative years of his life with? But the day before her note, when I didn't even remember that I had forgotten her, I didn't feel bad about it at all. Then she sent a note, and suddenly I felt guilty. I have enough shortcomings in my psyche without virtual strangers reminding me of more.

I still have a handful of folks from my high school in my closest circle of friends, though our bonds were forged after graduation. I've kept in touch with these people because they are friends - as the dictionary defines friend, not as Facebook defines it. As for the other people in my high school, we've gotten along fine without each other for more than 25 years - I expected we'd get along fine without each other for the next 25, too.

I'm sure a lot of folks from my high school are wonderful people today, and if we were randomly seated next to each other on a plane, I'd enjoy reminiscing from Cleveland to Boston. But high school was eons ago, and these people have no context in my life. And I have no context in theirs. (My favorite absurdity is hearing from a senior year acquaintance whose note, in its entirety, read, "Hey Bill, what have you been up to?" Seriously? I'm supposed to document the most essential quarter century of my life, my marriage, the birth of my daughter, my many career changes, all because you pecked out an eight word question on a web portal?)

I admit, there are some wonderful exceptions. I heard from Scott, and as you might by now guess, I had to wrack my brain to recall him. As I looked for clues on his Facebook page, I was completely impressed with the person he is today, felt a kinship in how he wrote about his family, and enjoyed comparing the cardboard castle he built for his daughter with the one I built for mine. (They're both awesome.) Then there's Rob, who I actually remembered (!) but like even more now. There are a few other examples, too. That I knew these people in the 1980s is irrelevant to me - I like who they are now.

I don't presume that old high school acquaintances have been waiting 25 years for the opportunity to get in touch with me. Most folks are just curious, doing the personal version of "Where are they now?", and reconnection rarely involves more than a couple of quick exchanges. Heck, maybe they don't even remember me, and they're just requesting friendship from everyone who is listed in our graduating class, hoping to revive some of the color in the faded photographs of their memory.

I wish I could help. But in most cases, I lost the file with those pictures.

©2010 wpreagan

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

#131 - Girl Scouts and Greed

Girl Scouts and Greed

4/7/10 (#131)

I pause with the refrigerator door propped open, eyeing the visible portion of the colorful box. Its hastily torn end-flaps are tucked into each other, as if a 1/4" tab of cardboard is sufficient security to repel co-workers from helping themselves to a sample. Apparently aware that the vague existential state of the box (Is it really closed, or did the initial opening change the box forever?) might not be sufficient protection, the owner had deployed additional defenses, including the writing of their initials in black Sharpie on two sides of the package, and the strategic placement of a tub of cream cheese atop the box – not exactly disguised, but clearly an effort was made to make them less inviting.

Of course, the words "less inviting" are only used in the same sentence as Girl Scout Cookies if the phrase is, "Eating those nine boxes of Girl Scout Cookies this week has made my physique less inviting."

While many treats are tempting, the irresistibly of Girl Scout cookies is uniquely intense. Sure, there are a few lamas in Asia who have the willpower to resist the allure of the Do-si-do, but in my home, the time between the opening of the box and the deposit of the empty packaging into the recycling bin defies the physics of cookie consumption. That's why it's essential to place them in a hard-to-reach area, so that later (and by later, I mean in six minutes) when I've justified "finishing off the row" in the interest of symmetry and find myself kneeling on the kitchen counter to retrieve them from their "hiding" spot behind the breakfast cereal boxes, the effort to reach them makes me feel that I have earned them. Maybe even one from the next row, too.

But this isn't home, and in the office, different rules apply. Rule #1 in the corporate lunchroom: Do not eat other people's food. I have no trouble abiding when it comes to tuna sandwiches, leftover pizza, or yogurts flavored with weird fruits, but does the expectation of culinary privacy extend to Thin Mints? Of course it does – or at least, it should. But seeing that broken-seal box on the fridge shelf, the lawyer for the committee in my head begins looking for a loophole.

Technically, a loophole isn't necessary. The owner's initials were on the box, so I could easy visit their desk and ask permission. But they didn't scribble their initials on the box as an instruction for how to properly acquire a taste of the contents – the subtext of that all-caps identifier was, "These are mine. Your cookie train doesn't stop at this station."

Besides, one can't ask for a Girl Scout Cookie. They're sacred snacks. If someone has a big bowl of Tootsie Rolls on their desk, sure, ask away. Take three, it will barely show, and there's more where those came from, which is the Safeway just a few blocks from the office. Girl Scout cookies come around only once a year, delivered by pony-tailed pixies who are visible strictly during the cookie season. Plus, thanks to the elaborate structure of the packaging materials, they are in short supply the moment you open the box. (I'm talking about Samoas and Tag-Alongs, which come packed with a care usually reserved for diamond rings, the noisy plastic tray keeping the cookies a safe distance from each other as if science is unsure what will happen if they touch. Compare that to the Thin Mints, which come stuffed like poker chips in dual cellophane tubes. Why the caste system, Scouts? Why are the mints allowed to mingle while the coconuts get solitary confinement?) All the initials do is identify the exact person who will tell me they're sorry, but they "have plans" for the cookies. (Plans? Are you going to take them to an art museum? Bowling?)

There are a few folks in my office who would offer up a hearty "help yourself" if I asked for a cookie, and they'd sound plausibly sincere in doing so – but that's because those people are nice people and they wouldn't dream of calling me on the audacity of my inquiry, which means if I ate one of the cookies, it would taste like a mix of butter, sugar, and shame. No one enthusiastically shares Samoas, because it isn't sharing, it's giving away – and who gives away Girl Scout cookies? Someone might bring in a box with the intention of sharing it with their coworkers, but that's different than writing your name on the box and disguising them amid a refrigerator of packed lunches. Once the initials are on the box, those cookies are off limits.

Which would be fine, if they were hidden up behind some cereal boxes in the break room like you're supposed to do with Girl Scout Cookies. But here they are in plain view between leftover Thai food and a bag of string cheeses, the sweetness dripping from my memory and into my ambition. Surely they can spare one. (Well, three, actually, because I may as well finish off the row.)

The refrigerator door remains propped open. What was I looking for? Oh, that's right – a loophole.

©2010 wpreagan

Thursday, February 4, 2010

#130 - Communication Breakdown

Communication Breakdown

2/4/10 (#130)

Years ago, I used to write letters. As friends dispersed to various greener grasses across the nation, I took great pleasure in slipping into a booth at the Bagel Shop or settling down at Dysart's Truckstop with a pot of coffee, a pad and a pen to knock out a few pages about life, longing, and the pursuit of that elusive thing we call our self.

Letters are an incredibly efficient communication device, allowing for vast expressions of thought with no investment beyond the time. No hosting fees, no connection costs, no hardware purchases - just a pad and pen, and a bit of spare change to get a person to come to my door, pick up my note, and hand deliver it to a person living on the other side of the country. Best of all, writing letters greatly increases your odds of receiving letters, which make the mailbox more than a repository for bulk mail and bills. On any given day, there may be brilliant thoughts and sly observations spilling from the confines of a white A8 envelope.

A well-crafted letter - or at least, enthusiastically-crafted - is more than an act of journalism, a mere recounting of facts. Even when there is a reader in mind, a letter transcends expression of self and becomes an examination of self. As we take the tangled yarn of our thoughts and lay them in linear format of the college-ruled pad, we understand them better ourselves. We expound on a topic like a lawyer delivering a closing argument, and at the same time we are the jury, weighing the evidence of the argument. Quite simply, the writer learns things that even the reader will not - especially because the writer knows exactly what has been left out.

A decade ago, I acquiesced to the convenience of email. The allure of immediate delivery and the efficiency of production (I type faster than I scribble) made it the communication medium of choice. Yet there was a dark side to that convenience: Every letter was typed from the confines of my apartment, and letters began to be notes, more efficient but less effective, stringed bits of data increasingly focused on facts rather than feelings. Just as digital recording failed to capture the sonic warmth associated with analog tape, email was a sterile substitute for the penned page, the backspace button removing the richness of cross-outs and overwrites and addendums penned in the margins.

Emails have now fallen away themselves, replaced by the small confines of social media boxes. Facebook gives the illusion of staying in touch because we see photos of people's lives, we read quips and blips about exploits and interests, but the format doesn't serve deep dives. Social media is creating a society of broadcasters, with pithy replies and a quick click of the "like" button expressing our approval of the life being led. The list of grandmother-boggling acronyms (i.e. OMG, LMAO) continues to grow to accommodate our thirst for brevity and accelerated delivery. As a culture, we are constantly striving to communicate in fewer and fewer characters. (WTF?)

Where will it end? That's my worry---that it will end. While I embrace the value of new technologies, I'm disappointed that our embrace of these new tools has caused us to lose our appreciation for the old tools. It alarms me to realize that several of the great friendships of my life have spent a year limited to the confines of social media. It hardly feels like "staying in touch" when communication is reduced to bulk-distribution tweets.

Writing letters is the antithesis of Twitter. I appreciate the economy of language that application imposes (many thoughts benefit from such rigid editing), but I worry that as a culture, we are defining 140 characters as the communication norm. More frustrating, the space limitations have not improved the quality of ideas being broadcast. Hasn't the blogosphere lampooned eating-updates with sufficient frequency that reports on the contents of one's lunch burrito should remain a personal experience? (Judging by my Facebook wall, apparently not.)

Perhaps the letter is the interpersonal communication analog to newspapers, an archaic form serving fewer and fewer users. Perhaps - but I'm not going to be party to its demise. This weekend, I'm going to dig a blank pad from the pile of paper debris in my office, sit down with a cup of coffee, and scribble a note to brighten one of my friend's mail boxes.

People do still check their mail boxes, don't they?

©2010 wpreagan