Friday, July 30, 2010

Move Over, Gutenberg

Today I'm thinking about technology; I'm considering the ways in which technology both links and divides us. I'm not thinking specifically about social networking sites (though I am sure that many a psych Ph.D. dissertation has been written on just that topic in recent years), but instead I'm thinking simply of access to (or lack of access to) information and what that access or lack thereof means for human society.

This afternoon, my sister and I met her husband in mid-town Manhattan for lunch and then decided to enjoy some ridiculously delicious cupcakes in Bryant Park. As we sat at a table chatting and enjoying our indulgence, a gaggle of teenagers paraded by us, cell phone cameras a-flashing in the direction of one teenager in particular who seemed to be being crushed by his throngs of adoring fans. My sister's husband asked one star-struck fan who she and her crowd were following, and she responded (with obvious annoyance at our lack of celebrity knowledge) that they were following Timothy Delaghetto -- just like that, all one word. Hmmm, we thought. Are we in the presence of some wildly famous person that we are too uncool to know about? Immediately, my sister's husband used his Blackberry to google this Timothy Delaghetto, and we discovered that he is an up-and-coming "Asian hip hop artist." Ok then.

While it would be difficult to argue that having instantaneous access to this sort of basically useless information is going to give us some kind of leg up on the rest of human society, I think that having access to information of any sort does, at the very least, separate people into categories: those who can be in the know and those who can't. I am wholly convinced that 90% of the apps available on the iphone basically give useless information -- where the nearest Starbucks is located, the title of the song currently playing on the radio (Shezam!), who the best-selling Asian hip hop artist is (ok, I don't know if they have an app for that, but I'm willing to bet it's out there or soon-to be, judging by the apparent popularity of Mr. Delaghetto). However, it's that 10% of useful information that iphone/Blackberry/Droid users can access immediately that does give them that leg up, such as when the next train leaves Port Authority or which way is west -- I needed both of those pieces of info today, and, as I am smartphone-less, I was forced to do the old-fashioned thing and Figure It Out. So, one way that technology separates us now is into People Who Can Find Out Faster and Easier and People Who Can Find Out Still Within a Reasonable Stretch of Time and With Only Slightly More Effort -- not such an enormous difference, in my view.

But, while smartphones may still be luxuries that not every human must have to survive, I think that internet access at some point in the day is a mandatory requirement for full and successful participation in our society today. After our cupcakes in the park, my sister and I headed over to the mid-town branch of the New York Public Library this afternoon (the place where Carrie and Big were supposed to wed in the first Sex and the City movie! Ahem....I mean, the place where one can find access to 15 million books and visual media and witness stunning architectural design and feel intellectual power pulsing through the air). Here, we got to see one of the 48 surviving Gutenberg Bibles, which was on display with a plaque noting that scholars generally agree that Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1440 was "the greatest achievement of the second millenium." If the printing press was revolutionary because it allowed wider access to information, how do we even begin to understand the impact of the worldwide web?

I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, her account of an undercover assignment as a low-wage worker in America's restaurants, hotels, and Big Box stores. She paints a moving portrait of what it means to live hand-to-mouth and work 70+ hours per week, but because she did her investigative reporting in the late 90s before internet access was a staple in every middle-class household, her book doesn't touch on what it means to be without internet access. I'd love to see an revised edition in which she comments on this huge difference that separates 1998 from 2010. The other day, as my husband spent hours comparing NJ car insurance quotes online, and I spent hours researching my choices for a primary care doctor, I wondered how on earth someone would one go about finding affordable car insurance or setting up one's healthcare plan without the internet? I realize that the telephone still works for these tasks, but the hours on hold alone would be enough to drive even the most bargain-conscious shopper or the most health-conscious individual to just sign up with one of the first two or three organizations found. So, technology also divides us into Those Who Have Options and Those Who Take What They Can Get With the Time They Have to Get It.

I think the coolest thing about the New York Public Library is that any library card-holder can borrow a laptop for several hours at a time and get free internet access within the library. While borrowing a laptop to use within the confines of the library is not as convenient as owning one and having internet access in the home, at least it's a start. It's a recognition by a well-respected public institution that the division between Those Who Have Options and Those Who Take What They Can Get With the Time They Have to Get It is one that is just too big to accept if we want to continue to call ourselves a democratic society. There are certainly civil rights issues at stake within the issues surrounding access to technology, and I can only hope that more schools, city halls, courthouses, and other tax-payer funded institutions follow the Library's lead.

I'm going to end this post by recounting, to the best of my ability, one side of a conversation that I overheard on the bus today, which amused me greatly, but also made me a little sad. I sat behind a guy of about my age, obviously coming home from a long day of work who was talking on his cell phone:

Guy: Yeah, Ma. I'm here.

Guy: Alright, it's on? Good. Ok. Now click on Firefox.

Guy: It looks like...a fire fox. Like a fox on fire.

Guy: No. It's orange. Maybe blue too.

Guy: Yes. That's it. Now click on it.

Guy: Are you double clicking?

Guy: Like, click-click -- real fast. With your index finger.

Guy: No -- the other one. The index finger that's on the mouse. Click-click.

Guy: Try it again.

Guy: Ok. Now click on the link on the homepage. It's in blue.  It has a lot of funny letters and numbers at the a long line of funny letters and numbers.

Guy: You gotta work with me, Ma. Tell me what you see.

Guy: I'm not getting mad. I'm not...

Guy: (exhales deeply) My voice isn't annoyed, Ma.

Guy: No, it's not. I'm just....Don't get frustrated now, Ma. Why do you sound all frantic?

Guy: I'm not! I'm being completely calm,Ma!

Guy: Ok. Try it again.

Guy: Ma, listen to me. It might take a minute. It has to download.

Guy: What, 'download'? It's like retrieving information from another site.

Guy:  A site is a webpage. Like one page of the worldwide web. The Internet.

Guy: Well, not exactly like a book. But maybe kind of. Anyway, you don't need to know that now, Ma. Did it download?

Guy: Christ.

Guy: I'm not mad, Ma. I'm not mad. It's just that these are like the basics. Like stuff everyone knows.

Guy: I know! That's why I'm helping you!

Guy: Hello? Ma? Hello?

Guy: Damnit.(hangs up)

So, technology also divides us into Those Who Know How and Those Who Need to Know How. Unfortunately, this divide seems to fall along age lines, which is sad. This guy and his mom could be sending each other funny forwards or Youtube videos, sharing pictures and music, and generally connecting in more ways, but they aren't. Instead, they're fighting. Maybe I should have told him that the New York Public Library also offers free weekly technology-related courses, such as "Email I" and "The Internet I: The Basics!"

Teachers, like me, are constantly bombarded with pressure to "use technology in the classroom," and we are given so many instructions as to how and when we should use various sorts of technology with our students. The one question that never seems to be addressed, though, is why. I think there's sort of this circuitous logic at work that people are afraid to question: we should use technology because people use technology. For most people, though, this argument is not terribly compelling. Talk to us, however, about equal access, civil rights, generation gaps, and saving time, and we'll be all ears.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

If You Can Make It There... must have very few personal possessions and truly enjoy laundromats.  You should also enjoy walking up five flights of stairs to reach your home, and you probably shouldn't mind paying 8 dollars for a Miller Lite. After a week of apartment hunting in Manhattan, I told my husband on Sunday that I quit NYC. I wanted so much to believe that I was cool enough and low-maintenance enough to pare down my life to fit into 600 square feet, but, alas, I am just not.

When I thought about renting a tiny apartment in the city, I felt excited because I saw it as an opportunity to really simplify -- to rid ourselves of all of the unnecessary commodities we've acquired over the years and return to just the basics, just the absolute essentials. The problem, however, is that I seem to have a lot of essentials! In college, if I had contact solution and a toothbrush, I could pretty much crash anywhere (and I'm not even sure that I really felt that the toothbrush qualified as an essential -- more of a convenience). Now, to spend the night outside of my own home, I pack a bag that includes the following: make-up remover, night face cream, facial lotion with sunscreen for daytime, my Sonicare, dental floss, a pair of pajamas, slippers or flip-flops, a change of clothes for the morning, and two different hairbrushes (I'll even bring my blowdryer if I feel that the one in my host's home/hotel is not equal to my own). And it's not just in the way of personal toiletries that I've become high maintenance -- I also seem to have become irreversibly accustomed to having a washer and dryer and a dishwasher within the confines of my living space (how un-green, how uncool!).

I keep trying to justify my high maintenance by telling myself that as a woman of almost 30, I will only spend more and more time at home. NYC has a fantastic nightlife with awesome bars that stay open until 4 am, but these days, nine times out of ten, I'm asleep before midnight on the average Saturday night. This realization among women of my age, I am convinced, is what keeps Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel, and Williams-Sonoma financially afloat. We women need a creative outlet, a way to expend energy. Once karaoke contests and drinking games lose their novelty -- somewhere in one's late 20s -- it seems that we turn our sights to coordinating throw pillows and redecorating our master baths. It's almost like we feel like if we aren't going to be out, in needs to get a lot more enticing. I'm not sure that this sort of hobby -- if home improvement/decorating can even be classified as such -- is really a good thing. In a lot of ways, it means buying into the kind of consumerism that I love to hate, but that I also can't seem to resist.

I'd like to believe that I'm not the kind of person who covets stainless steel appliances and granite countertops above the more practical conveniences of apartment living (like being near transportation and having enough closet space), but because I haven't been happy yet with an apartment that lacks these aesthetic accoutrements, I'm going to blame my materialism on my fear that moving home means that I am right back at the beginning again, completing a circle as opposed to moving forward. Perhaps I'm seeing a nice apartment and all of its trappings as some kind of indicator that I am, in fact, making progress, moving up and going forward. Hey look, everyone! I went from carpet to hardwood and from tile to granite! See -- I am making progress after all!

For now, I'm not going to beat myself up too much for being a little too attached to the material world. Leaving San Diego was tough, so if having some nicer features gets me excited about our new residence, so be it. So, in an effort to be able to afford those creature comforts (and have space enough for them), we're refocusing our apartment search efforts across the Hudson in Jersey City and Hoboken, where things are a lot more affordable. I may not get to become a New Yorker, but at least I won't be hand-washing dishes. Maybe I am more practical than I give myself credit for after all...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Every 'Drunk Man' Has a Family

Some people are daredevils. While I am certainly not one of them, I appreciate the spirit of adventure that drives them, and so I have collected a few as friends over the years who have greatly enriched my life with their commitment to fun and their love of excitement. These kinds of people are always a blast to be around, and they provide much of the fodder for the stories that we most often recount and laugh over. Of course, daredevil friends are also always an emotional risk as a result of their antics as well.

We lost a daredevil last week after he jumped off the Venice Beach pier at 2 am on the 4th of July, and the loss has left a huge hole in his family and friends' universe. While every loss of life is tragic, losing a daredevil is a special kind of loss for those who knew him or her. Because daredevils seem more full of life than the average joe, when their lives are cut short, it feels like a great force of passion and vivacity has been sucked from the world, and the world is a considerably duller and plainer place for it. 

Unfortunately, when a daredevil dies, some people seem to lose sight of the fact that a precious human life has been lost and choose simply to lambast his carelessness or irresponsibility without regard for his grieving family. The LA Times ran the following headline for our daredevil's story on July 5th: "Drunk Man Jumps from Venice Pier, Search Underway." Well, yes, he was drunk, but referring to him as 'drunk man' seems to me to suggest that his death is somehow amusing or otherwise entertaining. For his family and friends, this loss is anything but humorous, and while they sat up for days waiting for news of their loved one from the Coast Guard, they had to read that story. The headline demonstrates the power of the nuances of language; 'intoxicated man' is not the same thing as 'drunk man,' and I believe that the journalist could have made a better choice in terms of wording. 

The headline also brought to mind many memories of reading shocking headlines about unusual deaths -- "Man Eaten by Pet Iguana" or "Woman Dies of a Broken Heart." Of course, the news media has a responsibility to keep the public informed of unusual events, but there's certainly a line between information and literary rubbernecking. I think another reason that papers run these stories of unusual or sudden deaths is in an attempt to offer some sort of didactic lesson to their readership. While there are lessons to be taken from any accident, in the end, an accident is, by definition, something one can't always prevent. Jumping off the pier was not a good idea, but I can't help but feel that we have all taken unnecessary risks and done stupid things (particularly when drinking). The only difference between our mistakes and our daredevil's is that he had bad luck: the rip currents were strong, the night was dark, etc. His death is a reminder of the preciousness of our delicate human lives, and it is also a reminder of our own vulnerability. In the end,  every 'drunk man' has a family who loves him and misses him and whose world is irrevocably changed by his death, and our words should reflect our understanding of the sensitivity of grieving loved ones' hearts and demonstrate our empathy for them, instead of compounding their suffering to sell a few extra papers or to get a laugh in the midst of their pain. 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Moments that Broke the Monotony of a 3000-Mile Drive

Just outside of San Diego, California:
Him: I'm going to call my dad.  (Turns on Bluetooth.) CALL FRANK ADDICKS.

Voice of I-phone: Calling Frank A Dick.

Somewhere in the middle of Utah, listening to a long narrative country song on the only station that got reception:
Him: I don't get it. Did they abort the baby?

Me: I'm not sure...It sounds like it could have been a miscarriage.

(Silence. Both listening closely to the chorus.)

Him: Nope. Definitely abortion.

On the golf course in Grand Junction, Colorado:
Me: I don't think I can get it on the green from here.

Aunt MJ: Sure you can. Remember the power of positive thinking.

(I actually make contact with the ball, and it actually goes onto the green.)

Aunt MJ: See? If positive thinking can do that for your golf game, just think what it can do for the rest of your life.

Just west of Colby, Kansas:
Me: Look, honey! That sign says that this farm has a five-legged steer! And the world's largest prairie dog!

45 minutes west of Salina, Kansas:
A billboard advertisement reads: "Come to 'Yarns': The Second Friendliest Yarn Store in the Universe!"

Various other billboards in Kansas:
       "Jesus Saves."

       "Jesus Saves. Pornography Destroys."


       "Jesus is Lord."

       "Jesus is God."

      "Come to know Jesus."

      "Fear God."

      "Jesus is love."

      "Find Jesus."

      Giant depiction of Jesus with wheat as his staff.

      Giant depiction of Jesus on the cross.

      Giant depiction of Jesus bathed in light.

      "Adoption not abortion." (very popular -- we saw too many to count)

      "People who live in sin propagate sin. There is no 'gay marriage'."

Him: Kansas sucks.

Me: Amen.

Coming off of an exit ramp in Topeka, Kansas:
(Fireworks sound. The dog hurdles herself into the front seat and dives under the steering wheel, alternating jamming on the brake and the gas. I can't get to either pedal.)

Me: Oh my God! We're going to die!

(We don't die. I find the brake and we coast into a Burger King parking lot before we get to the upcoming intersection.)

10 miles from Chatham, New Jersey (final destination, for now):
Him: Moving back by your relatives is probably a lot like going to prison in the sense that the old prison adage probably applies: "Kick someone's ass on the first day, or become someone's bitch."

In Chatham, New Jersey:
We are currently living with my mom, my dad, my sister, her husband, 4 dogs, and 3 cats. Apartment-hunting is top priority.