Latest 3 Things

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

3 Poor Excuses

From talk shows to courtrooms, from pulpits to press conferences, its all the rage lately to blame someone, anyone for the things we’re doing wrong. Gone are the days of personal responsibility - we are awash in the days of cause and effect. Depressed? Maybe it’s your job, maybe it’s your diet, maybe it was your parents’ fault. Low on funds? Maybe it’s taxes, maybe it’s Wall Street, maybe it’s those illegal immigrants. Blame has become our national pastime, and its own cottage industry. After all, the talking heads on cable “news” networks aren’t drawing in millions upon millions of viewers with straight talk or advocacy of just “sucking it up” and moving on. No, the most powerful tool of these fear-mongers isn’t terror, it’s redirecting culpability to those unable or unwilling to avoid it. These days we blame with the same reckless abandon we spent with to start the decade - and look where that got us. And just like that spending, most of this blaming is baseless, stupid and unnecessary. Here are few big targets we aim the most at, and aren’t at fault for any of it - three blameless bull’s-eyes.

1. Doctor, Doctor. There was once a time when medical doctors were a type of intellectual royalty; extraordinary men and women who dedicated themselves and their exceptional cognitive abilities to the lifetime of study that would be required to understand and ultimately heal the human body. We looked to them to explain the maladies which took our loved ones before their time, rendered them infirm shells of their past selves, and cast our own continued existence into doubt. Medicine pushed back the dark edges of the forest of life, and kept more of us around the rest of us for longer than we could hope for otherwise. But these days medicine is looked to for dramatically different reasons. Modern medical practice now provides us with the most widely varied set of scapegoats the world has ever known. Every personal weakness and failure, no matter how purposeful or avoidable, has become a disease, addiction or cognitive impairment. Our behavior is no longer our responsibility - we are slaves to ailments and afflictions which can explain our shortcomings, help identify commiserators and (in most cases) offer a chemical solution. As the medical community continues to provide more and more excuses, we seem to have forgotten to be wary of being peddled problems by people who are selling solutions. Love/sex addiction to explain our infidelity; depression induced insanity to explain our violence, food addiction to explain our obesity. I hope that the strongest minds amongst still know, deep down, that all of this is hooey - simply a panacea. Because, if not, I may fall victim to an intellectual-frustration induced stupor during which I may just start slapping people with staplers.

2. The Other Color. It is the most basic of tribal human instincts to look to those who appear differently from us when things begin to seem bleak. Civil wars nearly always divide along racial lines, no matter how subtle. And "race" is not simply about the color of our skin. There are real differences between the tribes that have come together to create the proverbial “melting pot” that we are today. But as times turns towards the less prosperous, we have begun to isolate, congregate and incriminate along those same lines we had fought so hard to erode. Rather than blame irresponsible lending practices, consumer spending, or labor regulation - we xenophobically turn to immigrants to explain unemployment and recession. Rather than blame inconsistent foreign policy, global instability or even the responsible radicals, we lay responsibility for global terrorism as the feet of the world’s most widely accepted religion - because it differs from our own preferred house of worship. Despite having the whole of civilization’s knowledge at our immediate disposal, we prefer to languish in ignorance and trust our fear of the unknown and misunderstood rather than endure even the most basic of educations. It doesn’t make any sense for the potatoes to blame the carrots when wondering how they got into the stew. The fact is, all of the colors are in this together, and the sooner we realize that - the better shot we’ll have at finding out who’s really to blame.

3. The "Man". It always surprises me the number of people who believe the government to be incapable of even the simplest of bureaucratic processes, and who will then ascribe impossibly vast and complex conspiracy theories to that very same entity. On one hand, we decry our professional leaders as disconnected autocrats who couldn’t accurately represent us if we were handcuffed to them, and on the other, we believe them capable of perpetrating massive long-term frauds against us without anyone finding out. We ignore Occam’s Razor with a vigor previously reserved for action movies, Tom Clancy novels and the guy down the street with the tin-foil hat. The truth is that the government is neither as capable or as incapable as we might sometimes like to believe. And as much as we hate to admit it, the government is an accurate reflection of who we are - we simply don’t like what we see. Blaming the government for our social shortcomings is like blaming the mirror for our blemishes. There is just as likely to be a secret “star chamber” where the fate of the world’s governments, markets and peoples are decided by shadowy anonymous characters as there are to be aliens or UFOs hiding in rural New Mexico. Of course, you’re free to believe in both, if you like - just not one or the other.

* * *

Blame is an easy thing to get addicted to. Taking responsibility isn’t pleasant, fun or popular - and despite what you see in the movies, it’s most often completely thankless. What’s more, blame becomes much more seductive when it’s done collectively. Mobs don’t turn on a diverse set of responsible actors when attempting redress against misfeasance - they turn on the simplest, least defensible and most convenient targets. And just because you’re not out in an Egyptian square or Tunisian street chanting slogans or waving signs doesn’t mean you’re not part of a mob. In our hyper-connected world, mobs of millions can be formed with no one leaving their couch or chair - which makes them even more dangerous than the ones in the Middle East and Northern Africa, because they’re even easier to join. But our "blame mobs" are far from the revolutionary uprisings that are changing the face of third world government overseas. No, our derisive and mindless flock gathers to be a part of the one thing a mob will never direct any blame at: itself.

Monday, February 14, 2011

3 Bad Tattoos

Las Vegas is home to a great many things, and has any number of “claims to fame”, but amongst those you may not know is that it is the bad tattoo capital of the world. For all our glitz, glamour and gentrification, you can’t close your eyes and throw a rock here without hitting someone with a tattoo so horrible that it instantly qualifies them for a psychiatric evaluation. Honestly, I’ve seen more aesthetically appealing bruises than some of these permanently inked disasters. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t hold these abominations against the artists - after all, they’re all just doing what they’re told, and for what it’s worth, they’re excellent executions of really bad ideas. But what continues to baffle me is how the tattoos here are actually more ill-considered than the clothing I see, and the clothing here is already bad. It’s like douche meets slacker chic, and everyone got dressed trying to emulate someone they saw in a TV show about Vegas. And for each fashion horror I see, there’s a permanently inked disaster not far behind. With spring just around the corner, and ever more skin to be on display, a bit of advice as you consider how to irreparably decorate yourself, three bad tattoos:

1. A Tribe Called Messed. Let’s be honest, you don’t have a tribe. You don’t even have three friends who know your middle name and have met your parents. You wouldn’t be Indian if you were riding a buffalo with a tomahawk and a head full of eagle feathers. And yet, you think that getting some massive tribal tattoo is going to somehow increase your warrior cred. C’mon now, painting racing stripes on a car doesn’t make it fast, slapping a steep price tag on something doesn’t make it valuable, and your wannabe tribal doesn’t make you a tough guy - anymore than that Tapout t-shirt or skull ring does. There are at least ten other guys with that same tattoo and eight of them can kick your ass. And don’t give me that line about how “original” your native ink is - just because you have a few more/less lines in a few different directions doesn’t make you the trailblazing “original” you think you are. There’s more originality in an Ed Hardy shirt than in another tribal tattoo. You’re a fake tan and some hair gel away from the Jersey Shore, and would probably get even odds against a group of eight-year-old yellow-belts. Listen, if you’re actually a bad ass, the last thing you’ll have to do is advertise it. Save the tribals for the tribe and try thinking of something original.

2. What’s In A Name? Writing names on things permanently is the sort of behavior normally reserved for urban juvenile delinquents, rural lovestruck teenagers and adolescent girls. And while I can certainly appreciate the risk-laden bliss of painting the name of my true love on a highway underpass or tagging a subway car with some elaborate version of my own cool “street name”, I don’t understand the predominance of names in tattoos. Anyone who is important enough and permanent enough in your life to even warrant that kind of treatment is going to be around long enough that a reminder should hardly be necessary, and anyone who isn’t definitely shouldn’t have their name on you forever. And anyone that insists you get their name put on you is the kind of crazy that won’t even make it to your next birthday. And if you think you need your own name scrawled on you indelibly, you’re probably also prone to referring to yourself in the third person (if you don’t see any problem with that, please put the blog down and slowly back away). A name is a beautiful thing - on paper, on a t-shirt, or even on a wall, but you’d be better off with life-long amnesia than using your body as a life-sized post-it note to remind you who’s important.

3. Not Bad, Just Drawn That Way. For a brief moment (i.e., about a month and a half in early 1994) it was actually cool to have a cartoon character tattooed on your body. It was a blithely carefree response to the “serious” tattoos that had dominated the skin art landscape of the 70’s and 80’s, and there just weren’t too many of them running around. Back then, in a room full of skulls and crosses, it was the guy crazy enough to have a Mighty Mouse on his chest that you might need to worry about. Now, it just makes you the idiot who couldn’t think of anything interesting to get and picked out something from the wall while you were drunk. Seriously, in case you’re wondering what the opposite of “interesting, soulful, creative person” is, it’s “person with the cartoon tattoo.” It would be more creative to tattoo the word “TATTOO” on yourself than to get some comic-strip character permanently fixed to your body. And don’t give me any nonsense about nicknames, that just means your friends have the same creativity impairment that you do - and, do you have any idea how many guys go by “Taz”? Unless you’re actually the creator of the character you’re planning on getting tattooed, leave the cartoons for Saturday morning.

* * *

In the end, our bodies tell our stories with more honesty, sincerity and accuracy then we could ever hope to do with our mouths: from our grey hairs and wrinkles telling of years passed by, to the scars and bumps that recall our mishaps and missteps. Our eyes carry the weight of all they’ve seen and our hands are a log of all the work we’ve done. Every inch of us is every part of us, and the greater our stories, the more beautiful we become. While we do choose most of this story, in one way or another, we never know exactly what will become of our choices, save for the smallest bit. That part, we choose directly, etching images forever on that otherwise distant canvas to punctuate our slow writ sagas with guideposts of who we are and who we were. But despite their minor part, they can tell you plenty about the story they populate. After all, the funny pages don’t tell great stories, and Great Expectations wasn’t illustrated with cartoon characters.

Friday, February 11, 2011

3 Wrong Places

Well, it’s that time of year again. As winter braces for the coming of spring, we turn our attention from finding a place to keep warm to finding love. We purport to celebrate this instinctual, seasonal shift with that most amorous of holidays, Valentine’s Day. Of course, despite its lofty intentions as a commemoration of romance and love, it has turned into two very distinct and unenjoyable anniversaries. For those of us fortunate enough to have someone special with which to observe the occasion, it is an annual evaluation of the strength of our conviction - as measured by the quality, thoughtfulness, etc. of the gift we choose to give that partner. And for those of us who don’t have a significant other in our lives, it is a yearly reminder: that we’ve yet to be able to groom ourselves into a suitable companion for anyone, that we’re really missing out on life by being alone, and that we’ll probably die that way. For this lonely crowd, Valentine’s Day is a solemn occasion that often inspires sequestering one’s self away from public view, so as to avoid seeing happy couples or imposing the horror of one’s abject solitude on those same loving folks. But for the brave few, it can be inspiration to renew the effort to locate that elusive soul mate, that perfect partner, or just someone to share a meal with from time to time. This search, however, can be fouled from the beginning, simply by choosing the wrong venue - and so, just in time for V-Day, here are 3 locations where you shouldn’t go looking for love:

1. Don’t Sweat The Lonely. Sure, it makes sense on paper. You’re fitness minded and you’d like to meet someone else who’s fitness-inclined. It only makes sense that the gym would be a great place to find just those kind of people and make a connection, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. You’d look less creepy parking a windowless van next to a playground than trying to hit on someone in a gym. There’s simply no way to execute that maneuver without looking like some sort of sexual predator. Seriously, I’ve seen less “smarm” at a hookah bar on a Saturday night than during “rush hour” at the gym. In fairness, there are some people at the gym who look more appropriately dressed for social hour than any actually sweating, but the palpable air of desperation coming off them is worse than any sort of real stink they might emit. I mean, what sort of line are you going to open with? The you-want-me-to-show-you-how -to-do-that? The do-you-need-a-spot? Or maybe the timeless haven’t-I-seen-you-here-before? You basically have to choose between lines that sound like they’re from a bad 70’s porn script or lines that sound like they’re from a bad 90’s sitcom. Want to meet someone where you can tell what kind of shape they’re in? Try the beach (or the pool), and leave the gym for exercising something other than your poor judgment.

2. It’ll Never Work. Unless you’re independently wealthy, or have parents who are, you spend the overwhelming majority of your time at work. You’re there early; you’re there late, and no matter how much you try and resist or hate to admit it, it’s a big part of your life. And despite the fact that your workplace is mostly populated by people you’d never spend any time with if it wasn’t for working together - you’ll see more of those people than almost anyone else you know. It’s only natural that you’ll look for, and maybe even start to find, friends there. And once you’ve gone there, it’s not too much further to start looking for romantic connections. Of course this will be the worst idea you’ve had since that shaving cream and streaking incident in college. Honestly, dating someone at work is like keeping reminders of all your mistakes in little frames on your desk, or sending yourself a daily reminder by e-mail of something stupid you did a few months ago. Not even the guys who write the Saw movies can dream up that kind of inescapable horror. Trust me, you’re better off taking a sledgehammer to the groin than engaging in a workplace romance - at least the crotch shot is temporary pain. Here’s the thing, honestly, most of your relationships end quickly and badly, and the ability to escape the offending partner is essential for survival of these unseemly events. But, if you could afford to leave work - you probably wouldn't be there. So unless the person is worth losing your job (or your sanity) over - don’t work it where you work.

3. Friends’ Friends. Your friends have the best intentions. They want you to be happy and they know you better than most anyone. They’re willing to go to great lengths to try to find you potential partners, and they are almost invariably terrible at it. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a small group of people who sometimes know you better than you know yourself - which makes their complete and utter failure in selecting potential mates for you all the more inexplicable. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had friends set me up, but I can count the number of times it’s worked out even marginally well. Well, does one really “count” to zero? Trust me, if you haven’t discovered this already, you’d be better off picking potential partners with a phone book and a dartboard. You don’t let your friends order food for you at a restaurant, you don’t let them pick out your toiletries, and you don’t let them set you up. The point is, some things are personal and there’s really no substitute for picking them yourself. Good intentions and poor deliveries are the stuff of fantastically awkward moments and even more fantastic stories, but a whole lot more painful when it involves romance (or attempted romance). If you want your friends to pick something intimate for you, offer up your nose - at least that way you’re just a good sneeze away from making it all go away.

* * *

The real problem with looking for love is that it’s just the sort of thing you can’t ever find by looking. Of course, this little nugget of advice is usually offered up to single people by their nauseatingly happy friends, which makes it seem trite and useless (and makes you want slap them with something sharp), but nonetheless, it’s true. This does not mean you can play video games in your underwear in your parents’ basement, or watch “The Notebook” and “P.S. I Love You” while plowing through a gallon of Haagen-Daaz and expect to meet the love of your life. No, those things will just as reliably guarantee perpetual solitude as looking for a partner at the three places above. Rather, you’ll find that while simply living your life and enjoying your friends, the strangest and most wonderful things will happen. From these things come the stories, friends and, most importantly, the loves that make up our lives. And that’s something we can celebrate every day, and not just February 14th. Happy hunting, all!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

3 Purposeless Pitches

Despite the near blasphemy that it constitutes, I’ll admit it. I’m going to be watching this Super Bowl this Sunday mostly for the commercials. As the year’s greatest sporting event gathers the year’s largest collection of committed eyeballs, the world’s advertisers are once again remiss to pass on the opportunity to have their message broadcast to over 100 million viewers. But the stakes have never been higher. In addition to his annual spectacle having been the broadcast advertising industry’s “Super Bowl” for decades, the U.S. is slowly inching its way out of recession - and relying on a still shaky consumer confidence to lead the charge. As far as the game is concerned, I just don’t have a dog in the fight. As a kid raised in suburban Denver, I couldn’t be much farther from really rooting for a side - and none of the adopted NFL cities I’ve lived in (or close to) since then -- Baltimore, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego -- have placed a team either. I’d have an easier time relating to a team from the moon than the ruddy crowds from Pittsburgh or Green Bay. And so I’m left to the ads. But I’m not alone - over 50% of adults surveyed admit to watching for the same reason. And as a resident of a city with over 15% unemployment and one of the highest foreclosure rates in the county - I’ve got more interest in the economy being the big winner than anyone or anything else. But notwithstanding the staggering marketing genius that will be on display during game breaks - there are somethings that I just can’t be sold. Some things that no matter how much I laugh, recall or even talk about the associated advertisement, I simply won’t buy. And so to celebrate my emasculating admission, here are 3 things I’d never buy, no matter how good their commercials are:

1. American Made Steel. I’ve read all about the comeback, the change in attitude and the return of American dominance of the automobile. I’ve seen the artful bits about American spirit, American pride and inspirational resurrection. And I don’t buy it for a minute. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to see GM get of the schneid; pleased to watch Chevy restore a little muscle to the American sports car and glad that Ford has endured as the stalwart company its founder imagined over a century ago. But there’s a better chance of me watching a Sex & The City marathon while soaking in a bubble bath and drinking white wine spritzer than buying a car from any of them. For all the things that the government investment was supposed to attain from our storied car makers, there are a few things they neglected to ask for; namely: reliability, innovation and excitement. Seriously, I’ve seen more creative genius in a kindergarten finger-painting class than has come out of Detroit in the last twelve months. Seriously, the Ford Fusion, the Chevy Cruze and the Buick Lacrosse? And don’t even get me started on the abortive disasters masquerading as Cadillacs these days. I don’t know anyone who aspires to drive any one of these - at best they’re considered an economical alternative to the European car they really want. Listen, I don’t need a great story behind a mediocre car, I need a great car, and no matter how inspiring the bits you put on television - your cars still look like something I’ll get stuck with when I get to the rental car counter on short notice. So forget the advertising, and spend those millions of dollars on making your cars not suck.

2. Windows To The World. Listen, I like Bill Gates. I normally can’t stand the wealthy - but Bill Gates is so dramatically and unflaggingly devoted to giving his money away that it’s just impossible to hate him; no matter how tragically he has saddled the world with an inferior and error-prone structure upon which the majority of the world’s computing technology is built. The latest iteration of this disastrous testament to the disaster inherent in spending all your money dressing something up rather than actually fixing what’s wrong with it has been marketed more incessantly than the Kardashians and with more vigor than low-calorie American beers (who hasn’t seen too many of those commercials?). But just like the jacknut teenager who spends thousands of dollars on ground effects, exhaust pipes and exotic lighting, Windows is still very much a Honda in a Mercedes world. Watching Windows 7 repeatedly hang and crash is like watching a kit car made up like a Ferrari (on a VW chassis) take 15 seconds to get to 60 mph. I have to admit, it took me almost twenty years to realize that the pain I was enduring as a Windows apologist was not only unnecessary but foolish. After nearly two years now as a full fledged disciple of the Church of Steve Jobs, I can tell you that no matter how brilliantly they market it, no matter what features they promise and no matter how they purport to have finally bested Apple - there’s a better chance of me waiting in line to see a Twilight sequel than even accepting a Windows PC as a gift. Wanna do something smart with your money, Bill? Buy stock in Apple.

3. Worst Buy. There was a time when I looked at my local Best Buy store like a post-modern hall of wonders, where the latest technological advancements were not only put on display, but were actually available for sale, and tended to by expert technicians who could wield these wondrous devices with a skill and ease that I envied. Those time, unfortunately, are long since gone. The high-level technical sales staff has been replaced by a trudging platoon of mouth-breathers who seem to have endured some kind of hair-gel induced permanent cognitive impairment that forces them to answer all inquires with a minimum-wage stare and ten-minute trip to go “find help.” Find help? You’re supposed to be help! I’ve gotten more reliable help at a mall kiosk than the khaki and blue crew is offering these days. What’s worse, with the rise of internet shopping, the prices at this former shrine of electronic progress are the kind you’d only agree to pay if you’re still afraid that all online transactions result in the global transmission of your credit card number. There wouldn’t be a good deal in Best Buy if Monty Hall was strapped to a chair in the middle of the store. It’s easy to see how they might have the money for Super Bowl advertising - because they surely haven’t overpaid for human resources, and they sell “tech support service” like it’s going to be provided by swimsuit models and include an open bar. No matter how they dress it up, or how happy they show people to be there, there’s a better chance of me front-rowing a Beiber concert than buying something from one of their stores.

* * *

The Super Bowl advertising will no doubt feature some amazing beer commercials (that won’t make their beer taste any better, some snack/fast food commercials (that won’t make their food taste any better), and something by that will be more tired than tawdry. And honestly, if Danica Patrick didn’t race cars, would anyone pay her to sell anything? She’s like the “before” picture in a makeover show. But it is precisely the familiar banality of the products being hawked on Super Sunday which highlights the sheer genius of the marketing on display. There will be nothing new in what we’re being sold, only how it’s being sold to us. And in a world where the media onslaught has become a 24/7 proposition, we are more difficult to impress than at any other time in history. We yawn at painstakingly crafted high-definition graphics, sigh at million-dollar stage productions, and roll our eyes at special effects that make the impossible appear real. And notwithstanding all of this, we will be surprised, amazed and entertained just as surely as we are to be bored, underwhelmed and disappointed by that precious time between gameplay. Because the line between brilliance and bust has never been finer, and that’s what makes it so fun to watch.