Wednesday, December 17, 2014

If your holiday sucks, I hope you’ll consider letting us know on social media

I hope you have a genuinely lovely holiday, filled with warmth, love, and joy. But if your holiday sucks, I hope you’ll consider letting us know on social media.

The ability of Facebook, et al. to make everybody miserable is well-documented. People present the best versions of themselves on social media, downplaying or completely omitting the negative aspects of their lives and exaggerating the positive aspects. When others compare their lives, warts and all, to the ostensibly perfect lives they see in their News Feed, it compels them to put on a similar façade on their own Facebook page—and the process repeats, assuring a cycle of perpetually stolen joy. It’s not a problem social media created, but, as this short film by the Higton Bros. demonstrates, social media has certainly amplified it.


This is particularly true during the holidays. Posts about perfect families and perfect Christmas trees and perfect gifts are everywhere, and, for the most part, it’s easy enough to contextualize or ignore. But if you’re already feeling down, no matter how often you remind yourself that it’s madness to compare the real you to the fictionalized them, it can be impossibly difficult not to take it all as more evidence of how inadequate your life is.

And while we can all roll our eyes whenever people post stuff that’s obviously hyperbolic (“This is the worst Christmas in the history of humanity!”) or intentionally vague (“I will never forgive you—you know who you are!”) or complainbragging (“Ugh, my new Maserati is such an ugly color”), there’s something to be said about simple, matter-of-fact statements about a holiday that isn’t going so great: This Christmas is a little rough; I’m kind of lonely this time of year; I wish I could’ve afforded better gifts for my family this year.

After all, shared joy is nice enough, but it can be facile and fleeting. It doesn’t require looking beyond oneself, and it doesn’t necessarily engage any empathic impulses. The connections forged from shared joy are often tenuous, which isn’t surprising—I’m doing great and you’re doing great! is pretty hard to sustain, and those connections can break as soon as someone starts feeling less than great.

Shared misery, on the other hand, is a much more powerful force. It requires two people to get out of their own heads, even for just a moment, and extend a bit of kindness to each other. It’s a much more daunting task because it’s hard enough to get a handle on the contours of your own sadness, let alone figure someone else’s out (to misquote Tolstoy badly, happy people are all alike; every unhappy person is unhappy in their own way). But the result of doing so—or at least trying—is a connection that’s predicated on the strength of understanding and selflessness.

That’s kind of heady stuff for social media, so I’ll just say this: People can post whatever they want to post on social media, and they can do so for whatever reason. When people brag about their holidays, I don’t doubt that many of their loved ones will be happy to hear that they’re happy—but because it’s generally easier to be happy for others when you yourself are happy, those loved ones are probably doing okay. On the other hand, for someone who feels alone and isolated, it’d probably mean a lot more to read that they’re not the only ones feeling that way.

In other words, posting about the things that are great will likely make happy people somewhat happier. But posting about the things that aren’t so great could very well make someone feel less lonely and miserable.

I’m not suggesting that everything you post on social media needs to be an act of altruism designed to make everybody feel better. I am, however, saying that you should feel totally free to break the cycle of projecting perfection, if not for your own sake then for the sake of someone who might really need to see it broken.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

“I would recommend making the choice that makes your life more interesting”

Here’s an exchange from an interview I conducted1 with PostSecret founder Frank Warren in 2009, emphasis mine:

AVE: That actually raises kind of a PostSecret etiquette issue. What should you do when you think a friend submitted a PostSecret that was posted on the Web site; for instance, you recognize their handwriting? Do you respect the anonymity and not say anything, or do you think it's okay to approach the friend? 
FW: I would recommend making the choice that makes your life more interesting. And sometimes I get emails from people who would like to know where the postmark is on the card so that it's more meaningful to them than on the Web, and that's what I recommend to them. I say I can't reveal the location of the card, but please believe it came from the place that makes your life more interesting.

Frank Warren, the remarkably kind and insightful founder of PostSecret.
(Photo: Mark Schierbecker/Wikimedia Commons)
It was cut from the version of the article that was published, which was really disappointing: that sentence above was my favorite part of my conversation with Warren, and it has stayed with me to this day. (I tried Googling to see if Warren has given a similar quote in another interview but came up with nothing, so it’s almost like this quote never existed—which is doubly disappointing.)

In fact, at my last job, I printed the quote out and pinned it on my wall as a reminder to avoid getting sucked into a permanent routine. And it actually worked—seeing that quote, day after day, and being reminded of how often I didn’t make the choice that would’ve made my life more interesting was like a daily self-administered ass-kicking that culminated in me leaving my job.

Obviously, “I would recommend making the choice that makes your life more interesting” isn’t the best advice in every situation. A disastrous heroin-fueled tailspin or a maniacal murder spree would certainly make for a more interesting life, but neither is advisable, both for your sake and the sake of those around you. Singing loud, unwanted karaoke on the bus or catcalling every woman on the way to work might make your day less boring, but it’ll probably annoy the hell out of a lot of people, and other people aren’t just props in your quest to make your day more interesting.

That aside, though, it’s a good reminder of how often we choose—either through our actions or our inactions—the less interesting choice. We stay at jobs that fry our soul. We remain in towns that we find boring and uninspiring. We hang out with the same old people, or new people that are a lot like the old people. We keep our earbuds on instead of saying hi to the person who’s carrying around a copy of a novel we’ve been really into lately.

I’m certainly not saying that we’re in complete control of our lives; there are centuries of powerful political, economic, and cultural forces that limit how much freedom any of us have. But I do believe we have more control than we often realize, and whatever agency—however small—we can assert over our lives should be recognized, valued, and exercised, even if that means confronting the fact that we’re frequently choosing the choice that makes our lives more boring.

And if that’s indeed your choice—if boring is your thing—that’s completely okay. I understand how “pleasant and unremarkable” can be a luxury, especially if you’ve had a life that’s been remarkably unpleasant.

For everyone else, though, when presented with options of equal ethicality, it’s not a bad all-purpose rule of thumb to default to the choice that makes your life more interesting. Interestingness is a pretty decent criterion by which to evaluate options, and it’s often a lot better than the other criteria—like comfort or how other people will judge me—that we use.

* * *

The other quote that I thought was really insightful from the interview actually was published:

AVE: Many fans of PostSecret say that the project has helped them feel less alone. Do you think that we're more isolated and more alone nowadays? 
FW: Yeah, I think that's one of the paradoxes of modern life - that there's never been a greater number of people on the planet, yet at the same time, there's never been a greater sense of loneliness.

There are probably plenty of explanations for this phenomenon (smartphones! social media! no more harvest festivals! neighbors who don’t say hi to each other!), but I suspect it’s something similar to how you feel lonelier at a party with 70 people versus a party with seven people, or how it’s easier to pick between three kinds of cookies than 30 kinds.

I think it’s so weird that there are nearly seven billion people on the planet—seven billion souls with feelings and thoughts and fears and opinions as real and vibrant as my own—and we don’t give it a second thought. If you do give it a second thought, though, it’s the sort of thing that makes humanity seem so big and humans seem so small, and the contradiction makes my brain do a bellyflop.


1This makes it sound like I’m a journalist (I’m not) or that I interview cool people regularly (I don’t). Warren was doing interviews for a PostSecret book that had just been released, and, having recently been given a column in the school newspaper, I was pretty eager to use my fancy new media credentials2 to talk to interesting people. Plus, I’d long been a fan of PostSecret—and, more importantly, a girl on whom I had a crush was also a fan, and I was under the impression it’d be a cute, romantic gesture to ask Warren to wish her a happy birthday to surprise her when she listened to the MP3 of the interview3.

The interview went pretty well—Warren was exceedingly kind and thoughtful, and he did indeed wish my friend a happy birthday—and I was left with a ton of material that, sadly, went mostly unpublished. I probably should have seen that coming; I was an opinion columnist (who was supposed to write about politics, I guess?), and the format didn’t really lend itself to an extended Q&A. I wound up writing a column about art and advertising that was only tangentially about PostSecret.

I then started annoying the entertainment editor with emails that basically said, “Hey, I know I don’t work for your section, and I know we haven’t met, but here’s a ten-page transcript of an interview I did, so, umm—inches, please!” The entertainment editor wound up running a highly-truncated, seven-question version of the interview a month later, published literally just to take up space.

2Such as they were; I mean, whenever I requested interviews, I had to identify myself as a columnist with The Independent Florida Alligator, which sounds pretty damn fake. In retrospect, I probably could’ve just said “the student newspaper at the University of Florida,” but then I would’ve been deprived of media relations people invariably asking me, “the Independent Florida what?”—or, in one case, “Is that a real thing?”

3I was wrong. It’s not.

Abercrombie & ditched: Mike Jeffries is out as CEO; I dance on his professional grave

Mike Jeffries resigned as CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch on Dec. 9.

This is certainly good news, as Jeffries is notorious for being an asshole of impressive magnitude. Under his leadership, Abercrombie & Fitch was sued in 2003 for employment discrimination for racist and sexist hiring practices; apparently, Jeffries loved him some white dudes, and this was reflected in who was hired for his stores and who got the best jobs once they were hired. (This is a polite way of saying that women, black people, Hispanics, and Asians had a tough time getting hired, and those that did often worked out-of-sight in the backroom.) The lawsuit ended in a settlement that included the company paying $40 million to discriminated workers and a revision of its hiring and promotion practices.

Jeffries also earned a lot of ire over some well-publicized remarks about who Abercrombie & Fitch’s target market is. From a 2006 interview with Salon:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

I mean, in a way, the candor is laudable, but yikes.

In any case, Abercrombie & Fitch’s falling profits and brand image had put Jeffries’s future with the company in jeopardy in recent years, so while his resignation happened quickly, it wasn’t exactly unexpected. To be fair, many mall clothing retailers are suffering, thanks in part to the recession and teens with lighter wallets and changing tastes.

But Abercrombie & Fitch—by far the priciest of what some1 call the Teen Mall Clothing Triple A, along with American Eagle and Aéropostale—was probably the most doomed in the wake of the recession. Abercrombie & Fitch appealed to kids who weren’t rich but wanted to appear rich; when the recession hit, the faux rich kids couldn’t afford their clothes anymore and the real rich kids weren’t buying their clothes from them in the first place. And once that became evident, fewer and fewer people felt compelled to don the moose.

So let’s take a moment to dance on the professional grave of Jeffries, a creepy dude with creepy fake blonde hair who appealed to the basest parts of American vanity and consumerism and still found a way to fuck it up. I hope he enjoys his retirement while he can, because once he passes, he will surely find himself damned to an afterlife where I presume a bunch of larger folks wearing Faded Glory-brand jean shorts and camo cargos will pelt him with copies of the September issue of Farm & Tractor Fashion for all eternity2.

* * *

In any case, Jeffries’s resignation reminded me of a small little project I did with a friend several years ago. We sneaked into an Abercrombie & Fitch and a Hollister at the mall and surreptitiously placed little activist flyers into their clothing. I thought we were being sneaky, until a customer asked us a question about a price, and we had to explain we don’t actually work there (“Oh, I’m sorry, I just saw you guys handling the clothes and I just assumed—my bad”).

Granted, the flyers don’t reflect my best writing or my best thinking, and rereading them, they make me cringe a bit. But I still look at them fondly, because I liked this version of myself that cared strongly about things and devised weird and quirky plans to express my opinions. Let’s take a look at a sampling of my efforts:


This one took an anti-consumerism and anti-advertising angle and, in particular, the inanity of paying a company money for the right to advertise on your body. It’s interesting that I picked $59 as the upper-limit for ridiculous prices to pay for a logo graphic T-shirt.


Here was a flyer that took a feminist tack, albeit with some sloppy, inelegant writing (if you’re going to sound cavalier about eating disorders, then your writing better be coruscating). I believe I was floating the theory that teen clothing retailers intentionally making clothing sizes inconsistent to mess with girls’ body image and sense of self-esteem, which is ultimately beneficial for Abercrombie & Fitch and other image-based retailers—a theory that, as far as I know, has no evidence behind it, but kind of plausible, right? Also, I’m not sure where I saw “Independent Grrl” booty shorts, but I think it’d be hilarious to own a pair.


So basically, at some point, I thought, “You know how to get the message out in a way that resonates with my generation? Get some John fuckin’ Keats up in this shit!” This is proof that, had I majored in English, I would’ve been the most obnoxious person ever. But still, the last line is the beginning of a burn that could’ve been decent with a bit more workshopping.


1By “some,” I mean “I.” But it is a handy way of looking at the teen mall clothing retailer landscape, right? Aéropostale is the budget choice; American Eagle is moderately priced and of moderate quality; and Abercrombie & Fitch is the highest tier. (I don’t mean this as a dig, by the way. One of my favorite T-shirts is from Aéropostale—a gift from a family friend—despite my having graduated middle school. But it's a really comfortable shirt and I love it so there.)

2That’s probably a little too mean.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Oh, Crest

Crest offers "58% more free" to make its 2.9-ounce travel-size toothpaste 4.6 ounces.


Hey, Crest, I know you had good intentions here, but I don't think you understand why we have to buy the travel size in the first place.

Cri de coeur

Every single person falls into one of two categories: people who have had their hearts broken and people who are going to have their hearts broken. And that’s a compelling reason to be kind to each other—or, at least, a reason not to make things worse.

Left to its own devices, the world is a pretty fucked up place. The onus is on all of us to be the corrective force that makes it a less shitty place for each other.

Everybody's heart is as alive, real, and pained as that of your own

Saturday, December 6, 2014

“I hope your day goes okay today” flyers

One quick story about hoping people have a nice day, while we're on the subject: Several years ago, I stood in the middle of Turlington Plaza at UF and handed out little flyers with “I hope your day goes okay today” written on them. Several hundred of them, in fact.



Turlington Plaza is one of the busiest places on campus, with people bustling from one building to another, so it’s a prime spot for businesses to hand out flyers. With everybody getting bombarded with commercial messages as they scurry to class, I liked the idea of using the same technique to silently hand out what is pretty much the least commercial message ever.

Many people would grab a flyer and mutter thanks—and then, after walking several yards, turn around with a big smile and say, much more enthusiastically, “Hey, thanks!”

A few people asked what the flyer was supposed to be advertising. I said it’s not advertising anything; I really just hope your day goes okay. They still looked a little suspicious.

One person handed the flyer back to me; on the back of the flyer, the words “You are beautiful” were written—which was really touching, especially since, at the time, I had kind of a weird mustache thing going on that was decidedly not beautiful.

Another person returned the flyer, saying, ominously, that he didn’t deserve to have a good day today. He left pretty quickly before I could ask what’s up.

But this was my favorite reaction: A big, muscular, fratty-type dude with a pissed-off face took a flyer and shoved it in his pocket without looking at it. I remember thinking that he so wasn’t the target audience for this sort of project. But then, an hour later, he walked by again; as he passed by, I offered him another flyer without realizing it was the same guy.

“No thanks, man—already got one!” he said happily, showing me the front of his binder. He had one of those transparent overlay binders; he had unfolded the flyer, smoothened it out, and slid it into the front of the binder, next to some photos of his friends. That kind of made me aww.

I hope you have a nice day

I have a pet theory that says we should all say “I hope you have a nice day” instead of “Have a nice day.”

“Have a nice day,” as many people have pointed out, has become kind of useless—a stock phrase that’s automatically uttered at the end of a phone conversation or a retail transaction that means nothing to the speaker or the listener. “Have a nice day” is just translated as “this is the end of our interaction.”

That kind of sucks—I think the idea of verbalizing a desire for someone’s day to go well is charming. And like asking “How are you?,” I think there’s value in what others might dismiss as conversational lubricant; by asking (for instance) your barista how she’s doing, it’s basically a shorthand for, “I know that it’s easy to forget that the people around me aren’t just characters in my story but rather human beings with their own lives that are as real as my own, and especially in customer service situations, there’s a tendency to reduce people to, say, ‘human who’s making my coffee’ instead of the complete, vibrant people that they are, so even though it’s probably impractical and undesirable to go into the ins and outs of how your life is going, I want to ask you the question just to acknowledge the fact that you do, in fact, have a life beyond our interaction and I respect that.”

“Have a nice day” is supposed to serve the same purpose—an acknowledgement that you understand that they’re going to have a day beyond their interaction with you—but through sheer repetition and the customer-service-ization of the phrase, it’s no longer really effective.

It has a simple fix, and that fix is “I hope you have a nice day.” It’s an atypical phrasing, so it forces the speaker and the listener to actually notice the words being said. It turns a command that can be kind of pushy and presumptuous (because, hey, maybe I don’t want to have a nice day today—you don’t know what’s going on in my life) into a humble little well wishing. And it’s a much more sincere sentiment; it’s a lovely kindness to hope for something good for someone else.

As a part of my ongoing project of leaving little Post-it notes in library books, I’m testing my theory out. (At the very least, it’s probably nicer than the note I left in Paper Towns saying that I hate John Green’s face. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure he’s a nice guy. But I swear the man has a face of a dude who corrects your grammar at parties, and seriously, screw that guy.)


Attempt #1: "I hope your day goes well today."
I added a heart, just in case the message seemed to cold. But then it kind of looks like I'm being all flirty, so I specified that it was a "platonic heart." Just so no one gets the wrong idea.

Attempt #2: "Hey, I hope you have a good day today."
To make it even friendlier, I drew a cat. But then it doesn't really look like a cat. So then I clarified that it's "supposed to be cat." Which somehow makes it look less like a cat. Eh, whatever.

Attempt #3: "I hope you have an interesting day today! Unless you're in the mood for a boring day. Basically, I hope you have the sort of day that makes you happy."
tl;dr: You do you, buddy.
But no, seriously. I hate John Green's face.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How a feminist video game critique won me a Game Boy Advance & exposed my areolae

When I was in high school, I entered a contest on Bonus.com and won a fun prize package that included a Game Boy Advance, a copy of Metroid Fusion, a Bonus.com mouse pad, and a Bonus.com T-shirt made of material so thin that the slightest perspiration resulted in my man-nipples being visible for all to see. (I wore the T-shirt all of twice before it earned a spot at the bottom of a forgotten drawer.)

This triumph isn’t as impressive as it sounds (and I say that fully aware of the fact that it doesn’t sound impressive at all)—Bonus.com was a website containing dumb little Macromedia1 Shockwave games aimed at bored kids aged eight to ten, and the contest was a writing competition. Entrants—who, again, were mostly kids in elementary school—submitted a 100-or-so-word review of their favorite video game, and each week for ten weeks, the Bonus.com judges picked the best one to reward with the prize-package.

So, yes, I totally kicked the ass of some eight-year-old who thought he could win a video game, and I’m obviously a terrible person, because: Hah hah, no brand new Game Boy for you, loser! Try again when you’ve mastered subject-verb agreement!

In my defense, most of the other reviews sucked. I mean, I know there’s only so much you can do in 100 words, especially when you haven’t reached puberty, but, c’mon. Look at this winning review:

Metroid Fusion.... how I love thee.... your graphics are so crisp, your loading speed incredible, and your controls second to none. But neigh! Thy be flawed! Thy map is annoying, and thy enemies basic and non-diverse! And, lo-and-behold, thy experience to quick and easy.... but wait! There is redemption! Boss battles are huge and amazing, and thy save system is spectacular! Thy can also be slow and boring at times..... but the 60% percent of game time whereupon action is constant, thy is fast and furious, without a hint of the Devil's slowdown. Metroid Fusion... how I love thee....... 9/10

Okay, let’s ignore the inexplicable use of archaic English to review a futuristic science fiction game. In fact, let’s ignore the fact that he’s inconsistent about it (“your graphics”?) and he seems to think that “thy” was an all-purpose old-timey pronoun (“Thy be flawed”).

This kid reviewed Metroid Fusion for a contest whose prize is Metroid Fusion. That means he presumably already owns this game and just wanted another copy of it for no reason at all. What a selfish bastard! He’s almost as big a bastard as some high school kid crashing an elementary school kid contest!

So, here was my contribution, posted under the username BigDog345:

Super Metroid for the SNES is one of the greatest games ever created. It focuses on Samus Aran, a bounty hunter who must travel to a variety of different worlds, battling aliens with an array of different weaponry. Blasting aliens becomes an addiction, as the vividly colored locales and easy to learn controls made the game come alive. 
But the most impressive part of this game is that Samus is a girl. Video games are generally sexist; most games feature the guy saving the helpless girl. Metroid served as an inspiration to female gamers that girls can do more than just be rescued.

Oh yeah—BigDog345 going for the feminist representations in media angle! And not with an ounce of subtlety, either.

In any case, Bonus.com decided that there wasn’t anything amiss about a kid writing a gender-egalitarian critique of a game released in 1994, and shortly after having A Parent or Guardian fax a prize claim form to Bonus.com headquarters (under “Age,” I checked off “12 or older”), my areolae were unwittingly on display to all who chose not to avert their gaze.

* * *

I will admit that using feminism to win a contest is more than a little cynical, kind of like how Dove pretends to care about girls’ self-esteem while trying to convince girls that buying Dove products will make them prettier. But I also really meant it—when I was growing up, the video games I played rarely featured women as anything but objects to be retrieved or prizes to be won. On the rare occasion that they weren’t, they were generally scantily-clad with sizable polygonal whatnots.

Even Samus Aran, the aforementioned female bounty hunter protagonist of the Metroid video game series, isn’t exactly the perfect standard bearer of forward-thinking female representation in video games. In Super Metroid, after all, the player’s “reward” for beating the game proficiently enough is seeing Samus in a bikini.



And that’s got to be a bummer for any girls looking for video game heroines—Samus is Nintendo’s first truly badass female character, and her body is just reduced to a prize-cum2-masturbatory aid for gamers who can get off on pixelated, 16-bit breasts.

* * *

One of the stranger things that #Gamergate revealed is how much pushback the idea of depicting women in a more meaningful way gets among self-described gamers. It’s actually kind of bewildering, because I can’t figure out what the opposition to that idea really is, besides a knee-jerk opposition to oh-no-terrible Social Justice Warriors or a genuine belief that women in video games should only be sexualized, victimized prizes to be won or ogled.

That’s bad for all the usual reasons. It reinforces an image of women that’s already pervasive in all manner of other media. It objectifies women and presents them as mere plot devices or eye candy in the service of men. And if it’s men who are, over and over again, the rescuers and women who are the rescued, it creates a messed up definition of what roles each gender are “supposed” to be, especially among younger gamers.

But it’s also bad for a reason that’s a lot simpler: It really sucks if you’re a girl who’s into video games to be implicitly told that video games aren’t for you. And make no mistake—if, in video game after video game, the characters who are like you are constantly the ones whose clothes are getting stripped off or constantly the ones who are helpless without someone to take care of them, that’s a pretty clear message that you’re not really welcome. Or, perhaps, you’re welcome as long as you’re willing to dress up like a sexy Raccoon Mario3 so that dudes can bank you for their alone-time fun later.

"Hey girl, if you're supposed to be Tanooki Mario, then why am I the one who's as hard as stone?"
is an example of a thing that should never, ever be said by anyone.

It’s tempting to just roll your eyes at “gaming controversies” as the firstest of First World Problems and think, haters gonna hate and nerds gonna nerd. But video games are a pretty effective gateway into interest in STEM fields—fields that aren’t just male-dominated but frequently female-hostile in both the academic and professional arenas. If you can’t get behind helping a little girl realize her dream of becoming a kickass engineer (which you totally should), then take the more selfish route: too much talent and great ideas are lost when women en masse (half the population!) are discouraged from getting into STEM disciplines, and we ought to do what we can to reverse that.

Because if it turns out that the woman who could’ve invented the FTL drive or holodeck or time machine or whatever decided to go into marketing instead, and the fact that Princess Peach once again couldn’t outsmart a big, dumb turtle in any way played a role in that, then that’d be pretty shitty.

In any case, it’s kind of sad that “women should be positively represented in video games” was a novel and controversial enough of an idea to win a contest in 2003. In 2014, it’s fucking pathetic.


1Back when it was Macromedia, because I’m old. I also used Winamp and RealPlayer, so get off my lawn.

2I’d say “no pun intended,” but who am I kidding?

3I’m not going to front—she’s obviously sexy, albeit in a ridiculous way, and I’m a little worried that that picture just awakened something in me. But it’s more than a little disturbing that seemingly the only women embraced by so-called serious gamers tend to be those that give them the weirdest boners.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dear Tombstone Pizza

Dear Tombstone Pizza,

I know you mean well and all, but if I have had the sort of day in which cramming a frozen pizza down my gullet seems like a reasonable nutritional choice, it is highly unlikely that a salad will be a part of my culinary experience.

Love,

Joe

P.S.: "1/4 = 1 SERVING"? That's cute.

Two stories about high school Valentine’s Day fundraisers

One Valentine’s Day, our student government decided to sell cans of orange soda as a fundraiser. Students would buy a can of orange soda for their loved ones, and we’d deliver the cans to the lucky recipients with a note saying, “Someone has a CRUSH on you!”


Unfortunately, midway through the fundraiser, we discovered that some of the orange soda we bought were not cans of Crush, but rather Sunkist. (On one hand, orange soda cans look a lot alike, so it’s understandable; on the other hand, when a fundraiser is predicated entirely on a pun, it probably makes sense to double-check the brand.)

This led to a hasty re-writing of notes saying, “You’ve been SunKISSED!”—which, as a student government whose sole accomplishment was the purchase of completely unnecessary picnic tables, was probably our most brilliant moment ever.

Also, I seem to recall discussions that selling orange soda in a majority-minority school as a fundraiser could be construed as somewhat racist. This led to someone adamantly insisting that the stereotype was grape soda, not orange, and therefore the fundraiser could go forward; someone else pointed out that the confusion likely stemmed from Kenan & Kel. Truly, we were the leaders of tomorrow.



* * *

For another Valentine’s Day, the drama club sold roses to raise money for a trip to New York. In the days leading up to February 14, students would pre-order a rose and sign their name and their recipient’s name in a log book. On Valentine’s Day, somebody from the drama club wrote all the names in little “To/From” cards, and somebody else delivered the roses during lunch.

The first sign of trouble was in the case of a girl named Katie Smith1. Katie had a crush on a boy but was too nervous to tell him. So, when she filled out her entry in the log book, she said she wanted her rose to be anonymous; the drama club kid taking the orders told her to put her name down as “Anonymous,” which she did. The drama club kid then wrote “(Katie Smith)” next to it, presumably for record-keeping purposes.

Unfortunately, the log book keeper didn’t communicate this to the card writer, who then proceeded to write “From: Anonymous (Katie Smith)” on the card. At lunch, Katie was horrified as she watched the boy get the rose and ask, “Who’s Katie Smith?” Horror quickly turned into humiliated heartbreak when one of his friends pointed at her and he glumly said, “Oh, the fat one?” Oooof, that kid was a dick.

But that wasn’t even the biggest problem with the fundraiser. The pre-order system was designed specifically so that the drama club could place a discount bulk order with a flower vendor with the exact number of roses they needed. It’s a smart idea—unless the kid placing the bulk order miscounts how many roses were needed by a couple hundred.

And so, with an already razor-thin profit margin, several members of the drama club were forced to go to the store on Valentine’s Day to buy comparable-quality roses to satisfy the remaining orders at full retail.

I wasn’t in the drama club, but the reason I know all this is because I reported on the fundraiser—which was among the most successful fundraisers in our school’s history in terms of units sold—for our high school’s online newspaper. And this is the headline I chose for the story, because I was an asshole:



“Drama club V-Day fundraiser raises over $6.” And yes, when it was all said and done, their net profit was indeed $6.47.

That story, incidentally, caused the online newspaper to be temporarily banned, supposedly for painting the school in a negative light. But to be fair, we were already on thin ice for our breaking news coverage of the time some kid misused a urinal in dramatic fashion2.


1Not her real last name. Actually, I don’t even remember her last name, but I don’t think it was Smith.

2This was completely true. We seriously got three teachers on the record to confirm the story. God, my high school was messed up.

AXA’s fascinatingly bad TV commercials: ruminations on gender, fate, and love

Come with me as I way overanalyze a pair of insurance and retirement commercials!

* * *

Here’s a TV commercial for AXA, an insurance and financial services firm, that’s pretty lame, but benignly so.


A man at an airport so absorbed with the Financial Services Fearmongering app on his tablet that he doesn’t even notice a fellow businessman who sat down next to him, leaning over with a big, expectant grin. They have the same tie, and the businessman wants to make small talk!

But alas, he’s so consumed with the “LIFE INSURANCE: Do you have enough?” question that he ignores the businessman. The businessman is so disappointed and so frustrated at this failed attempt at human connection that, a mere ten seconds after sitting down, he dashes off to find another seat—because, you know, screw you for not noticing me even though I didn’t even say “excuse me” and can clearly see you’re engrossed in something. An on-screen graphic delivers the devastating news: “That was a $40 million dollar deal.”




To emphasize how big of a missed opportunity this was, they redundantly include the word “dollar” in the graphic—that was a forty million dollar dollar deal, damn it.

The voiceover brings it all together: “We all think about life insurance. But when we start worrying about tomorrow, we miss out on the things that matter today. At AXA, we offer advice and help you break down your insurance goals into small, manageable steps, because when you plan for tomorrow, it helps you live for today.”

And indeed, we’re shown that in the alternate universe where the man saw an AXA advisor, he would’ve (1) been so worry-free that he doesn’t even wear ties, yo; and (2) noticed that he and the businessman have matching socks, with all the smiling and chuckling and surprised finger-pointing that that entails.



And boom—40 million double dollars, here we come!

* * *

Here’s the other AXA TV commercial in this campaign, which is lamer still.


A woman sitting in a coffee shop is reading the legacy media version of the Financial Services Fearmongering app (“RETIREMENT: Will your savings last?”) while a sketchy-looking dude is drawing a picture of her1. Sadly, she leaves the coffee shop without even noticing him, which is a tragedy, because—“That was her soulmate.”



Look at his face there: “I tried everything—creepily staring at her from afar, surreptitiously drawing a picture of her—and nothing worked! Ugh, women today can’t appreciate a nice guy.”

A voiceover once again offers an explanation for what we just witnessed: “We all have to plan for retirement. But when we start worrying about tomorrow, we miss out on what matters today.” And had the woman seen an AXA advisor who would have helped her live for today, we see that she and the dude would’ve spent so much time at the coffee shop that the lights are off and everybody—including the staff—is gone. And then off-camera they presumably rob the coffee shop to finance his career as a sub-mediocre sketch artist.

* * *

The obvious critique is a feminist one: when AXA wants to talk to men about missed opportunities, it’s about financial deals; when AXA wants to talk to women, it’s about soulmates and true love. And it’s a fair enough critique; women are actively engaged in business and have concerns that extend beyond finding Prince Charming, and these two commercials juxtaposed against each other suggest that AXA doesn’t look at its potential female clients as serious-minded about finances. (Although, to be fair, the man in the life insurance spot does meet with a female AXA advisor, so there’s that.)

What’s kind of neat about these ads is that, somehow, AXA (or, more specifically, its ad agency) found a way to construct a pair of possibly mildly sexist ads that somehow become worse if they’re gender-swapped.

Let’s say it were two businesswomen at the airport with matching scarves. One woman tries and fails to get the other’s attention and, afterward, huffily finds another seat as the “That was a $40 million dollar deal” graphic appears. I can see myself offering two critiques: Is AXA trying to say that women are so shallow that they’d base a $40 million deal on clothes? Is AXA trying to say that women are so sensitive that they’d get upset because they couldn’t get someone’s attention after only a few seconds?

And if it were a man who narrowly missed his supposed female sketch-artist soulmate, complete with a “That was his soulmate” graphic, it’d look objectifying—as though a woman is comparable to a business deal, just another thing to win or acquire.

A better fix would be to simply switch the graphics—the woman at the coffee shop missed a $40 million deal, and the man at the airport missed his tie-and-sock sharing soulmate. Because, seriously, look at their eyes.



The only business deal that went down that night is a horizontal merger, if you know what I mean2.

* * *

On the other hand, is it even really sexist? Everybody talks about how we need to find a proper work-life balance and how your job shouldn’t be the totality of who you are. And most people will likely agree that love and family is more important than work and business. So isn’t AXA showing that the woman (who’s concerned with finding someone to love) has better priorities than the man (who’s concerned with a business deal)? Isn’t the ad really sexist against men who don’t understand what really matters in life?

Maybe! But probably not.

Obviously, women have historically had a much tougher time being taken seriously in business and money matters, so, even if we’re being extremely charitable with AXA’s intent, it still isn’t helpful in knocking down some stereotypes. And in matters of love and family, it’s generally been women who scale back on—or entirely give up—their careers and business lives, and these AXA commercials subtly reinforce that cultural norm.

A less comfortable possibility: Maybe we really don’t think love and family is more important than work and business. Think about how much time we spend at work, or thinking about work, or trying to find better, more lucrative work. It’s probably more time than we spend on “love,” right? And hey, I’m not judging—who are any of us to say that anybody’s priorities are better than the other?


* * *

But really, what’s most fascinating about these otherwise unremarkable ads is how they play with the notion of fate: If you’re not in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, and in exactly the right mood, you might miss out on a business deal! Or a soulmate!

And I know it’s just a silly pair of ads, but that’s kind of a pernicious mind-virus with which to infect your audience, because that way madness lies. Literally everything is the product of such a precise set of circumstances that it can be brain-bending to think about it too hard—if I left work a few moments earlier, I wouldn’t have gotten into that car accident; if I hadn’t stopped to get a cup of water from the water cooler before leaving, I wouldn’t have left work those few moments later; if I hadn’t eaten pretzels as a snack, I wouldn’t have been thirsty for water; if I had enough change for Oreos, I wouldn’t have gotten pretzels from the vending machine; if I hadn’t given some of my change to that homeless guy on the corner, I would’ve had enough change for Oreos. ERGO, I AM NEVER GIVING MONEY TO HOMELESS PEOPLE EVER AGAIN.

Of course, that’s ridiculous to conclude. And imagine if, say, you were planning on stopping by a convenience store on your way home, which, obviously, you don’t because of the car accident. And let’s say that that convenience store was robbed by a violent gunman3 who shot and killed everybody in the store—what then? Did your car accident save your life? Do you eat more pretzels now? Do you give more money to homeless people?

So it’s strange for AXA to make a pitch of, “Use our services to make sure that a precise set of mostly uncontrollable circumstances align properly so you don’t miss out on something!” I doubt anybody would take these ads quite that seriously, but still, it’s kind of a mean-spirited albeit metaphysical fear-based appeal. (Plus, using the ad’s own logic: who’s to say that, by talking to $40 million deal guy, you missed a chance to talk to some other dude who had, like, a matching suitcase who would’ve given you an $80 million deal? What then, AXA?)

* * *

And finally—“soulmate”? Really?

This is neither here nor there, but I think the idea of a soulmate—or The One, or your lobster, or whatever—is depressing. There are a lot of people on the planet, after all, and if there’s only one soulmate out there for each of us, then guys—we’re probabilistically screwed. Our soulmates might not be on the same continent. They might not be born yet, or they might have just died.

Or what if, by some odds-defying stroke of luck, your soulmate happens to be in the same city as you are and you just happen to be on the same bus, but they’re busy on their phone. Or they’re in a bad mood. Or they just got into a relationship, or just got out of one so they’re not ready to date. Or maybe they’re just too preoccupied planning for retirement. What then?

A belief in soulmates is either a belief in abject despair, or it’s a belief that the universe loves us so much that it’ll bend the laws of statistics and probability to accommodate our hearts’ desires. And honestly, I don’t think the universe even really likes us as just friends.

Plus, believing in soulmates can be kind of dangerous, especially if you genuinely believe you’ve met yours. After all, it’s harder to get out of a relationship—even a toxic one—if you believe that your partner is your one and only. And “soulmates” talk often ignores the effort that goes into successful relationships in favor of an assumption that everything will just fall into place.

So basically, BOO AXA FOR PROMOTING UNREALISTIC NOTIONS OF LOVE. And also, for making me put in way more thought into your commercials than I’m guessing anybody involved with making them did.


1See what I did there? It’s funny because he’s sketching a picture of her, and it looks like he’s been sketchily digging through her garbage to find her old pantyhose. I’m kind of an expert at puns, you see.

2Sex.

3Or gunwoman! I just talked a big game about possible sexism, and here I am, assuming ladyfolk can’t be robbers. Shame on me.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

If you're out there, Hannah, call me!

This is a box of Pépito cookies I bought at the airport in Nice before my flight to Oslo.


I don’t know why a brand of French cookies has a small Latino boy wearing a comically oversized sombrero as its mascot, but given this video of some French dude in brownface, I feel safe in assuming the answer contains the word “racism.” On a sidenote, they were delicious.

This is the note I passed to the woman sitting next to me on the flight to Oslo.



She had her earbuds on and was working on her laptop, so I didn’t want to bother her too much. But when she read the note, her smile when she said “Yes, please!” was one of the most genuine and therefore most adorable things ever. We talked for a little bit—she was visiting family in Nice, but she lives in Oslo—and when I asked her if she was a student, glancing at her laptop, she said that she was a journalist and was working a story on deadline. So I wrapped up the conversation.

Early in my trip, I made a decision that I wouldn’t actively try to meet anybody romantically; getting used to traveling alone was enough of a challenge without adding more complications. Plus, I wanted this to be a vacation free from fret, including fretting about being single. (I’d toss in something about wanting to get in touch with myself, but in this context, that sounds a little gross.)

Still, though, in retrospect, the universe was probably nudging me along here: As far as I could tell, we were pretty much the only people in our twenties on the flight, and we happened to be sitting next to each other. And there just happened to be no one sitting in the middle seat in our emergency exit row, despite the flight being pretty full (and, I presume, someone would’ve enjoyed the extra legroom). And she’s a writer, which I think is pretty cool. And apparently she’s the type who reacts with delight instead of bemusement when passed a note despite the fact that neither of us are in middle school. And she had a completely heart-melty smile, which, arrgh.

Is it too late to post a missed connection on Craigslist Oslo?

YOU WERE SITTING IN 14A ON A FLIGHT TO OSLO FROM NICE. I WAS IN 14C. WE SHARED SOME POSSIBLY RACIST COOKIES, AND WE CHATTED FOR A BIT, BUT YOU MENTIONED YOU WERE ON DEADLINE, SO I DIDN’T KNOW IF YOU WERE JUST POLITELY ENDING OUR CONVERSATION AND DIDN’T WANT TO KEEP BOTHERING YOU IF THAT WAS THE CASE, BUT IN RETROSPECT, I GUESS THERE PROBABLY WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN ANY HARM IN QUICKLY ASKING IF YOU WERE FREE FOR A DRINK SOMETIME AS WE DEPLANED. SO, UH, EMAIL ME?

Yeah, that’s completely creepy. I guess I should’ve just done this in the moment. Ah, poop.

Hostel territory

When I was in Europe last month, I stayed almost exclusively in hostels, save for an occasional hotel room near the airport following a late flight. I figured hostels would be more interesting, and it’d give me a chance to talk with people in case solo traveling started to get lonely. Plus, hostels seemed like they’d be rife with shenanigans, and I love shenanigans. Almost as much as I love tomfoolery! And maybe most importantly, I thought staying at a hostel was the sort of thing that I wouldn’t do, and I wanted to challenge myself.

Alas, my hostel experience was mostly free of both shenanigans and tomfoolery, although it was still mostly enjoyable. I got to meet a bunch of different people, and hostels had the added bonus of making the nights in which I stayed at, say, a Best Western feel like the height of luxury (“Excuse me, this toilet paper has two whole plies? I feel like a king!”).

So, some notes on hostels.

* * *

In Copenhagen, I was having some drinks with a couple of my (female) hostel roommates visiting from Oslo at the hostel bar when some guy—an American—walked up and started talking to us. And by “talking to us,” I mean “doing that thing where he approaches a group of people but gradually focuses his attention on one of the women in the group.”
                                             
After a while, he started talking about how Americans are stupid, fat, and rude, presumably thinking that the best way to flirt with Norwegian women is to America-bash for some reason. One of my roommates smiled at me and says, “You know, he’s an American, too.” The guy got flustered and, after a few more feeble attempts to be playful, slunk away. Once he left, we laughed at him, but seriously: I’m not jingoistic in the slightest, but hating on your home country in a misguided attempt to impress pretty girls while abroad—that’s obviously treason, right?

* * *

In London, two of my roommates were a couple of French guys who were both 20 years old. They spoke reasonably good English, but, for whatever reason, they still felt the need to pantomime nearly everything when they spoke to me. They were friendly and invited me to hang out with them one night.

I declined, mostly because I had just eaten 30 chicken wings at a pub and my stomach was incredibly pissed off at me (the difference in price between ten wings and 30 wings was only £2; my hands were tied). But also, their pantomime for “woman” was always this awkward, anatomically-incorrect humping motion, even when they weren’t talking about sex, which led me to believe that, if I accepted their invitation, I was clearly going to get murdered in a brothel.

* * *

When you stay in hostels during the off-season, a lot of your roommates aren’t tourists. About a third of all my roommates with whom I spoke were staying at a hostel because they needed someplace cheap while they searched for a job and a permanent place to stay—which totally made me feel like an asshole with my whole “I’M HERE ON VACATION AND I’M STAYING IN HOSTELS BECAUSE I THOUGHT IT’D BE COOLER” deal.

It dawned on me that I’m essentially the vacation version of the girl about whom Pulp was singing in “Common People.”


* * *

In Amsterdam, one of my roommates was a British guy who was happily high. Our chat was light and insubstantial and clearly chemically-influenced, with my roommate actually dropping the phrase “do your own destiny, mate” at one point. In any case, your typical cheery stoner conversation.

That is, until I mentioned offhandedly that one of my former coworkers was daring me on Facebook to hire a sex worker, and I jokingly said, “I don’t think it’s my jam, but is that what everybody is supposed to do in Amsterdam?”—to which my roommate very seriously responded, “No, I don’t need to use a prostitute, okay?”

Whoa, dude. I wasn’t judging.

* * *

In Stockholm, I checked into my hostel at around midnight. The guy at the front desk asked me if I knew that I booked a four-person shared room and not a private room; I replied that I did. He gave me the key and said that I was welcome to check it out, but if I wanted a private room, he’d see what he could do about giving me a discount on an upgrade. I thanked him for the offer while mentally scoffing—I am a hardened traveler, damn it; I don’t need some fancy private room!

As I opened the door, I see three dudes, all of whom were clearly in their mid-forties. One of the guys was staring at me, his eyes so wide he looked like a poorly-drawn anime character. I said hi; the staring continued. As I turned around to set down my backpack, I noticed that one of my sleeping roommates appeared to be wearing some really strange pajamas. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness a bit more, I saw that they weren’t pajamas—he was completely naked and was just that hairy, and his furry buttcheeks were less than a foot away from my face.

I bolted out of the room and approached the front desk. My mouth said I was possibly interested in paying for the upgrade; my eyes said that I would pay anything to prevent an inadvertent hirsute ass-smooch.

The guy at the front desk threw in a free breakfast with the upgrade.

Fat girl costumes

Walmart apologized Monday after visitors to its website discovered its section for plus-size women's Halloween costumes was labeled "Fat Girl Costumes."


Walmart's social media team repeatedly tweeted,

This never should have been on our site. It is unacceptable, and we apologize. We worked quickly to remove this.

or some variation thereof to customers mentioning the incident on Twitter.

Our culture is one that makes "being fat" among the worst sins a woman can commit, and the cruelty and vitriol with which the word "fat" is hurled at overweight people has made the word much more pejorative than merely descriptive. So I completely get why people found a section bluntly called "Fat Girl Costumes" cringeworthy.

But the incident made me think of this amazing scene from the third episode of the past season of Louie, Louis CK's FX show.



In the scene, Louie talks with his date about the difficulty of dating. His date, sympathetic, says, "Try dating in New York in your late thirties as a fat girl."

Louie immediately insists that she's "not fat," and his date launches into a remarkable monologue that begins with, "Do you know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? 'You're not fat.'"

So, it kind of feels like Walmart is saying "You're not fat."

I get why Walmart apologized, even beyond simple PR -- the word "fat" can be hurtful. And outside of corporate communications, I actually think there's value in what others might dismiss as political correctness; when you use a euphemism like "plus-size" instead of "fat," it can be a way of signaling, "I care about you and how you feel, so I'm going to use a word that I hope has less of a chance of hurting you." That's thoughtful, and thoughtfulness is good.

But I wonder if Walmart had tried the opposite strategy: What if Walmart kept the section titled "Fat Girl Costumes," and just said, "Hey, there's nothing wrong with being a fat girl, and we don't think it's an insult. If we change it, that's just us admitting that we think that being a fat girl is bad. So we're leaving it up."

Walmart PR is not in the business of social change, so there's no reason they'd take anything but the path of least resistance. But I'm curious what would really be more comforting to a girl who's overweight: a company apologizing because "fat" is so unacceptable, or a company shrugging because there's nothing wrong with "fat."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

“The women, all educated and employed...”

Jian Ghomeshi, a popular Canadian radio host on the CBC, was fired following allegations of sexual violence from three different women and one instance of sexual harassment of a coworker (he allegedly told her that he wants to “hate fuck” her).

Ghomeshi, in turn, posted a lengthy Facebook post denying the accusations as “false allegations pursued by a jilted ex-girlfriend and a freelance writer” and suggests that the CBC fired him simply because they were uncomfortable with him enjoying BDSM in his private life. He’s suing the CBC for $55 million.

Not knowing anything about Ghomeshi or his work, I don’t really have much to say about whether he’s right or wrong (although—speaking purely from a PR perspective—he seriously did himself no favors with that lame, self-martyring Facebook post, which almost sounds like he’s humblebragging about how crazy his sex life is). But I did want to point out this line in the Toronto Star’s story, published on Oct. 26, emphasis mine:

The Star’s interviews of the women were lengthy. The women, all educated and employed, said Ghomeshi’s actions shocked them.

Many people have pointed out how unsettling it is that the Toronto Star decided that the education and employment status of the women is germane to the discussion of possible sexual violence committed against them.

It’s easy to understand why the reporters decided to include it (and why their editor decided to keep it in): it was a way to preemptively answer questions about the women’s credibility. By mentioning that they’re educated and employed, it signals that these women have less reason to lie—they have careers that they presumably wouldn’t jeopardize with dishonesty. And because they have educations, their careers are likely ones that pay reasonably well, so these women probably aren’t necessarily planning to profit off their allegations. “All educated and employed” was the Star’s way of saying, in essence, “It’s not what you’re thinking—take them seriously!”

If that is indeed the reasoning, it’s still incredibly depressing that the Star reporters figured enough of their readers would instinctively cast mental aspersions on the women that they felt compelled to head that off. It’s even more depressing to think that the reporters were right; I don’t doubt that there were some readers who were skeptical, came to that line, and subsequently gave the women’s stories a little more credence. And needless to say, the unspoken corollary—if these women weren’t educated or weren’t employed, then maybe it’d be okay to shrug them off—is pretty repugnant.

I don’t mean to bag on the Star reporters too much here; this sort of thing happens, in one form or another, all the time. A girl or a woman is the victim of sexual harassment, assault, or violence, and as a way of bolstering her credibility, we’re told why we should afford her, unlike some other victims, the benefit of the doubt:

  • She’s educated and employed.
  • She comes from a good family.
  • She doesn’t sleep around.
  • She didn’t wear slutty clothes.
  • She wasn’t drunk or high.
  • She never made these sorts of accusations before.
  • She doesn’t have any sort of troubled past or mental health issues.

If we keep codifying which women deserve the benefit of the doubt, what we’re really doing is helping potential rapists put together a profile of an ideal victim—that is, a victim who will have the hardest time getting people to take her seriously, or, more bluntly, a victim whom the rapist will have the greatest chance of getting away with raping. The notion of a woman being targeted specifically because she’s poor, uneducated, and unemployed, or specifically because she likes having sex, wearing sexy clothes, and drinking, or specifically because she’s been raped in her past or because she has a history of mental health issues is both horrifying and horrifying plausible.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Eating McDonald’s in a foreign country

There’s a fried herring cart in Stockholm called (aptlyNystekt Strömming.

It’s apparently a favorite among locals for a quick snack, and with good reason: it was easily the most delicious 60 SEK I spent in the city. Continuing my strategy of making gastronomical decisions based in part on what I could pronounce, I had the “Special,” which was fried herring with potatoes and a bit of salad. It was amazing fast food, in the literal sense of “fast food”—no line, my food was served just a minute or so after I ordered it, and was devoured just a few more minutes after that.

Across the street, literally less than a minute’s walk away, is this McDonald’s.



You can’t tell from the picture, but (1) the line to the register stretched to nearly the door in what was a fairly large McDonald’s; and (2) this was after the lunch rush had died down.1 In my (admittedly limited) experience, this isn’t uncommon in big, European cities: tourists love McDonald’s, and around lunch or dinner time, it’ll probably be among the busiest places to eat.

You know what else isn’t uncommon? People—usually other tourists—looking down on tourists eating at McDonald’s. And I kind of hate that.

In fact, I kind of hate that because I used to say and think that. There’d be a line out the door at a McDonald’s in Rome, and I’d scoff to anyone who’d listen, “Ugh, don’t they know they’re in Italy? Why would you want a greasy Big Mac when you can get authentic Italian food?”

I, of course, wasn’t asking the question sincerely, so I didn’t take the minute or so to consider the multitude of completely legitimate scenarios in which travelers can simultaneously be aware of what country they are in and still want to eat at McDonald’s:

  • Maybe they’re on a budget, and they can’t really afford most of the local cuisine
  • Maybe they tried the local cuisine, and they didn’t like it
  • Maybe they tried the local cuisine, and the portions were smaller than they expected, so they’re still hungry
  • Maybe traveling is completely new to them and having to adjust to an unfamiliar city, language, culture, transit system, and monetary system is a little overwhelming, so having something uncomplicated to eat that they don’t have to think about is comforting
  • Maybe they’re feeling a little homesick, and they just want something that reminds them of home at the moment
  • Or maybe they just really like Big Macs, and I need to get off their dick about it, geez

What’s gross about McDonald’s condescension is that it presupposes that there’s a right and wrong way to travel, and it takes a lot of gall to tell someone that they’re doing something as personal and individual as travel incorrectly.

People, after all, travel for all manner of different reasons—to meet new people; to get away from people; to relax; to challenge themselves; and so on. And some travel without even having a reason, or travel in search of one.

And yes, it may be worth remembering that if you’re in a foreign country and all you want to do is lounge poolside at the hotel and order Pizza Hut that you may consider trying something that you couldn’t do at home (airfare’s kind of expensive, after all, and there are plenty of pools and Stuffed Crust Pizzas waiting for you once you get back). But I wouldn’t dare tell anyone that they’re traveling wrong or wasting their travel, especially when I don’t know anything about them besides what I’ve deemed as incorrect travel choices.

The reality is, no matter what you do, someone will think you’re doing it wrong: You’re taking too few pictures (“When are you ever going to be here again?!”) or too many pictures (“Put down the camera and just be in the moment!”). You’re missing all the big sites, or you’re going to too many touristy things. You’re not meeting enough people, or you’re not connecting with yourself. You’re trying to do too much, or you’re not doing enough.

The best decision any traveler can make is to just let all of that go. Ultimately, you can either stress over the idea that nothing you do is right, or you can take comfort in knowing that nothing you do is wrong. And as long as you’re kind and polite and respectful, you’re free to just do you—or, if that isn’t working out, do something else and try that.

People have their reasons for why they do things, including why they do what they do when they travel. And for the most part, we don’t know what those reasons are. That means our default posture shouldn’t be one of disdain or judgment but of encouragement and understanding—or, at least, cheerful indifference.

Or, more simply: no matter how delicious that herring is, maybe they just really like Big Macs. And that’s okay.


1In case you were wondering, I was in that McDonald’s to use the restroom. I try to be a good traveler and respect the mores of the places I visit, but there’s one place my Ugly Americanism rears its ugly American head—I really don’t like paying to use a public restroom2. The idea here was to use the restroom at McDonald’s by waiting by the restroom for someone to exit, then pretending to fall in line for a few moments, and finally leaving with an annoyed look as if I was planning on buying something but the line was just too long. In a karmatic twist, by the time I put my plan into action, I legitimately did want a 10 SEK McDonald’s ice cream cone, so after I used the restroom, I really did fall in line in earnest and really did leave annoyed once it became clear that getting an ice cream cone would take ten to fifteen minutes.
2Some of the small kindnesses I encountered in Europe that are most resonant to me involve people helping me not have to pay for using the restroom: a guy holding open the pay toilet gate for me so I can sneak in, a barista being all, “Oh no, go right in” when I asked if I had to make a purchase to use the restroom, and so on. People are pretty great sometimes.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Six oh six five two

Suddenly, it becomes abundantly clear why I never received a comic activity book.

Karaoke kindness


It's my turn to sing at karaoke, and given my affinity for breakup songs with no-no words, I'm going with Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know."

The song is directed towards a man, though, which is a problem, what with my heterosexuality and inability to change pronouns on the fly and whatnot.

So I preface my performance with this dedication:

I want to dedicate this song to my ex-girlfriend, who I just found out is dating my best friend. 
(crowd oohs à la Saved by the Bell
So, Amy, this is for you and Claire. 
(crowd cheers à la Saved by the Bell: The New Class)

And I butcher this song in a decidedly unkosher manner -- I'm wildly off-key, I'm smushing lyrics together, and midway through the song, I utter the phrase, "Oh, there's more? Sorry, I'm not sober." (Sadly, I was very sober.)

But afterwards? Applause, high-fives, and assurances that I'm "gonna be fine, buddy."1

It remains my firm belief that karaoke brings out the best in humanity: we all have each other's backs; our flaws are seen as lovely and charming; and complete strangers are willing to donate confidence in the form of semi-intoxicated, good-hearted cheering to anybody who needs it. What's not to love?

I say this in all seriousness, and please consider this a legitimate, legally-binding request2: I want karaoke at my funeral, please. You know as well as I do that that's going to be amazing.


1I did feel kind of bad about sponging off the encouragement of others under false pretenses, but here's my perhaps entirely unsatisfying rationalization: Without the backstory, I'm just another incompetent singer the crowd has to tolerate. With the backstory, my performance becomes a gripping, emotional journey; a musical Bildungsroman written aloud with the words of one of Canada's greatest heroes. When we do karaoke, we're already playing a character; there's no crime in taking it a small step further.

2This sounds like a joke, but I can't emphasize enough how serious I am. I mean, I'm assuming my funeral will be at least a little sad maybe, but how great would it be if somebody picked up the mic and started singing this.