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.

The poignancy of Dillion Harper



Here’s what Dillion Harper said was the best thing about her job.

Best thing about being a porn star, I would say, is my fans and being able to write them back, and, like, know that, even though it is porn, like, I’m helping people, and, like, in a weird way—in a different way. But—I mean, a lot of my fans, like, they have struggles, and, like, they look up to me, and I’ve been able to somehow help them out of their struggles. So, it’s pretty cool. I like it.

It’s easy to laugh at this answer, I know. Hell, Harper herself is pretty much laughing at her own answer while she’s giving it. And in her defense, what exactly was she supposed to say other than “I enjoy having sex and subsequently getting paid for it”?

But I find Harper’s answer strangely poignant because I think it speaks to the weird relationship we have with work. Work, after all, is how most people spend more than a third of their waking lives, and despite all the talk of how our personal lives should take precedence over our professional lives, we make many of life’s major decisions—what to major in, what city to live in, whom we spend time with—based at least in part on what will help us at work.

With all the time and energy we invest in our jobs, it’s natural to want to feel like what we do is meaningful. And some people are fortunate enough to have jobs that are legitimately meaningful—the jobs that save lives, help people who are hurting, and make the world a more beautiful, vibrant place.

But those are relatively rare, and many of us, particularly those in the corporate world, are working more or less meaningless jobs. They may be interesting jobs, lucrative jobs, or jobs that play to our skill sets—all of which can help make a job seem enjoyable or even fulfilling—but I can’t imagine it’s uncommon to have a brief, sudden moment where your soul silently screams, YOU ARE USING YOUR PRECIOUS, RAPIDLY DEPLETING TIME AND YOUR CAREFULLY CULTIVATED TALENT AND CREATIVITY TO COMPLETE USELESS TASKS JUST TO MAKE SOME GUY AND HIS INVESTORS RICHER. And then you go back to your Excel spreadsheet and crunch a few more numbers, because your manager wants this shit done by lunch time.

I don’t necessarily think Dillion Harper’s soul was silently screaming when she tried to give her job more meaning by saying she helps people with their struggles. And I’m certainly not in a position to make assumptions about Harper’s career decisions and what she thinks of her decisions; I’m sure she’s good at what she does1 and she’s obviously pretty successful in her chosen field, while I’m not even sure what I want my chosen field to be anymore. Plus, she’s been nominated for multiple AVN Awards, and to date, I have received zero such nominations, so: advantage Harper.

Her answer, however, did remind me of the meaning we try to assign jobs we know in our hearts are meaningless. I don’t intend to sound judgmental of people who do this; sometimes, when there aren’t any other readily available career options and you just need to get through the damn day, it helps to pretend that there’s a greater purpose to your job—that you’re Helping the World Connect With the Ones They Love when you’re really just writing ad copy for Verizon.

And I certainly don’t mean to be dismissive of everybody who has decided that “meaningfulness” simply doesn’t matter. If you’ve decided that your job having meaning is less important than making sure your family has food and health insurance, that’s completely reasonable. If you’ve decided that you’ll draw meaning from the things you do outside of work and accept your job as merely a way of financing the things that do matter, I totally get that. And if you’ve decided that trying to find any meaning in your employment is probably a fool’s errand, that fretting about this sort of thing is a luxury, that you’re already incredibly fortunate if you have a job that you don’t hate and don’t suck at—well, I can’t say I agree, but a part of me wishes I did.

But for everybody else, our impulse is to ignore our souls when they’re screaming, and to try to refute their screams—what I do really is important, or this job really is what I’m meant to do, or I was just immature when I was younger. And hey, sometimes this is necessary; every day can’t be filled with ponderous existential angst.

Every once in a while, though, I think it’s worth resisting the impulse to refute and quiet our souls when they’re screaming, and instead listen to them.

It’s… easier said than done.


1I would like to point out that by saying “I’m sure she’s good at what she does,” I’m both implying that I haven’t seen any of Harper’s work while assuming she’s a good porn actress and explicitly saying that I’m certain that she’s a good porn actress. Personally, I think this is a masterstroke2—if I have indeed enjoyed Harper’s work and if I’m ashamed of enjoying porn, I get to tell the explicit truth while avoiding the shame of people thinking I’m a porn watcher. This is all hypothetical, of course.

2Heh, masterstroke.

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.