Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How to Catch a Man in 2010

I know my writing has been angry as of late, but I just seem to be picking up on all the ridiculousness of the world! This entry will be a list of qualities I experience as necessary to capture the attention of a 21st century man. I don’t want it to be offensive to many of the women I know, as plenty of them are happily married or dating wonderful men, and don’t share the same experiences as me. And I know there are conscientious young men out there, but the list below will apply to the other ones. This is my experience as a college-educated young woman. It’s a joke, but not really. This is life.

How to Catch a Man in 2010

1. If you meet a nice-looking man at a bar, don’t tell him what college you went to if it was a good one, instead just tell him what state it was in.
2. Instead of saving money for your own financial security, spend any extra on updating your wardrobe. Put it on a credit card if you must.
3. Wear uncomfortable high heels at unnecessary times, like going to the airport or grocery store.
4. Squeeze an exercise regimen into your spare time, but don’t require it of your mate. Avoid soda, alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, and fat. (After all, that couple in “The King of Queens” was so darn cute.)
5. Dress in suggestive clothing all the time, but don’t gratify your own sexual needs. Everyone knows that each sexual partner a woman has reduces her desirability as a marriage commodity.
6. If you express feminist tendencies, laugh and bat your eyelashes when men around you make “lesbian” remarks.
7. Instead of spending an hour reading in the morning, spend that hour getting ready. Or, if you insist on having it all, wake yourself up an hour early and do both, and develop a coke habit to support your lifestyle.
8. Never think critically of your situation.
9. Instead of getting to know the women you work with, give them fake smiles and talk behind their backs.
10. If you work in a male-dominated company, just shrug it off when your ideas and creativity are ignored. Continue to accept work that is below your capacity. Congratulate male co-workers who are encouraged to succeed. After all, one of them may one day prove to be a boyfriend.
11. If a man in your life is rude to you, don’t challenge him. Instead, go home and adjust your look and attitude to be more feminine and flirtatious, so the next time he sees you, he will accept you.
12. If he likes sports, learn about sports. If he likes politics, learn about politics. If he likes hip-hop, learn about that. Read the books he reads. But never expect him to learn more about your interests.
13. Dress as the type of woman he’s attracted to, whether that be hipster, priss, or bad girl. Forget what your own fashion is.
14. Consciously or unconsciously gravitate towards jobs and careers that pay lower, so you have a higher chance of meeting a mate with a higher income than you. After all, to earn more than he would emasculate him.
15. Gravitate toward jobs with “assistant” or “support” in the title.
16. Only watch movies with him that have male protagonists. We all know that any movie with a female lead or story is a “chick flick,” however critically acclaimed. Even Sophie’s Choice was probably a chick flick.
17. Cultivate an attitude of demureness, saving your spark for alone time with girlfriends. Maintain this attitude of demureness throughout your relationship, because to make any moves that are too big or too bold will confuse and possibly hurt your mate.
18. Spend all your time with your girlfriends trying to figure out why men are the way they are, and how you can improve your relationship. Never have a discussion about art, politics, or anything else that may interest you.
19. Take pole-dancing or stripping lessons to further entice your mate, instead of learning about healing or any of the other ways female energy can be used.
20. Let society convince you to have a baby before you’re ready, so you can be a “hot young mom.” Ignore the cries of your small child but make sure she's wearing a cute outfit before you go out the door so she can make a nice accessory. Having babies past the age of 29 is so unfeminine.

This list is written as satire, but it’s not really satire. This is the way many young women live their lives. It can be particularly hard for smart women. In Maureen Dowd’s critique of the gender wars, “Are Men Necessary?” she talks about a study that showed that for every 20 points a woman’s IQ increases, her chance of marriage decreases a certain amount. She also details a tragic but funny tale about a woman who dated and married a man who had a very high IQ, who was successful in his career and proud of his intellectual accomplishments. The woman was careful to not talk too much about her own abilities, and finally, on their wedding night, she confessed to him in tears that her IQ was much higher than his. It had proved such a burden to her dating life that she had hidden it from the man that would become her husband. Thankfully, he took it in stride and ended up admiring and loving her mind.

And Dowd had her own dating challenges as an intelligent, thinking single woman. She said a co-worker at the New York Times had considered asking her out at one point but was too intimidated, because her position was too powerful. She also had Bill Clinton make a joke at a gala she attended that she was an “emasculating b****,” a joke that went over well with the crowd. Such jokes are common, but she pointed out that a male political journalist would never be called that, he would be called “hard-hitting” or something similarly admirable.

And this is why dynamic, intelligent women are afraid of appearing too bold—because it is considered “emasculating,” and could turn off a potential mate.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Merry Christmas 2009

I was doing some Christmas shopping at Borders, and at the checkout I saw this tiny felt giftbag with a penguin on it, meant to hold a giftcard. “Oh!” I thought. “How cute! So-and-so would really like this bag!” And it was on sale for 50% off—only $2.

Luckily I caught myself, like so many practical women before me I realized that the wrapping paper from last year was perfectly good enough for this year’s gifts. Because if we don’t watch it, we’ll spend $2, and $2, and $2 again, until we’ve spent $40 or more dollars on useless Christmas crap that will probably be thrown away.

Retailers are cunning that way. I once read a famous copywriter who said that there is a psychology of selling, where if someone makes one purchase they’ll be in the mood to purchase additional, unplanned items.

I love Christmas, and I know most of the readers of this blog love it, too. But part of what I really love is seeing the same items over and over again as I get older. The collections people acquire over the years—the sentimental items, worth money or maybe not. On my mother’s side of the family it would be these Santa mugs, placed on the room divider between the kitchen and living room, from probably the 1950s, that acquired chips over years of handling. As a child I would step into my granparents’ house during Christmas break and see those mugs, and know I was in for a few days of uncensored sweets, hanging out with my best-friend cousins, sweet pickles, and of course my loving grandparents and family. Those mugs still remain in my family, at a beloved aunt’s house.

On my father’s side of the family it would be an electric candelabra I would see in my grandparents’ window as we drove up to their Kansas City home at night. I would know that both my grandparents would be there in their cardigan sweaters to greet me, that there would be delicious chocolate chip cookies, and that if there was snow, I’d be sledding with my cousins on slopes so dangerous we could give ourselves concussions. I think my grandmother probably still puts this candelabra out at Christmas.

If there is a higher purpose in our severe recession, I think it is to remind us that there are more important things than money, and we should be thankful for the things we have. That if we give them a polish, we can see them as if new again.

Because the crappy light-up Santa tree topper, which doesn’t even have a face anymore, bought in 1965 (making that up) for 50 cents, proves so much more valuable with the memories it acquires than a newer, snazzier tree topper on sale at Macy’s.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The American Nightmare

I was reading “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, and in the first couple of chapters, the author discusses the founding of the fast food industry that took place in the first half of the 20th century. Carl Karcher, the founder of burger chain Carl’s Jr., held various working-class jobs before he started the company, one of which was a bread truck driver. He became a bread truck driver around the age of 23, which gave him enough money to buy a home and start a family.

“Really?” I frowned when I read this. “With that job he could start a family? He could buy a home?”

It seemed a miracle to me that a bread truck driver would be able to do all that, so I decided to look into it. I typed “bread truck driver” into the online Salary Wizard, being sure to search within Orange County, California, where Karcher lived. The nearest two jobs I could find were “van driver” and “truck driver, light,” and the starting salary looked to be somewhere between $24,000 and $28,000.

So let’s examine if in 2009, Carl could achieve the American Dream. Let’s say his starting salary was $26,000. You take away 15% for taxes, and you’re left with $22,100. That’s $1,842 of take-home income a month. Let’s then surmise that Carl pays attention to financial experts and only allows himself to spend 25% of his income on housing—that’s $460 per month. $460 per month will get you not a one-bedroom apartment, not a studio, but a smallish room in a shared apartment in a non-trendy area of town. (Let’s say, like most middle-class Americans, Carl has also been to college, but has failed to major in computer programming, so he is now driving a truck. My personal view is that anyone who faithfully devotes himself to 16 years of the American education system and graduates with a degree should have a reasonable expectation to be able to afford his own apartment. For that matter, even people with GEDs should expect a reasonable quality of life.)

Okay, $1,842-$460 gives you $1,382. Let’s also say Carl has student loans to repay, I think those are typically 5% of income, so $108 per month—that leaves $1,274. But Carl is also responsible, and he begins socking away 10% of his take-home pay into an IRA, that’s $184 a month, leaving $1,090. Carl also has car payments—that’s $250/month. That leaves $840. He has auto insurance ($100/month) and health insurance ($100/month). That’s $640. He has occasional visits to the doctor, oil changes, prescriptions, etc.—let’s put that stuff at $50/month. $590. He has haircuts, occasional new shoes, shirts, etc.--$40/month. $550 left. He has gasoline at $100 per month—that leaves $450. He has groceries at $200 per month if he’s thrifty, that leaves $250. Don’t forget utilities (Internet, gas, electricity, cable, etc.) at $100/month, again—if he and his roommate are thrifty. That leaves $150. Let’s say he indulges $100 per month for beers and meals with friends, movies, etc. He never takes vacations. There’s $50 per month left to buy a home and start a family.

Okay, Carl is optimistic. He will put that $50 per month into a fund earning 8% annually to save up for a down payment on a house. Lower-end 3-bedroom homes in that area of California look to be around $400,000 today, which means if he put a 5% down payment on a home today, he’d be paying $20,000. But let’s say home values rise with the inflation rate, and from my shoddy math, the down payment would be $40,000 in 20 years time. Carl’s income has probably increased over the years, but so has the cost of living. And even 20 years later, he still has not managed to save enough to make that down payment. He will be in his late 40s or early 50s before he can afford to buy a home and start a family.

And that is the financial bracket that young Americans live in today. Most of us will have to choose between saving for retirement and being dependent on our children because we chose to buy a home instead. That is, those of us lucky enough to be able to save at all.

And higher education no longer guarantees a great job. The new wisdom is that a college degree is mostly useless—you need a graduate degree in order to live comfortably. Even that doesn’t always work—there are plenty of graduate degree-holding people who are not paid adequately for their knowledge.

In a Harper’s article entitled, “Labor’s Last Stand” (July 2009), author Kevin Silverstein states that the rise of the middle class in the U.S. coincided with the rise of union organization—that is, the middle class was at its strongest at the same time unions were at their strongest, around the middle of the 20th century. The strength of unions has steadily declined since then, to the point where they represent 12 percent of the labor force today, as opposed to approximately 25 percent in England and 33 percent in Canada. The article also says that “the labor movement has achieved some early victories under Barack Obama….[He has issued an executive order] barring federal contractors from seeking reimbursement for anti-union expenditures….” That’s a wonderful thing he did, but I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read that anti-union expenditures was something a company could previously write off to the government.

For me, it sheds new light on the housing crisis. The victims of the crisis were not irresponsible people too lazy to save, but rather poor Americans sick of living in dingy apartments, excited at the prospect of something that could actually be an investment.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Predatory Lending? or Predatory Everything?

During the past couple of years, the public has been appalled to hear of the predatory lending practices of mortgage companies that led to the current economic crisis. But I've been realizing that predatory business practices exist everywhere, and we don't notice because we're just so used to it.

Exhibit A: airport food. Don't laugh--it's true. When you go to an airport, you will be paying $10 for a mediocre vegetarian sandwich that doesn't even come with a side. Or $5 for a latte, or $4 for an orange juice. I'm doubting that rents are that high that restaurants and food stalls have to jack up their prices that much, but even if they are that high, why is the airport charging that much for rent? The mentality here is: people will be hungry and will have to stop for food, and they won't have anywhere to turn, so we can charge whatever we can get away with. It puts a little damper on your flight before you board the plane.

Exhibit B: parking garages. In downtown LA, you have to know exactly where you're parking before you get there, otherwise you'll be paying $12 for every 15 minutes you spend in one of the garages. And that's not an exaggeration, that's a real charge. There's no way that rent or operations cost so much that you have to charge $48 an hour for 60 square feet of space, but that's what happens. It's highway robbery. It has nothing to do with the actual worth of what you're getting--it's just what they can get away with.

Exhibit C: illegal immigrants. Some people will say that illegal immigrants are "good for the economy," but what they mean is that restaurant and farm owners can pay them less than minimum wage and get away with it. Several immigrants will live together in one-bedrooom apartments, and ride used bicycles while they try and send money home. How could you live with yourself if you were one of these employers? It takes a real jerk to do that.

Can you imagine if we treated our friends and family this way? "Thanks for returning my ladder, Larry, but if you read the fine print you'll see that you were actually leasing it. You owe me $500." Larry would soon ditch you as a friend. We accept this behavior from businesses because we are used to it, and because we often don't have any other place to shop.

Meditate on this image, which happens probably hundreds of times a day at a large sports stadium:

"Hi, I'll take two Bud Lights."
Employee pours out two cups of beer, "that'll be $15."
"$15 for two beers? That's bull****. Sheesh."
Employee, who has no control over pricing, and earns $8 an hour, absorbs negativity and frowns at customer as he hands him the change, and both leave the interaction with a bad feeling.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

All the Single Ladies (and Gentlemen)

I haven't been grocery shopping in over a week. I'm out of butter and dishsoap and I'm almost out of eggs. But it's amazing how far you can stretch your refrigerator contents with a little imagination. May I present a recipe I came up with tonight...

Pesto in a Pan

2 tbs. olive oil
2 handfuls or tongfuls of leftover pasta
a couple tablespoons of Parmesan cheese (can ok)
generous amount of dried basil
salt and pepper to taste
dash garlic powder

It's good to start with all the ingredients out. Heat oil on medium-high heat in large saucepan, then throw in pasta. Toss in all the rest of the ingredients, adding in the amounts that taste good to you. Stir rapidly and constantly until heated through. Fold in nuts and top with parmesan cheese. Dinner is served in 5 minutes. Voila!

Clean-up looks to be a bitch as the pasta sticks to the pan, but oh well. At least now you can watch that movie you wanted to see.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How I Finally Learned Sales

Selling things was something I long considered inferior to my intelligence, just as I figured I was too creative to really learn computer skills. But being of prime working age in the 21st century, those are both skills that come in handy again and again and again.

I have held many customer service positions--waitress, barista, waitress again, and finally vitamin-seller right now at a health food store. I have interacted with thousands of customers over the years, and right after college I found my lack of a powerful job rather depressing. A customer would ask me what my favorite side dish was at the restaurant where I worked, and I'd look at them with a blase expression and think, "Why has this person who has so much money chosen to put together that clothing combination?" or "Don't they know I'm a brilliant artist?" or "Has this person ever even seen a Woody Allen movie?" You can see this attitude time and time again when you walk into a Barnes & Noble or Borders--ask a salesperson for the latest bestseller and watch him raise his eyebrows--after all, he has a master's degree in creative writing and you don't.

So on the one hand you have unwilling salespeople who would rather be painting, or discussing politics, or drinking, or a combination of all three, and on the other hand you have the idea of the aggressive, fight-to-the-death salesperson. When we think of sales, we think of movies like Glengarry Glen Ross, where a group of men must play a desperate all-night game of lying and manipulation to make their sales quotas. We also think of door-to-door religious converters, and kids on the street holding clipboards who block your path by saying, "Do you have a minute for the environment?"

But this is a terrible business practice that only exists because aggressive, manipulative selling proves profitable among certain businesses. More credible businesses usually don't use these practices. I think about another sales job I had where I was a telemarketer for a few weeks. Our company was being contracted out by an obscure auto insurance company to find leads over the telephone. We had a script that we could not deviate from, that asked questions like, "How many cars do you have at your home?" The script never asked any yes or no questions like, "would you be interested in finding out about lower rates?" because the running wisdom was that yes or no questions allowed people to say "no" and hang up. Our bait was that we might be able to "save them money" over their current plan, but any American who pays attention to television would already know that they could compare rates on, and find the best deals there. Or, they might also know that Geico has really cheap insurance.

And there you have it--the most successful businesses in the U.S. never need to resort to manipulative selling practices, because they already have a great product. McDonald's can give you a hamburger in 60 seconds. Starbuck's gives you a strong cup of coffee that tastes the same each time. Geico gives you an online insurance quote and never has a salesperson call you. You would never find representatives from any of these companies stopping you in the street to buy their product. This is because they are at or near the top of their market. And if a company is resorting to aggressive selling practices, it probably has an inferior product.

But back to my experience as a salesperson--when I finally decided at my current job to pay attention to sales, I thought I would have to be like one of these manipulative guys in Glengarry Glen Ross. I thought I'd be trying to sell people the most expensive vitamins, and hypnotizing them into buying more than one product. But I soon found that people have a mind of their own, and will buy what they want to buy. And the more I worked there, the more I realized--the big secret of selling is liking and respecting people. That's it. So simple. No math involved, no analyzing of how much money I think this person makes.

It starts with a really simple thought, which I pulled from contemporary spiritual practices (but works for capitalism, ha), which works with any person in your life, regardless of whether or not you are selling something to them. The thought is, "I am talking to myself." If you understand the person you are talking to to be yourself, you will immediately be more concerned for them and more aware of their intelligence. Whenever I think this, I usually get an intuitive feeling of what they're doing in the store, it could be "I have a cold and I want to get out of here as fast as possible, just give me something," it could be "my girlfriend's all into natural products and wants me to stop taking antibiotics, but I think natural products are for hippies," or it could be "I have an hour to spend here and I want to find the perfect lipstick, because I've had a bad day." Selling things is not hard in Beverly Hills, but there are customers who want to spend $200 on vitamins and customers who want to spend $8. There are customers who don't want to spend money that day at all. And on a good day, provided that I'm not stressed out about my own life, I can help them all. Sometimes it's not about selling anything at all, but developing a relationship of trust with the customer. For example, sometimes I'll show a customer a couple of products, and they seem sort of doubtful, in which case I excuse myself to give her the privacy to decide for herself whether she wants those products or not. It's a real pity we don't work on commission.

But it's funny to me that being a successful salesperson is a simple matter of liking the people you interact with. That wisdom probably comes from the same place as, "do what you love, and the money will follow."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Do you like Colin Firth?

I was watching my favorite show, “30 Rock,” the other day, and the episode had to do with Liz Lemon, the highly successful 37-year-old single television writer, trying to impress an adoption agency so she could bring home a baby. She dresses in a terrible soccer mom outfit even Oprah would laugh at, and pleads with her staff to “act normal” while the agent comes to NBC. As she reflects on what her home says about her, she says, “I wonder if I should hide my Colin Firth movies. Maybe they would consider that pornography?’

And it hit me like a ton of bricks—I’m more like Liz Lemon than I thought. I had always looked up to her character, who gets cornflakes in her hair and passes time at galas by trying to eat as much free food as possible. But this was spooky, and I began to think—is there a Colin Firth type?

My crush on Colin Firth is a recent development; the only movies I have seen him in are “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “Love Actually.” (Those are two fabulous romantic comedies in a genre that is usually lacking—if you were embarrassed by “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” raise your hand.) In both movies, he is supposed to be the anti-charming, awkward guy—in “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” he actually manages to scare the main character off because he’s so depressing. But it works for him well, I love actors and actresses who can make you laugh without ever cracking a smile or doing anything big and loud. Watch him bumble through the Portuguese language in “Love Actually” and tell me you’re not in love.

I like Colin Firth so much I have actually contemplated what I’d do if he ever walked into my store (at my health food store, we get a lot of celebrities). I envision that I’d ask him to sign part of my body, as if he were Derek Jeter or something, but probably I’d just stare a lot.

Firth’s life is interesting—his parents are professors, his grandparents were missionaries, and he spent part of his childhood in Nigeria. He speaks out politically for people who are being taken advantage of in third-world countries. And in an interesting gender role reversal, he’s married to an Italian film director and producer. She’s the brains and he’s the beauty.

Anyway, long story short, I think there is a Colin Firth type. Look at this picture of the actor getting coffee dumped on him. He posed for this photo to draw attention to the issue of unconscionable trade practices. But really, c'mon--it's a wet t-shirt photo, only with coffee. That's hilarious to women who grew up hanging out in coffee shops. Scroll down a little, and check out all the comments that have been posted by women, and you'll see that there is indeed a Colin Firth type. Firth is to bookish women what Princess Leia is to tech-geek men. The best thing is that none of the women seem to understand or care about the political content of the photo.

Well, how about this--if Firth shows up at my place of work, I'll tape a bag of fair-trade coffee to my body, and have him sign that?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Kindergarten People

As many of you know, I recently began a credential program at Cal State L.A. to become a special ed teacher. As part of my first class, we must observe actual K-12 classrooms for 45 hours before the quarter's up.

I signed on with a kindergarten class near my home, and I also got suckered into being a teacher's assistant rather than "observer," so they're getting 30 hours of hard labor from me for free. Today was my fourth session with the class, and let me tell you--kindergartners are a knock out. A lot of you who have children may remember this from when your own were five, but the last time I was around such small children I was a babysitting teenager, and much more interested in teenage affairs rather than light-up sneakers.

There's one kid who cracks me up, Lucas, I haven't gotten much of a chance to talk to him, but I like him because he's just so well-behaved. The teacher assigns a worksheet and he gets right to it, no dilly-dallying at all. Today the kids were coloring in jaguars, and all the other kids were topping each other--"My jaguar has a pink jeweled crown and lives in a purple forest," "My jaguar is blue with silver machine claws," and Lucas sat there quietly and colored in an orange jaguar, living in a forest of brown tree trunks and green leaves. It's not that he's shy or maladjusted--he gets along with the other kids well and seems perfectly happy--it's just that he doesn't carry the normal ego trappings of a regular five year old. It's like he's just waiting to get to college so he can really show us what he's about. At lunch--this is the image that sticks in my mind--I watched all the kids picking at their lasagna, throwing bits of bread at each other, whacking each other, yelling at each other. Teachers surrounding them, directing them back to their seats, telling them to eat their apple slices. In the middle of the maelstrom sat Lucas, staring into space, diligently eating a seaweed (seaweed!) snack that had been prepared by his parents. I could just see his little mind working...I think it was saying,"Look at these idiots around me. Where did I leave that copy of the New York Times?" Probably the future of green technology right there.

Another girl, Jerlyn, is great because she has style that would have made her part of Oscar Wilde's inner circle. She says everything in a dramatic voice and already seems to have developed a sense of comic timing. We were talking about Halloween costumes a couple of weeks ago, and at first she told me hers was a secret. But she told me she would give me clues. "Well, she's very beautiful, she's very rich, and she flies all over the world." Is it Paris Hilton? I thought. "What is it? A princess?" I asked. "Nooo," she said,"a fairy." I guess fairies are rich in her world. Today, a few of us were looking at Myles' jaguar picture, and I commented that I liked the colors he had used a lot--bright tomato orange and turquoise. "Those are rock and roll colors," said Jerlyn."Do you want to know why he used those colors?" she asked. "Why?" "Because this" she said as she held up his drawing,"is a piece of rock and roll."

This is a fabulously fun time, so long as they don't have sharp objects.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

L.A. Idiosyncrasies

As most people know, I have spent the past six or so months living in Los Angeles. And I've noticed several characteristics that make Angelenos unique among Americans, or at least among American cityfolk. They are surprising...

a) Strangers often get into involved conversations in regular settings, like waiting for the bus or renting a movie. The theory on this is that people spend so much time in their cars that they are glad for a little company. Here is a reenactment of a conversation I had at the Jolibee drive-thru, a local fast food joint with burgers and Filipino food.

"Hi, welcome to Jolibee."

"Hi, I'll have the hamburger meal."

"Do you want that with fries or rice?"

"I don't know--I've never been here before, what's better?"

"Oh, well then you should try our chicken! It's our specialty!"

After I agreed to the chicken meal, I drove up to the window to meet the girl and we talked about what parts of the neighborhood we lived in, and for how long we had lived there. Have you ever had a conversation with a drive-thru attendant before? I haven't.

b) Angelenos don't have normal internal thermostats. When I first moved here in February, it was pretty warm compared to Colorado. On one of the first spring days we had, I wore shorts to work, because it was comfortable. "Are you crazy?" said one of my coworkers. "It's freezing outside!" It was indeed cloudy outside, but it was also probably 70 degrees. It's kind of cute, the people who have lived here awhile think that grey weather means cold, I think the clouds play tricks on them. On cloudy days you will often see people wearing fleeces and Uggs, even though it's in the 60s or higher.

c) Finally, and most amazingly, Angelenos don't honk. When you're driving, an Angeleno will honk only if you're about to hit them, and if they honk in any other situation, "then they're probably not from here," says my friend Nadine, a Beverly Hills native. I expected traffic to be horrible and vicious when I got here, but it exists as sort of a beautiful symbiotic colony of microorganisms. There are situations everyday where drivers do stupid things, like suddenly swerve into the lane you're in with no turn signal, but people let it pass because they know the next day, they will be that driver. People almost always let you into the lane you need to get into.

The most incredible story I have of the traffic involves a three-way intersection--three streets intersecting in a star pattern. I still haven't quite figured out how these work. One day, I was sitting at one such intersection, in the right lane at a red light. Not quite realizing the logic, I decided to turn right, because that's what you can normally do in the right lane with a red. As soon as I turned right, I realized I was crossing in front of a two-or three lane street that had a green, and there was traffic rushing toward me at a dangerous speed. I panicked and made sort of a stop-start driving pattern across the street. Incredibly, the cars all slowed down to a stop to let me pass, and nobody honked. Have you ever seen such accomodation?

All the more reason to move to L.A.--the people, the weather, and the people.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Great Children's Stories

I think there's a tendency among adults to want to protect children, and not allow them near anything painful, especially if it's a movie or book that's too big for them. But kids are innately drawn to morbid things. I was about eleven when "Silence of the Lambs" came out, and in the years that followed I begged my mother to let me watch it (she finally let me watch it, and I think it gave her a few gray hairs).

But on the opposite end, kids get really frustrated when things are too simplistic and G-rated for them, as if a group of 45-year-old marketers is sitting in a room, trying to figure out how to get those kids to buy sneakers without actually interviewing any of them. Have you ever seen a kid make fun of a character in a math word problem or foreign language exercise? It's because those exercises are so outdated and written by people out of touch with kids.

Kids are drawn to morbid things, for what reason, I don't know, but they also have more awareness of the world than most adults think. They usually swear and know a lot about the birds and the bees before sex ed.

And they also experience real pain. They are the victims of injustice--parents who may take out their stress on them, parents who may push them into more activities than they want, teachers who consciously or unconsciously play favorites, and a schoolyard like the Wild West, where the friends you have one day may not be your friends the next.

That's why I was thinking about great children's stories. The thing these authors have in common is they trust kids with dangerous or painful scenarios, and they also empower their characters. Think about Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," where a small child sails across an ocean alone and is greeted by savage monsters two or three times bigger than he. And they're scary-looking! Think about "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," the TV special, in which all Charlie Brown gets from adults in his trick-or-treat bag is rocks. It's funny, but it's also a feeling most kids can relate to at some point in their lives.

Finally, the reason I wrote this blog is because I just realized how great J.K. Rowling is. I reread "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" recently, and some of the chapters in that book are scary, even for adults. Harry Potter and his friends nearly get killed several times, and in the beginning of the book, you find out that Harry's parents were murdered when he was a baby. I didn't even know you could talk about death and murder in a children's story, but Rowling has proved that you can.

I think about a scene when Harry and his friends have to play a game of life-sized chess in order to stop an evil sorcerer, and they have to act as three of the pieces. They soon realize that when a piece gets taken, the opposing piece will knock it unconscious. Harry's friend Ron realizes he has to sacrifice himself, so he steps forward, and the white queen whacks him across the head with a stone arm, and he crumples to the ground, unconscious. It's a shocking image, a ten or eleven-year old boy lying unconscious on the ground.

And of course, Rowling greatly empowers her characters. Harry goes from being an unloved orphan, locked in a room under the stairs by his aunt and uncle, to a boy who saves the day at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The tale is so hypnotizing that even adults have read the whole series.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thoughts on Tibet

I'm in the middle of watching a documentary, "10 Questions for the Dalai Lama," and I'm having trouble stomaching it. I've heard that putting someone on a pedestal is the same as putting them in the gutter, and that's exactly what director Rick Ray does to the Tibetan people.

I cringe when filmmakers and photographers stick their cameras in the faces of lower-class people without getting permission to film them, especially if the people are tired or don't want to be filmed or are in the middle of doing something private. One cut has a man working on some prayer beads who looks up at the camera as if he doesn't want to be filmed, then returns to the beads. Would you want a foreign film crew randomly filming you if you were in the middle of lighting a candle for your dead grandmother in a Catholic church?

Ray never interviews any of the faces he portrays--it's just shot after shot of people who live a supposed "noble life" because they live in Tibetan exile. So the first part of the film is dedicated to the Dalai Lama's history and the people of Tibet, but not from a very informative standpoint, from a much idealized standpoint.

I finally got to the point in the movie where Rick Ray is interviewing the Dalai Lama, and his first question is, "Why do poor people seem so much happier than rich people?" I'm embarrassed to be a white person when I hear such questions. You only need to walk around a poorer area of the United States to know that poor people are not necessarily happier--in fact they might like to go on a cruise. I had to turn off the movie for a minute.

I don't believe that poor people are necessarily happier than rich people, and I don't believe it's something to aspire to. Simplicity is noble, sure, but also important are adequate health care and human rights. Anyone who believes poor people are nobler probably never spent much time out of the educated upper class.

My parents visited Tibet this summer, and they showed me a picture of a Tibetan farm family. "Guess how old this woman is," said my father. A woman with a tan, wrinkly face--I guessed fifty-five. I was sure my father would say she was seventy, and I'd be so impressed with some traditional diet and spirituality that was keeping her young and vital. "She's thirty-five years old," he said. The lack of a healthy variety in the Tibetan diet was contributing to her aging prematurely. Is this something to aspire to?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Trophy wives v. CEOs

I recently began reading "Are Men Necessary?" by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. In the first couple of chapters, she muses whether 1970's feminism was all a bust, what with young women today returning to the fashion of taking their husbands' last names, and things like that.

The women of my age she interviews consider the feminism of their mothers' generation too harsh and humorless, and wonder if some of the feminine mystique has been lost by women trying to climb the corporate ladder and split the check.

I understand where they are coming from, as it is an argument I have had with my mother before. "What's wrong with being a housewife?" I would say. "Maybe women are meant to nurture their young and cultivate a nice household. Maybe working too hard is a strain on the family."

And indeed, women of my generation often saw our mothers stretched thin by working 50 hour work weeks and coming home to make dinner. How wonderful, then, to have the day to yourself to run errands, and perhaps a whole hour or two to plan a nice dinner?

I was raised as a feminist, but I first began noticing these anti-feminist tendencies in myself after college. I remember seeing a Colorado Rockies baseball player's wife on TV, and being so impressed with her perfect body and expensive blond hair and nails. I wanted to become that, to cultivate a perfect femininity in myself to attract a testosterone-laden, tall mate--for life. I loved, and still love, to study the art of being a woman--knowing what color purse is in this season, knowing what herbs support the reproductive system, having as many perfumes as possible available on my shelf to choose from. I think this gets at the crux of what women my age are seeking, we want to be softer women than our mothers were allowed to be. We want to be able to slow down, and iron linens, and have leisure time.

My mother recently attended law school, and she saw a major trend to a return to pre-feminism days among the students. She talked to many 24 and 25-year-olds whose plan was to get a law degree, get a husband, spend 20 years raising children, and then return to the work force with their two-decades-old law degree, and no work experience.

And this, she pointed out, was naive. Employers will much prefer to employ young people just out of law school, or people who have 20 years experience in the workforce.

Which brings me to my mother's point. Even if you do decide to take the homemaker route, you'd best have something to fall back on. Because you don't know if that lawyer or baseball player husband of yours will leave you once your boobs start sagging. Especially if you are attracting mates in your twenties primarily with your looks, and primarily with the intention of marrying rich.

1970's feminism was not a bust, then, but something we twenty-somethings had best pay attention to. As my mom pointed out, being a housewife was not romantic for everyone in the 1950's. Some of them were beaten, some of them had children that were beaten, and some had alcohol or drug-addicted husbands. And they couldn't go anywhere because they had no way of supporting themselves.

So we've got to realize that the big feminism wave has made homemaking a choice for us, and we'd better be damn well appreciative. We still might not earn as much as men, but we can get to college, we can get in the office, and with the right resourcefulness, we can get the corner office. And then we can brush it all aside and decide to become a soccer mom.

But if you do decide to become a soccer mom, have a backup plan, says my mom, and says me. Take computer classes, network, and read the paper. Work part-time. Improve your skill set.

Because you never know what the future holds.