Saturday, November 24, 2007

It's run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.

Daughter and Consort are off doing Saturday-afternoon things. This is to say Daughter is spending time with my mother and Consort is waiting to pick her up; a chore more accurately described as "loitering at the Apple Store". I am taking this opportunity to clean out Daughter's closet. This is necessary because our house was built during the era when people owned a single pair of shoes and the entire family shared a sweater.

I am also cleaning out the closet because I don't know if you noticed but we're heading into the Crap Accumulation Season. I know, I am bending my rule about working clean, but I chose my word with justifiable precision. A year ago, when it first entered the house all gaily-wrapped and lavishly-bowed, it was a present, a toy, a gizmo, a whatzit, a desirable object of some sort. Now, one year later, having been played with a grand total of seven minutes -- six of which were spent removing it from its package -- it's crap. And it seems to have reached its sexual maturity so it's now capable of mating with all the other crap in our closets, spawning more craplets that Daughter doesn't recognize and I don't want.

So with this in mind, I would like to share a few thoughts -- theses if you will -- regarding the upcoming holidays. There are only five so far (putting me about ninety shy of a reformation)and I promise not to nail them to the front door of the Best Buy. But I am serious. On a superficial level I am a parent running out of closet space. On a deeper level I'm a citizen utterly dismayed by America's economic fragility, a condition based in no small part by our mounting devotion to the twin gods: MasterCard and Visa.

So, in no particular order, my Five Theses for the 2007 Holiday Season:

1. MY DAUGHTER HAS ENOUGH STUFF. So does every single child I know. If left to their own devices they could play from Candy Corn season, through Holiday Corn season right up to Easter Corn season without ever leaving their bedrooms. If you are getting something for Daughter because you think it would be wrong to not give her something, please let me give you permission. Stuff-wise, she's full up. Don't worry, she’s going to get a few nice gifts from us, but once you start filling a trash-bag with any kid's previous years’ essentials you can’t help but notice how few toys he or she actually plays with.

2. IT'S NOT ABOUT THINGS. I don't want the season to be about the gathering of more pre-crap stuff. I want it to be about making a fire and watching the "Charlie Brown Christmas Special" [but no more than twice, because that song will get stuck in your brain]. I want it to be about driving home the long way to see the Christmas lights in the neighborhood. I want it to be about a local production of the "Nutcracker", where Daughter's friend is the second mouse from the left. I want it to be about picking out something special for a kid her age in the foster-care system and making felt catnip toys for the cats at our local rescue shelter. I want this time of year to about kindness and family and maybe eating divinity for breakfast one day. It's easy to make it about Her, what with her being an only child, but I have had the singular experience of knowing people who made it All About Me, and I would no sooner raise one of those than I would remove my own appendix with a spork.

3. IT’S NOT A STAGE SET, IT’S YOUR CREDIT SCORE. A mountain of presents spilling out from under the tree into the next room does look bountiful and marvelously excessive in a Ralph Lauren-y, Martha Stewart-y way. But you're not them. If a day’s worth of catalog-worthy snapshots leaves you with a dozen new and persistent phone buddies at a credit card call center in Bangalore, how attractive will that pile look come next September?

4. THIS ONE HOLIDAY ISN’T GOING TO FIX YOUR CHILDHOOD. So your father drank and your mother cried a lot and one year you got nothing but pork jerky from the old lady who lived downstairs? I am terribly sorry. I really am. But spending thousands of dollars to make sure everyone in your life has the best and most wonderful present from you isn’t going to fill that hole. A lot of presents are given for the most generous and high-minded of reasons, but I also think of a lot of money is spent trying to spackle over some really ancient sadness. It won't. Of course, if Old Lady Pork Jerky is still around, send her a nice card.

5. IT SHOULDN’T BE THAT HARD. If you are flogging yourself because you can’t think of a single thing to get a particular person because you just don’t know what they like to do or what their hobbies are, maybe that’s a hint that you don’t need to get them anything. Every year, I wait in dread for the SBFA (somewhere-between-friend-and-acquaintance) to give me a Starbucks gift card. On a practical level, this person just loaned Starbucks money, interest free, until such time as I redeem the card. On a personal level, I’d sooner pay for my own tea than have to endure that stricken “Gosh, thanks! Your present…is…around…here…somewhere…” moment; after which I rush off and get her a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf gift card for exactly the same amount. This has all the warmth and sincerity of an ATM transaction.

I guess I'm looking for a sane place somewhere between Ebenezer Scrooge and Thomas Kincaid. If you think there's some merit in this approach, all my Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa celebrators, let’s try something. At some point over the next three weeks, each of us will be standing somewhere, holding a singing trout in one hand and a digital tire gauge in the other trying to remember if Great-Uncle Ted is still unaccounted for, list-wise. When the saleswoman rushes up to ask if you need something wrapped, I suggest you tell her, in a calm, clear and appropriately cheerful voice, “Thanks, but I have enough”.

Then leave the store.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fun and Games.

The new dog is very well, thanks for asking. I keep waiting for the crazy to slither out and, say, eat the armoire, but there doesn’t appear to be any crazy in him. There are only doe-eyes, a constantly wagging tail and the most uniformly happy disposition ever seen outside a cult. His demands are simple: he wants to be with us. More specifically, he wants to be with me. After living with an intermittently moody Dalmatian for six years, it’s odd to be adored. Polly, the Dalmatian, actually preferred my mother’s company to mine. I’d take her over to visit my mom, only to have to drag her from the house, front legs wrapped around my mother’s waist, moans of terror letting the world know I was ripping her away from the only mother she had ever known. The new dog loves my mother, as he loves everyone in his life who tells him he’s sweet and in the right light resembles Orlando Bloom. But I’m the only poster on the inside of his locker.

When you get a new dog and you have the kind of friends I have, you go through something like a weeks-long baby-shower. I’d bring him to meet people, people would come to meet him, people would coo over him, and people would bring him presents. Unlike when Daughter was born, no one has given me burp cloths, which is good, because I never did understand what I was supposed to be doing with them. What my friends have brought are toys and chewies, and these are both completely appropriate and always welcome. He has taken all of them to his bed and frequently tries to take them with him up onto the couch. But his great love right now is a toy I found in the “slightly-dented-and-drooled-upon” discount bin at the local pet store. It is a fuzzy stuffed lizard in a shade of blue which offends even the blind. In its plump middle is a squeaker. He loves his lizard toy almost as much as he loves me. In truth, he might love Lizard more because I eventually complain if he drools on me, and Lizard never does. At least once a day, he races to find Lizard, brings it to me, and we have a rousing game of fetch until one of us has to go back to writing or needs a cup of tea.

Lulabelle the cat watches all of this with an almost palpable scorn. She is long past worrying whether or not the dog is going to hurt her, and a few needle-sharp nails to the nose has taught the dog to cut her a wide berth for the most part. But she watches him with a visible contempt -- a certain curl to her upper lip. I’m pleased about this, because while I have no science to back this up, a lifetimes’ observation of cats leads me to believe cats need to hate something. It focuses them. Otherwise, the life of the average housecat is just a tedious stream of needs met and butts scratched. Having something in their lives which fills them with disgust gives them something to write about in their journals. And as far as the cat is concerned this dog might be the perfect manifestation of inanity.

At least once a day, the dog makes social overtures:

(Dog walks up to cat, who is grooming her bikini area.)

DOG: Hi!

(Cat, startled, snaps her head around and glares at the dog.)

CAT: W….H….A…T…?

DOG: You look especially pretty today. Did you do something new with your ears?

CAT: (Raising one paw) Do you need the nail?

DOG: You’re busy, I’ll check in later.

Yesterday, the dog produced Lizard and shook it in front of me in a taunting way. I knew the cue and said sternly, “Drop it”.

We’re back in obedience training, and the new teacher advocates hand-signals, rather than words. She swears that when we think they are listening to what we say, they’re actually picking up on body language, so we might as well go directly to the hand-signal. This is fine, but we haven’t gotten to the signal for “Leave it”, so I go with the tried-and-true stern voice and waiting.

After a minute or so, the dog dropped the lizard and I picked it up while singing “GOOD dog!” I then flung the lizard across the room.

If joy has ever had a physical form, it was this dog, nails scrabbling to find purchase on the hardwood floor, racing after his favorite toy. He pounced on Lizard, and brought it back to me, tail waving proudly. For centuries, his ancestors recovered wounded birds back from the marsh to their owners's feet, but no dog was ever more proud than my dog was of his plush electric-blue prey. So pleased was he, in fact, that while he ran away from me toward Lizard and ran back to me with Lizard, he raced past the cat no fewer than eight times. The first few times, the cat went to the trouble of arching and puffing up her fur at the galloping beast headed her way, clearly meaning her harm. By time six, she wasn’t arching or puffing any more. She was icily watching him bound back and forth, flipping her tail in the measured way cats do when they're focused on something odd. If I wasn’t mistaken, she was a little miffed at being ignored.

Each time he raced past the cat, she shifted a little closer to his line of sight. Each time, focused on his prize, he paid no attention to her. Finally, throwing her dignity to the wind, she stepped nearly in front of his path. Flush with the pleasure of having caught Lizard again, he dropped it in front of her, threw his butt in the air and barked happily. Lulabelle swatted him sharply on the nose and walked away, tail and head held high. Undaunted, he picked up the toy and brought it to me and dropped it at my feet.

I picked up Lizard, scratched the dog's head and said to him, “If it’s any consolation, I think she likes you.”

The trainer is undoubtedly right that dogs understand very little English.

Still, he seemed pleased.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Mad About You

I rarely do reviews of television shows, because I am well aware that my taste isn’t for everyone. For example, virtually no-one but me wanted to see a documentary on the deleterious effects of bringing the cane toad into Australia, and that is their loss. I accept that a show which pleases me usually sends others frantically scanning up and down the channels, looking for re-runs of Dynasty or the Bass-Fishing Network. But, I must sing the praises of Mad Men.

Oh, how I love this show about advertising men in Manhattan in 1960. The writing is terrific and haunting, and the characters are flawed in totally satisfying ways. According to my mother, who wasn’t far from that world, the writers have gotten the whole mélange of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and white-guy entitlement exactly right. I get to squeal is horrified delight when the eight months’-pregnant character is having a cocktail and a Virginia Slims. And over in the shallower end of the pool, it just looks so freaking good; all I want to do is tug my hair into a French twist and put on pointy-toed pumps. And that’s even remembering how my mother had to have bunion surgery in the 1980’s to repair the effects of pointy-toed 1959 shoes. And then there’s Jon Hamm, and he’s very nice, too.

But there was something else, something I couldn’t exactly define, which kept drawing me back to the show, leaving me in a near-opiatic state of contentment. What was it? On Halloween night, I was happy to find that friend Veronica felt much the same way. Well-drawn characters, blahblahblah, fabulous look, blahblahblah, Jon Hamm, blahblahblahblahblahblahblah(SIGH) blahblahblahblahblahblahblah.

“And don’t you just love it when he goes to work?” Veronica sighed, serving pizza to her daughter and mine, creating a base-layer of carbohydrates off of which the forthcoming candy could bounce.

I yelped, “That’s IT!”. Veronica’s children, unused to mothers who yelp, looked at me in confusion. Daughter, benumbed to me, gnawed away at her dinner. Veronica waited.

“You and I are fascinated by this show because the male characters go to work at the same time every day, come home at the same time every day, and wear grown men’s clothing all the time.”

She thought, and nodded. “You have to admit, it looks really good.”

We both love wonderful men who are terrific fathers to their kids. You would consider yourself lucky to have either as a friend. But the fact remains, they have weird careers. Veronica’s husband works in the entertainment industry on the production side; part of the reason he chose the job he did was so he could wear shorts to work for up to nine months a year. When he works, his hours are brutal and days frequently blur into one another. When he doesn’t work, he’s totally available to Veronica and the kids, but there’s also this undercurrent of “This was the very last job I will ever get. I will never work again.” This minor note becomes louder with each passing week until he gets hired and then he slips off to the dark side of the moon again.

Consort doesn’t work in the entertainment industry, a fact which relieves me this week when everyone else in Los Angeles is sweating about the writers’ strike. This doesn’t mean, however, that his job is the paragon of stability. Companies rent Consort’s brain. It’s a very nice brain, and I understand renting it, but it doesn’t lead to a life of great predictability. This is usually how a job contingent on brain-renting works:

1. In the first week, there are several meetings with the company at random times. This is the week I’ll see in him a suit, but I’ll also have no use of the big computer, because he’ll be printing out seemingly endless articles on something like “YouTube on the Space Station? How inter-planetary travel will affect advertising rates”. He mumbles a lot in the first week.

2. The company rents his brain and the Excel spreadsheet program springs into action. I don’t care what he’s doing; it’s improved by a spreadsheet showing the depreciation rate. The depreciation rate of what, you might ask? I asked for a few years, and now I don’t, because the answer was always very long and made me start eating my hair. It’s enough for all of us not renting his brain to know that things depreciate. Also, the phrase “Net Present Value” comes up; I’m not sure brain-renters feel they have gotten their money’s worth without that phrase splashed about. This is the time where our family relationship settles into 1) Quinn saying to Daughter, “Shh, Daddy is working”; 2) Daughter looking puzzled, because Daddy appears to be dressed like it’s a Saturday and is staring at the computer screen, and 3) Consort staring at the computer screen, mumbling. Sometimes during this week, he suddenly darts off to a meeting. These meetings inevitably take place across town and are called for rush-hour. Therefore, this is also the time where Consort is found at eleven p.m. sitting at the kitchen table, eating dinner and doing the crossword puzzle. If he sees me, he says things like “So, how are you two?” and “Has your hair always been that color?”

3. As we close in on the delivery date, Consort mumbles less, but swears more. Mostly, he sits at the computer breathing shallowly and typing. His wardrobe for this stage consists of jeans and t-shirts of such antiquity that they have the fragility of parchment and have all--no matter what color they started off--faded to the color of the water in which you rise off your watercolor brush. This wardrobe says “I am not going outside until this work is done.” Daughter and I kiss him gingerly as we leave for school each morning. Many congealed cups of milky coffee stand guard around the house. One night, he becomes fixated on fonts and margin-widths.

4. Finally, the project leaves, with a maddeningly anticlimactic click of a mouse. Consort makes the ceremonial trip to the dry-cleaners to pick up whatever part of his wardrobe is needed for the next meetings. I notice he’s writing an email with the heading of “Facebook and House Pets: The underserved market?”. Within days, he’s mumbling and Excel-ing again.

Without working up a sweat, I can think of fifteen families where the main breadwinner, be they male or female, works weird hours and rarely needs business clothes. I can only think of three families who have a parent who works from nine to five and wear traditional business clothing. Since we live in Los Angeles, that obviously weights my acquaintances towards the entertainment industry, but more than half of those families have parents who aren’t in the business at all. The greatest leap from Mad Men’s 1959 to now might not be that women aren’t just pointy-breasted objects of desire, or that Jewish and black people might actually be something besides two-thirds of a joke. Because, let’s face it, some men do still behave abysmally towards women in their office, and just because prejudice has become less socially acceptable doesn’t mean it’s gone. The thing which would be the most unrecognizable to those advertising men, those hipsters of their time, would be what we define as work.

Everything worth saying about what computers have done to our lives has been said, by people much smarter and better-paid than I am. In fact, I believe someone once rented Consort’s brain to talk about just that subject. I will only say this; I read once that Napoleon would have recognized how to command a Roman legion of nearly two thousand years’ earlier, because the weapons wouldn’t have changed all the much, but he wouldn’t have known what to do with tools from the Second World War, less than two hundred years after his life. Among all the other large concepts the computer has redefined (Friend, stranger, privacy), it has upended the idea of the job. The typical employee of the 1950’s might stay late at work, but when he left for the night, the work couldn’t follow him home. Their employees sat outside their office; Consort’s last employees were in the South Korea. No one I know expects to make it to getting the retirement gold watch with their job. Fewer and fewer companies are offering pension funds or even insurance. The average Baby Boomer held almost eleven jobs between the ages of eighteen and forty. The changing definition of work-hours is just the visible part of a fundamental change in the idea of work and our relationship to it.

I know what I make of the Mad Men; what would they have made of us?