Monday, June 15, 2009

A short list of reasons why I hate the i-phone

1) Because I am a romantic, I write letters. Sometimes with actual paper. Sometimes I even go to the trouble to send post-cards which I bought long ago and which have a sort of antique-ish feel. I assume these efforts are lost on those who would prefer the instant gratification of knowing immediately what exactly I was feeling and whether or not I was to ride unto Stanton Estate post haste. It's Austen I'm parodying here. Have you ever read Austen? Most of those novels are based on the idea of a woman waiting for a letter. That is the whole key to the suspense of the thing, the reader wondering what Willoughby's letter will say and whether or not it will cause some waifish heroine to catch typhus and die.

2)I have gotten a few of these lately-- "Dear John for reasons which I cannot fully disclose to you for fear I might hurt the future of our [blah blah blah, insert cryptic commentary here] I must insist that we cease our [etc.] Love, [so and do] sent from my i-phone." It's that last bit that always gets me. I picture this person (whom I may or may not care deeply about) sitting there typing this drivel into tiny little keys on a tiny little screen, all the while just hoping that the sword will work it's way appropriately into my heart and that I won't bother them anymore with these horrible letters that I write, the last of which may just arrive in the mail days after this message was "sent from my i-phone", embarrassing the writer (me) permanently. Apparently, you CAN get rid of this shameless shout-out to the apple company, a corporation whose focus is not software but sexy design of hardware and making things "easier" for the user who will no longer have any choice in what happens regarding their technology. However, people don't want to get rid of the "sent from my i-phone" because it reminds everyone that they are a member of a new proud generation that is forward thinking and will surely be the first to have i-phones implanted in their brain when apple unveils the new "i-cranium." To me, "sent from my i-phone" just means you typed this on a tiny little keyboard, and the emotions there, if there were any there to begin with, seem suddenly devoid of import with the addition of the little electronic signature. How would Bergman's letter to Bogart have been different if instead of "I cannot see you now or ever again" appeared on a tiny little handheld screen instead of tear streaked paper which showed the flowing cursive of her unforgettable character? How would he have crushed the letter in anger? Would he have thrown his iphone across the room? Probably not-- those things cost 300 $!

3) The other day I was gallivanting around San Francisco with my friend Ritik the doctor, a crime-fighting superhero who solves mysteries with his iphone, who also gives directions and can draw you a map. I have always wanted to "gallivant" and it seemed possible with our new technology. At one point Ritik got hungry and asked if I wanted to go get lunch. "I could eat" I said. He then whipped out his iphone and reported to me that "people [were] raving about the Vietnamese barbecue chicken available down the street. I pumped approximately 80 dollars in quarters into the meter and then Ritik's iphone led us to the little hole in the wall where this miraculous food was available. I told him that I was more enamored of the idea that one could "know a little place down the street" and be considered heroic and in-the-know by those who should choose to help themselves to a minimum share of the bill via flattery. He told me that he thought his way was more democratic, but I still felt something vaguely disgusting and absurd about it, and this didn't help my already developing suspicion of the i-phone. We ate; it was delicious as the i-phone predicted, and it was only a matter of minutes before the i-phone saved the day again, when two confused people without iphones asked us for directions. Ritik and the iphone asked them to pull over and the guy whipped out some kind of paper and flashed it as if readying himself for an attempt at stapling it to the door like one would an important document such as an arrest warrant, eviction notice or a treatise against established religion. It had a picture of a marijuana leaf on the front, which he did not attempt or offer to try to explain, and I thought "now I see why this guy's lost." He stared in our general direction, mouth agape while Ritik, along with his ipod, saved the day. If this guy got lost again, he could stop in another 3 blocks and ask the next guy with an ipod. Nearby, some guy's ipod was was telling him of a traffic situation ahead where someone was blocking a lane asking for directions. It wasn't the ipod I was mad at, nor was it Ritik saving the day as always, it was the assault on my established way of life. I liked that Ritik held the answer, the perpetual dispenser of wisdom, a veritable guru with his iphone and all. Ritik used to be at the top of a mountain, available only to those who wished to go to great effort to seek him, whereas now, he's available wherever i phones are sold.

4) Later we were walking around in Golden Gate Park and looking for my friend Asa. I won't dwell over the fact that Ritik's iphone was able to lead us directly to Asa's phone, because that was kind of convenient; I have to be honest. What was weird was that Ritik's phone was able to identify a song that we were hearing in the background once he told his iphone that his level of pop knowledge was getting dangerously low and he wanted the phone to tell him what song was on the radio. It may or may not have identified correctly the song "my humps" being played in the background. Every song pretty much sounds like that song to me. I asked Ritik what his phone would say if we just allowed it to listen to the hippy drum circle taking place nearby. Would it be able to tell us how stoned they were? As we looked up the answer to a question someone had posed, there was a shirtless hairy chested he-manlike character twirling a sword-like object dangerously around for his own amusement apparently, as there was no little tip jar at his feet. A nearby gawker made a shocked grimace and looked at us with an expression that asked "is this guy weird or what?" which is a question we could have used the phone to look into. The gawker said something judgemental like "that's silly" and we noticed that he had a pet chicken sitting under his bench as he said this. I'm sure that right as we remarked about the situation, somewhere there was a programmer developing an application for the iphone capable of detecting irony. "what's it gonna take before people understand each other?" I said, half expecting Ritik to look it up on the iphone.
None of this was objectionable of course because the theatre of the absurd has always been a constant source of entertainment for me. I didn't like however that it was all basically geared toward making it easier for people to consume. You like that song? You don't even need to know music or be hip or spend a lot of time reading reviews of new artists to download it on your iphone. You just tell your iphone that you like those pretty noises in the distance and it will listen to them then direct you to itunes where you can purchase the song you like. Also, no longer will co-incidence come into play when you bump into your old climbing partner Asa in Golden Gate Park. No longer will you be able to think "wow that was cool seeing him here" because your iphone knows where all of your friends are at all times. No one will ever be able to cheat on their spouse again because of the popularity of the "where you at?" function.

5) The iphone eases loneliness artificially. We're busy people. We don't have time to actually talk to other people, face to face, whenever we want. Not when it's easier to just text them. LMAO! Phone ads have relayed the idea of "circles" of people we interact with. We have the inner circle and the inner inner circle and the people who are not allowed to see our whole facebook profile which includes the photos from the drunken spring break. The iphone makes it really easy to twitter our most mundane thoughts over to those outer circle people and help us to feel connected. But people never share anything intimate about themselves over the internet, and so when you end up conversing with someone face to face the conversations adopt the tone of status update blurbs, and slowly but surely, we lose the faculty of real intimacy with those closest to us, and we will have to then pay instead, for therapy.

On my drive home from the Bay Area I stopped over at my Uncle's in Half Moon Bay. He works with technology in his job at Stanford and spends a lot of time analyzing how technology affects the way we all communicate and how technology can be applied to postmodern literature. He is a genius. His rebuttal for "sent from my iphone" is that it's an excuse for typos and shit. Does this also excuse stuff you say in anger or stuff you say without really thinking first? Does it excuse things left unsaid? "Happy belated birthday" not sent from my i-phone. Pretty soon our iphone will save everyone's birthdays and send them an ecard to their iphone or maybe a clumsy not as cool text to their inferior phone(s), which will eliminate the need to genuinely care about anyone's birthday enough to force them to get drunk ever again. We have work the next day.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Nostalgia-- remember that?

This is what I was thinking as I climbed the platform into the dunk tank at the Salinas High School Class of 2009 Graduation Bar-B-Que.

"Do you know anyone who is afflicted with nostalgia?" Corinne's email says. She has emailed me a link to a short she wrote and directed then posted on youtube. I watch it, and of course it stars a friend of hers and a former student of mine whose aloof expression brings to mind memories of sarcastic lines spoken while wandering the streets of New York City on a Yearbook related field trip in 2005, doing (in the interest of coolness) whatever was possible to conceal what seemed to me to be her great excitement on seeing New York for the first time. Although I am proud to see this movie that Corinne has directed, my mind inadvertently wanders from Corinne now and my pride on her behalf now to the scenes of Salinas near the old Spreckels sugar factory and I exclaim aloud, though no one is listening "that's the old house I used to live in!"

The camera sweeps past a "enjoy coca-cola" announcement with paint flaking from the side of a sun worn brick building the front of which, I know from having jogged past there many times along the row of trees that line Spreckels Boulevard, painted white at their base, faces west and receives the afternoon sun which streams in over the hills that surround the fields. The sun streams through the legs of a giant tableau of a farm worker who grinningly holds two heads of lettuce at waist level. To me, the 40 foot tall billboard art Mexican always seemed to be holding his cajones, or juevos if you will.
The whole thing makes me think of my former room-mate here on this occasion when I have just spent the first night in what will be my home for a month, my new room-mate a woman who shall remain nameless here as she is a very private person and has already lectured me about the things which I must not speak of with others. New roomie threw a Victoria's Secret catalogue on my bed as a nod to what she assumes is what gets me excited, and I find this infinitely entertaining as it accompanies the lecture on what not to talk about. The owner of the Spreckels house which now occupies my mind, the indomitable Cynthia Hess gave me a similar lecture when I moved in with her. Teachers are forever worrying about students and the public finding out about who they truly are, as if their careers were in politics and not education. They are forever claiming that they didn't inhale or that I did not have relations with that woman. I usually wait until a student graduates to fully disclose what I did back when there was a time and place for everything, back in college, but not always.

On this field trip to New York, the only extended field trip I have ever involved myself in, I was invited by one student to attend a jazz concert at the Blue Note, a prestigious New York jazz club where the legendary Miles Davis, among others, once performed. This student's father is a radio dj in Monterey and had arranged through means only available to jazz insiders for free tickets for his son and I. I couldn't refuse, not because of my passion for jazz, but mostly because of my need to escape the adult situation I had found myself in. I was experiencing a sensation, heretofore unknown to me, that I will call "responsibilititis" or the nagging idea that one's life has become boring and predictable in the throes of work and other adult experiences which could qualify as insufferable. This led me to believe that reckless behavior would be a good idea as it could lead to being fired, which would abdicate me of further responsibility of said "adult" nature. To my younger self the connotations of the world "adult" formerly included "pornography" and "limousine" and not of course, "cancer" and "America's got talent reruns." I didn't like the way my life was leading. Recklessness to the rescue!

We walked into the jazz club and sat down as the band was doing warm-up type exercises which, to one unfamiliar with jazz, might be confused with the actual "music." I pictured my adult self alongside other adults talking about the meaning of the music over a glass of overpriced wine, paying too much for the tickets and then leaving at 9 pm so as to be in bed for the mandatory 8 hours of sleep required to act responsible and adult-like the next day at work, talking about synergy with my monotone voiced employer, concealing the details of the previous night in which I drove home with 2 glasses of wine in me, perhaps above the legal limit. I pictured this and then my student ordered a round of drinks and looked at me with a knowing expression that said "do it Miller! Bury the stress of trying to figure out which subway line to ride and how to control hormonal teenagers, preventing them from doing what they will never again have a chance to do, stifling their youth and vitality, while all the while killing the same within yourself." I think he expected some sort of argument, readying his persuasive guns, no doubt preparing to practice all of those aristotelian rhetorical forms that I taught him in Sophomore English. As it happened, I took one look at those drinks and said "bottoms up" and I got drunk with a 15 year old kid.

Corinne's movie had Catherine dressed in a blue dress which was anachronistic in a recently made movie, but would have been at home in one of those sepia toned polaroids from the 1970's. It reminded me of the way Corinne looked that night when I walked out of the jazz club, irresponsibly buzzed, with my young friend who miraculously ordered drinks somehow (I'm still mystified as to how this happened-- he was 15 at the time). He had been bragging to the other students of his exploits and I was in trouble now were it not for plausible deniability. Corinne came to me later and asked if it were true what Kennedy had told her about having drinks with me. I denied it, and she believed me, her faith in me temporarily restored. Corinne used to look at me with this expression n of confidence a look like what F. Scott Fitzgerald described as a "look that assured you that he had precisely the impression that, at your best you wished to convey and believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself etc..." I don't have anyone in my life that looks at me that way anymore, and I'm nostalgic for that, if nothing else.

From these reveries, I was awakened by the voice of my principal and former boss, Michael Romero, giving a graduation speech. "18 years ago" he began, "you emerged from the comfort and warmness of your mother's womb" and then proceeded to help the kids to hobble down the memory lane of their local hood which was "most well known for gang violence, John Steinbeck and agriculture" as one later student speaker observed. The sign over the entrance to the football stadium reads "once a Cowboy, always a Cowboy" which is my official excuse for being here among the teachers who actually worked this year. Next to this sign is another which reads "no loitering."

As the ceremony ends, I am surprised by the voice of the aforementioned student from the jazz club New York field trip. I tell him I'm writing a story about what went down those years ago, and I promise not to name his name. He replied that he really wanted me to mention his name specifically, believing that there would be no such thing for him as bad publicity. I tried to convey then the quite abstract idea that we never realize which decisions would affect us the most in the light of memory years later. I of course tried to warn him not to be so cavalier about his reputation, as I had been those years ago, but it fell upon deaf ears I'm sure, because as Method Man once observed "shorty runnin round smoking sess and drinkin beer-- he ain't tryna hear what I'm kickin in his ear." You should always be glad and young....
Climbing Mt Rainier with Lindsay last week made me think again about the process of decision making. I tried to explain to her in Nepal that decisions made in the mountains would be more and more likely to affect future decisions as time passed. If one turns back from the route before making the summit, taking the prudent approach, saving their climbing partner from frostbite, sometimes the payoff is evident to those who look on the bright side of things and one might be more willing to make a similar decision in the future. If one chooses to push it and go for the top and it pays off with no ill effects, no frostbite and nobody dies, one might be more willing to push it in the future. If, like me, you are prone to frustration in human relationships, choosing to abandon them and move on, staying detached so as to avoid the pain of these things, don't be surprised when you feel like moving on and on and on. One must be careful what decisions one makes, for the patterns will continue to echo through our history, as we continue, creatures of habit, to do what is most familiar.

Lindsay and I weaved our way across the Nisqually Glacier, navigating the complex matrix of crevasses in the late afternoon. We are climbing the Fuhrer Finger route on the south side in a single push with maybe a few hours nap to give us strength enough to go to the summit. Even though I was with a new climbing partner on a mountain that I hadn't been on in years, my mind floated back in time to the first time I was on Rainier with Dave Ohlson and Yoav Bar-ness.
I crunch steps into the hard snow, confidently marching my way across the glacier. I look up to my left and recognize the steep slope that Dave led Yoav and I up back in 1999 when the three of us climbed the mountain for the first time. He would pause in this methodical way of his and probe his ice-axe into the snow ahead of him in an attempt to locate the crevasse. All of these years have enabled me to recognize Dave, or any other climbing partner by their posture or by the way they walk-- so much time spent together, watching these people and their movements. I am thinking this with Lindsay as I walk along years later in a similar spot on a similar day, somehow unable to experience it all anew because of all the memories, when I plunge into a crevasse. The roap stretches taut and I pull on it to get out. Lindsay gives me shit for failing to yell before or during the fall, but I guess I was just in another place. It occurs to me that this is not what Dave would have done, but Dave's not here man. He's on K2.

At the party I see a former student of mine, one of the few who didn't know it wasn't cool to join the journalism club at Salinas High. She was one of those kids who made the whole teaching thing completely worthwhile, if only for a few minutes at a time. I stand next to her with two black eyes sustained in a surfing accident a few days earlier, looking like I just crawled out of a dumpster, which is what I assume THEY are thinking right about now. In talking with Henzi, he expressed his surprise at the fact that no one had thought to adapt the old joke-- "what do you say to Miller with two black eyes? Nothing-- he obviously didn't listen the first time."

And that's exactly it. We have a tendency to repeat the patterns in our lives, relive the past, and we refuse to learn the lesson-- if ever there is one. We promise ourselves never again, and then there it is.

Climbing with Steve on Mont Blanc years ago, I took a 40 foot screamer into a crevasse. Now, years later, I step over the glacier, scared of something like that happening again, yet powerless to prevent it.
And I climbed the steps into the dunk tank thinking of Camus (the master of "fuck-it" himself) who wrote "I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate, so then I would feel less alone." For me, the more kids who still hated me because of that grade I gave them years ago, the better. This would make me remember the time when my life was like theirs, an unfloding series of hopeful opportunities and senior pictures taken in the sun without a bruised-up face or coffee stained teeth, helping me to dwell in the past where it's safe.