Friday, December 28, 2012

Forbidden Words 2012

In the glorious tradition of Matt Groening and without further ado, my brief and to-the-point list of Forbidden Words for 2012. Feel free to contribute your own.

Skill set

Double down

Let’s do this. No, let’s not and say we did.

Game changer. Not every situation requires a sports metaphor. Really.

Wait, what?

Fiscal cliff

Epic – The overuse and misuse of this word drives me absolutely bonkers as it’s usually performed by semi-literate folks trying to sound educated and actually doing the opposite.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On Twitter

Since I first became aware of this thing called Twitter back in 2008, I have questioned its value, just as I would with any new gadget or any trend in our cultural zeitgeist. I am by nature a contrarian, one who is not inclined to go along with something new just because it’s “the latest thing.” It’s not that I won’t come around eventually—I often do—but I require demonstrable proof of worth before jumping on the proverbial bandwagon. That’s because I really don’t believe in bandwagon-jumping in general. Performing an action because it’s being marketed to you, because someone is spending a great deal of time and effort to get you to buy into it, just doesn’t seem logical to me, and never has. I guess part of this mentality was formed by my own personal circumstances, and by growing up in Washington DC in the 70s, a period of intense cynicism and self-interest. My father was a lawyer, and I learned fairly early on that I had better have my facts down if I wanted to hold my own with him. Dealing with him was often difficult because he had a brilliant mind and rarely lost an argument, legally or otherwise. He would hold forth on and we would all be forced to listen whether we wanted to or not. It got so that I would take the opposite point of view whenever I talked to him just to antagonize him, just to get his attention at all. It became a defense mechanism, one that did no good for our father-daughter relationship and which made forming any sort of personal relationship very tricky. I spent years keeping people at arm’s length because of my argumentative nature, because of habits formed around the dinner table. But I gained a great deal of respect for facts in the process.

At a certain point in your life, you are able to look back on decisions you’ve made and see them in some sort of perspective. You may not ever be completely settled, completely satisfied with where you are in the world, but you at least come to terms with your mistakes, accept your personal weaknesses for what they really are: part of what makes you human. I’ve come a long way from what I was in my youth, and I think I have learned a lot about myself. I’ve spent countless hours studying for not one but two advanced degrees, and I think my critical thinking skills are pretty good. So why not use them? I didn’t come all this way to do what everyone else does, to become just another dollar sign in someone else’s income stream.

The information overload from which we all suffer is not the result of technological gadgets, but of our failure to use them properly. We accept what technology hands us instead of making it work for us. Technology gives us tools that, if used intelligently, can make our lives so much better, yet so many of us let it dictate our every move. The communications value of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter has been demonstrated time and again when major world events happen, when disaster strikes and people need to share information quickly. The problem I have with social media is not its abundance of information but its relevance and reliability. I don’t need to read hundreds of tweets from people I don’t know about a subject about which they may not know anything more than I do in order to form an opinion about it. I am capable of garnering the facts from reliable sources and formulating my own opinion. To me, the danger of Facebook and Twitter is this echo chamber effect—people who already share common interests bouncing the same ideas back and forth without critical analysis, without concern for whether or not there is any truth or validity involved. What’s that cliché about opinions and assholes? Everyone has one. Indeed, we are all entitled to our own opinions about anything and everything—it’s one of the values our country was founded on. That’s great, but I don’t need to waste precious hours of my day hearing them all.

In a recent interview in NewYork magazine, Newsweek editor-in-chief Tina Brown discusses the future of media and the changes wrought by the Internet, and she has some remarkable things to say about social media. I don’t always agree with her, but I have to give her credit for voicing an opinion that won’t be popular with readers. When asked about Twitter, she responds, “…it always feels so self-admiring to tweet. As if you sort of expect people to find you interesting whatever you have to say…. I kind of think it feels very narcissistic to tweet.”

Exactly. Twitter doesn’t make you smarter or more interesting—it only makes you a person with an opinion and a Smartphone (or laptop or tablet or whatever you use to get on the web). People who are funny or insightful or knowledgeable are just as much so on Twitter and Facebook, and those who aren’t, well, posting your every waking thought or describing every single you do in the course of a day on a social media app doesn’t make you someone that’s necessarily worth listening to. As a matter of fact, I would argue that most people aren’t all that interesting anyway, and I’m not following them on Twitter or "friending" them on Facebook just because it’s the thing to do. These social media tools are capable of so much more. At last I not only can go directly to the source for my news, but I can get it immediately all in one place. So why should I care what the Snookis of the world have to say about Sandy?

So yes, I’m finally on Twitter, but if you think I’m going to be on there spouting everything that pops into my head, you’re mistaken. And if I don’t follow you, don’t take offense. I’m using Twitter as a news feed and nothing more.  If you want my opinions—and I’m guessing if you’re reading this you do—this blog is where you come to find them. I’m not going to filter complex issues down to 140 characters just so they’ll have an audience. The world is a complicated place, and things happen that deserve detailed analysis and critical thought. It takes time to see the big picture, and that’s not what social media is good at. The web judges things immediately and in extremes—it tends to attract people with the most polarized viewpoints; it’s loaded with knee-jerk reaction, with folks who have very strong opinions that don’t fall in the middle of the spectrum but at the ends. Social media doesn’t deal in shades of grey. Twitter cannot and should not be source of information in and of itself or a forum for critical discussion but instead should be the catalyst, the engine that drives us there.

Twitter is not the be-all end-all, but is only a technological tool, and as such is only what we make of it; instead of tweeting our every waking thought, we should all probably just shut up and listen because, as Tina said, most of us are just not that interesting.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012, or What I Learned From Sandy

1) Backup generators don’t necessarily go to those who need them most, and sometimes they don’t work. Several hospitals lost generator power due to being flooded. How is it possible no one thought this would happen, especially at the Shore? Also, it is not mandatory for gas stations, grocery stores and cellular towers to have backup generators. How is this not a security issue? And then there are the people with generators in their vacation homes while entire buildings were in the dark.

2) Greed and desperation don’t take a holiday. At least three shooting incidents occurred in Asbury Park immediately after the storm, and several more in the weeks that followed. Then there were the handymen and repair businesses—some more legitimate than others--who descended within hours of the storm. And let’s not forget the many examples of price gouging, from gas to water to batteries.

3) Neither does entitlement. The melee at Wegman’s and other grocery stores on the day following the storm was downright shocking, especially considering many folks can’t afford or didn’t have access to a vehicle to even get there. Then there were the fights and cutting in line both there and at gas stations, which speak for themselves.

4) Not everyone pays attention to pre-storm instructions. The number of people who didn’t plan ahead and fill gas tanks, bathtubs and water bottles, empty refrigerators of perishables and buy ice, candles, matches and batteries is pretty amazing. It’s not like we didn’t get any warning. And everyone should have a disaster plan for his or her household, so if they’re forced to leave quickly, they have what they need. In this age of information, people really should take care of these details. Then there are those who didn’t make any sort of plans for their animal friends and left them behind with no food and water to fend for themselves. Your pets give you everything and they ask nothing in return, and you repay them by leaving them alone and terrified? There are all sorts of pet-friendly resources out there, especially after Katrina. It’s a shame more weren’t able to take advantage.

5) People can be incredibly generous and selfless. The outpouring of support—financial and otherwise—after the storm was heartwarming. Countless opened their doors and their hearts to others in need in countless ways. The local SPCA went door to door in storm-ravaged areas to make sure people—many of whom were trapped in their neighborhoods because their vehicles were destroyed—had enough food and other supplies for their pets. Many of these folks stayed behind—putting themselves at risk--because they didn’t want to leave their companion animals behind.

6) They can also be insensitive assholes. How much of a jerk do you have to be to put up a tent outside Wal-Mart, Best Buy, etc. so you can be first in line to buy stuff you don’t really need when there are actually people living in tents because they lost their homes?

7) Scarlett O’Hara lives. Sort of. “I’m never going without electricity again.” Demand for generators—both before and after Sandy—was unprecedented. Except that not everyone can afford to buy a generator, let alone keep filling it with gas (natural or otherwise). And don’t you feel the least bit sheepish about not inviting any of your less fortunate neighbors in to share the wealth? Then there were those with solar panels who also had no power because most can’t afford the expense of battery backup to store the excess juice. So much for going green.

8) You can live without television and the Internet. I did, for five whole days. And you know what? The silence was kind of refreshing. And it makes people get outside, where there are all sorts of things to do that don’t involve pointless gossip. Technology can make your life so much better, but it can’t save you from yourself.

9) You can also live without the microwave. Cooking with gas and using only non-perishables was a challenge that required creativity and ingenuity; I actually kind of enjoyed it—and was grateful to have both gas and water to cook with when so many didn’t.

10) Everyone has his or her own storm story, and they will tell anyone who will listen. And keep telling it. And telling it. And telling it.

Everyone was affected but not in equal measure, and everyone wants—and needs—to talk about it, and that’s fine. But enough already. So you had no light for one day—it’s not really a tragedy. In fact, it’s kind of good for people to be jolted out of their routines once in a while. Stop telling me how it sucked to brew coffee the old-fashioned way, and be glad you had coffee to brew.

In the aftermath of the storm, we have all heard—and said—all the clichés. We are all lucky. It could have been so much worse. Others have it worse than I do. There is that cliché that disasters bring out the best and worst in people, and for the most part that’s true. I just wish we’d learn a little more from all this, and that we wouldn’t lose the best of ourselves so easily or so quickly.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ignorance is Bliss

I guess I haven’t done one of these in a while. The reasons why are too many and too complicated to get into, and maybe you’ll hear about them at some future time. Today, however, I’m just interested in getting a few things off my chest, so to speak. I apologize in advance for sounding a bit whiny, but it has been a long, hot summer down here on the Jersey Shore. So without further ado, some random observations:

Re “Snooki” , “The Situation,” etc. WTF? Go back to Staten Island or Long Island or whatever planet you’re from and leave the Garden State the f*ck alone. ‘Nuff said.

When did people forget how to parallel park? Every day in my neighborhood I see people needlessly taking up two perfectly good parking spots with one car because for some unknown reason they don’t pull up close to the car in front of them. What, do you think because you’ve left space that some dumbass isn’t going to hit your car? Please. I’m more likely to hit it now than I was before because you have just taken two parking spots with one ugly ass car.

And while I’m on the subject of automobile-related annoyances, who was the total moron who invented the automatic door lock that honks the horn when you use it? Yeah, like we need another random car noise. And what is it with people inflicting their (usually godawful) musical taste on entire neighborhoods when they drive by playing their car stereos at 11? Do you need attention that badly? Grow up already; we’re not impressed with your gas-guzzling Hummer.

Why do people insist on mispronouncing ethnic names? Is there something wrong with at least making some attempt to respect one’s ancestry? If I hear one more person in my family pronounce our last name “Eye-annucci” I am going to go postal. As far as I can tell, the letter “I” is never pronounced that way in either English or Italian, so I am baffled as to where this even comes from. All I know is, it needs to stop.

Which brings me to my pet peeve of the day—the idiotic way many Americans pronounce the names of foreign countries. This is nothing new, of course; I clearly remember hearing people pronounce “Vietnam” as though it rhymed with “ham.” But really, where does this “Eyeraq” and “Eyeran” thing come from? Again, there is no such pronounciaion of the letter “I” in the English language. And then there’s the way they pronounce the “a” sound; saying “rack” instead of “rock” just sounds, well, unsophisticated. Mainly because it’s incorrect.

You wanna know why they mock Americans so much in other countries? Because we constantly disrespect their language, their history, their culture. Couldn’t be bothered to learn anything about anything that goes on outside of the bubbles in which we live our lives here in the “Good ol’ U.S. of A.” Why are Americans permitted, even encouraged, to sound so ignorant without some sort of repercussion? And why do we insist upon responding to their derision by mocking the “furriners” for actually having an education? Did it ever occur to anyone that the reason we are so distrusted and detested abroad is that so many of us are such total rubes?

Newsflash: we didn’t invent the world singlehandedly, and we’re certainly not going to save it that way. I think it’s time we opened our eyes to the fact that modern society is complex, and we’re no longer the global power we once (thought we) were. We live in a complicated world, one that requires a little introspection now and then here in America. To pretend otherwise is, well, just plain ignorant.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Only the Strong Survive

Yeah it is not pleasant being buried in the white stuff not once but twice in a week. It’s no fun walking in snow up to your thighs, having the current indoor temperature be lower than it will be in a couple months outside. Yeah, life in the Garden State is far from perfect, and, as a transplant from elsewhere, I'll be the first to say so. People love dumping on New Jersey, and there are lots of things to complain about. But there must be a reason why it’s the most densely populated state in the country. Here are a few that spring to mind:

Mountains, beaches and forests.

Boardwalks, fields and marshes.

Cranberry bogs and pine woods.

Ethnic and cultural diversity

Pharmaceutical and insurance industries

Princeton, Rutgers and an excellent network of community colleges

Legalized gambling

Liberty State Park and Liberty Science Center

Some of the best regional theater in the country

Live original music from Southside Johnny to the Swingin’ Neckbreakers. Other famous names include Bruce Springsteen, Lesley Gore, The Smithereens, Dramarama, Bon Jovi, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, The Gaslight Anthem, Connie Francis, The Misfits, Kool and the Gang, Frankie Valli and George Clinton.

Revolutionary war historical sites

Proximity to New York City and Philadelphia and their fabulousness

Films made in NJ include “Clerks”, “The Wrestler”, “Welcome to the Dollhouse”, “Return of the Secaucus 7”, “The Purple Rose of Cairo”, “On the Waterfront”, “Broadway Danny Rose”, “A Beautiful Mind”, “Big Night”, “Chasing Amy”, “Atlantic City” and “Baby, It’s You.”

“The Sopranos”

Hundreds of amazing restaurants featuring cuisines from throughout the world

Only the strong survive, baby…

So to sum up, yeah, New Jersey ain’t for everybody. But those of us who call it home wouldn’t live anywhere else. And perhaps that’s the way it should be.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

You Know What They Say About Assuming

See here’s the thing. I was born and raised in Washington DC. Dunno if you know this, but it’s a majority African American city. By like 65 to 35 percent. There is also great ethnic diversity there, being as we host the diplomatic missions of the countries with which the U.S. does foreign relations business, and being as there’s a significant immigrant community from Africa, Asia and South and Central America. And DC is only sixty square miles. That’s not much land when you consider a good deal of it is federal property and/or national parkland. Translation: we all get along not because it’s politically correct but because we have to. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it most of the time (or at least no worse than several other major cities I could name).

Then there’s how I was raised. Which was to judge people not by their appearance but by the content of their character. That’s not open for debate in my household. (And I would argue that it’s neither liberal nor conservative to hold such values—it’s human.) Oh, and I’m Italian American and Catholic too, a background that has historically been treated less than kindly by the white Protestant majority. Just sayin’…

So here’s the thing—why do you continue to say hateful racist crap right in front of me and act like I’m supposed to agree with you? Why do you do it when I’m at work where you know I can’t answer or even acknowledge such comments because I’ll be fired, where my silence looks like assent but is anything but? Come on; don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

I don’t know if you have gotten the memo, folks, but there’s a man of mixed racial background in the White House. A man duly elected by a majority of the people who bothered to vote. I don’t care if you agree with him. I don’t care if you like him. I don’t necessarily like or agree with every policy coming out of the Obama White House either. But here’s the thing—I respect the office, and I respect that the will of the American people put him there. And further, I form opinions about him based on fact, on reading different points of view, applying my own life experience and insight, and coming to my own conclusions. I know you probably will just accuse me of being a “socialist” or whatever because I say such things (whether or not you understand what such labels really mean is a whole other question). I don’t expect that you’ll see me in any way except the way you’ve been taught to see me, to judge me as you seem to be judging our president and people of color in general--solely on appearance.

But here’s the thing, and it’s the only thing I’ll ask of you: don’t put words in my mouth, and don't assume. Don’t assume you know jack about me or who I am or where I’m coming from or what I believe based on what I look like, where I work, how I’m dressed or anything else. Don't assume that you speak for me just because I am silent. Got me? Don’t assume. Because I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a saying about assuming things, and frankly it doesn’t reflect upon you very kindly. So the next time you see me, kindly think twice before you open your mouth.

That is all.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tempis Fugit

Another January gone by, another birthday approaches. I don’t feel any different, and yet as the last few years have passed I am starting to feel irrelevant. That the world as it is now is not one in which I am valued as a customer, a client, a participant. That there has been a fundamental shift in values, that everything has sped up, that we have lost so much in our race to have the latest technology, to have it all now now now. I feel this way because most of my friends have Blackberries, iPhones, and Twitter accounts while I remain thus unencumbered, and while I once would have felt left out, I now just regard it all with a sort of bemused detachment. It’s not that I don’t care about or want to know about all this stuff, it’s that my life doesn’t move at that pace anymore and more importantly, I don’t care that it doesn’t. Who knows, maybe it never did to begin with.

Brian Wilson once wrote a song called “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” Like me, he always felt like he was on the outside looking in, that he belonged to another time, another place than the one into which he had been born. That the things he thought were important were lost on others, that they valued things he found abhorrent or worse, irrelevant. I too, have felt that way most of my life. Have always been a step or two behind my contemporaries. Have always felt like I didn’t belong to their world in some indefinable way. Because of this, and because I don’t really look my age, I have always tended to fall in with people younger than myself. And yet because of this age discrepancy my friends and I lack a shared frame of reference. Which ends up making me feel even further removed from it all. There often seem to be not just distances but chasms between us.

I have never been a trailblazer or an innovator, either, a trait that just seems to add to that sense of detachment, that remove I’ve always felt. I have always been a step behind in most everything, it seems—in discovering the music that’s so important to me, the bands, the atmosphere, the fashions, the scene. I’ve always found offbeat things long after they’ve become acceptable and safe. I have no avant-garde spirit, I guess. Have always been unwilling or unable to take risks others have found necessary for their very survival. I guess it’s because my sense of self has always been shaky; after all, you can’t blaze trails without an idea of where you’re going and why. I don’t know. All I know is things are moving too fast for me and people don’t seem to pay attention to much anymore except making sure they’re keeping up.

It seems to me lately that it’s not the message that’s important anymore, it’s the medium. But that’s not the technology’s fault—it never was. After all, you can’t blame television or the telephone or the fax machine for how we have chosen to conduct our lives. No, things have changed because we have allowed them to; we failed to see the danger, and have thus become slaves to the very technological advancements that were supposed to make our lives simpler and easier. And of course most of us didn’t even realize what we’d lost until it was too late: things like sit-down dinner with the family, Sunday gatherings with the relatives, lingering over a well-cooked meal and a bottle of wine and some good conversation. Tasting the food, appreciating the labor involved in growing and harvesting it, the time and effort involved in its preparation, the satisfaction derived from having time to truly enjoy the smell, taste and texture of what we’re eating. Taking pleasure in good company while sharing these blessings. The slower pace of life, the satisfaction of simple things. We’ve lost that and we’re not getting it back. Paying attention to the small things in life seems so, well, archaic in these days of instant messaging and keeping up with the tweets.

I don’t know where all of this is leading, only that it has passed me by and I no longer have the energy to keep up with it all even if I wanted to. I guess in the end a large part of getting older is simply acceptance. Accepting my own faults and frailties, accepting myself for who and what I am. Accepting that events happen over which I have no control. Accepting there is nothing I can do about this. And most important of all, not wasting time and energy worrying about any of it.

So next week I draw nearer to the dreaded half-century mark. And as I do so, I become increasingly irrelevant to the world at large—or so it seems. (Assuming I was ever really relevant to begin with, which is an entirely different matter for another time.) I should be upset about this, I guess, and at one time in my life I suppose I would have been. But at my age, that’s just too much work.