Sunday, July 30, 2006

I know that An Inconvenient Truth was semi-facetiously marketed as the scariest film you'll ever see, but I found it more depressing than anything else. Kind of like the post-'96 Bob Dole or the post-2000 John McCain, Al Gore can be an extremely interesting, witty, and entertaining guy, and every time he made a crack in the movie towards the Administration or the global warming skeptics, I cried a little inside, wondering where the hell this guy was during the 2000 campaign season and who was that loser yammering on about lockboxes and his ninety-year old friend Millie from Illinois who had to choose between buying her heart medicine and buying bread? I know there's a lot of blame to spread around, between Elian Gonzales and a president who couldn't keep it in his pants and an extremely stupid electorate, but if you need even more of a reason to get pissed at America's campaign-by-committee method of selecting and marketing our leaders, here's a 2000 video of an unguarded Gore and family, directed by the same guy who did that music video with Christopher Walken.

Feel free to start crying now.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

I Have an Inexplicable Craving for Bacardi™ Rum

I predicted that if I went to enough of these Young Professionals parties, there'd eventually be some payoff, and I was right. In fact, I'm more than a little surprised I'm meeting people after only four events. They threw a party at Glo tonight celebrating the opening of their new website, MySpace-lite, and I showed up for the free NJYP Lance Armstrong bracelet that doesn't support cancer research — first we'll improve my social life, then we'll cure the deadly disease — but I stayed for the five-dollar Bacardi™ mojitos.

Really, they made a huge fucking deal over these mojitos. The bartender dude told me this'll be the best mojito I've ever had, and I would've said, "Well, I've never had a mojito before, so you're probably right," but I was sober so I just smiled. Oooh, big mistake. A mojito, turns out, tastes like alcoholic toothpaste and, contrary to the nice, clear drink pictured on the Bacardi™ website, looks a bit like swill. It's all in the nuances of the word "muddle," which the official Bacardi™ photographers forgot to do. Anyway, for my five dollars, mint and booze don't mix unless I'm trying to fight the gum disease known as gingivitis.

I got the time wrong and arrived an hour early, so I'm walking up and down George Street killing time when Laura, the Young Professionals hostess, (I assume) recognized me and waved me in. Huh. Okay, so Laura knew my face, but of course she didn't know my name, and thus began a ridiculously comic sign-in process where I repeated my name about a hundred times and Laura responded with something-that-rhymes-with-my-name question-mark. We were back on familiar territory. I met this guy who just, coincidentally, happens to be in the computer field and this woman who I tried shouting to at the last event.

But what's really never happened before: I knew pharmaceutical companies sent out retail prostitutes to entice horny, old doctors into prescribing unnecessary or improper medication, but I didn't realize that Big Alcohol did the same sort of thing. So there's these two girls, the type that MTV in its crazy make-up phase would have you think are hot, mingling with the crowd. One's wearing a tight shirt and tight pants and the other's wearing the exact same tight shirt and a really, really short skirt. Like, the kind of short where you're like, "Why are you even bothering?"... and this is a little unusual because most of the Young Professionals are college graduates who'd only wear that kind of outfit if they were figure skating in the Olympics. What's really strange is that while I was off in the corner by myself, they start trying to have a conversation with me.

Okay, when you're me and one hot girl wants to talk to you, it's out of pity. When there's two girls, they probably want your credit card number, as if I'm not going to be a little suspicious if the conversation revolves entirely around, "Have you tried the new Bacardi™ mojito drink special yet?" Oh, I'm not falling for that one again, letting myself get all heartbroken when I discover that Amber and Krista are cheating on me with fifteen other cuba libre and rum punch drinkers. Imagine how shocked I was when Amber and Krista lost interest in me after I told them the mojito was — well, I didn't use the word "Listerine" — but not to my taste. "Wait, wait, wait, ladies! You're not gonna try to sell me a Bacardi™ daquiri or a Bacardi™ blue mountain? You just wanted me for my purchasing power, and possibly my huge cock!"

It wasn't a total loss. As a consolation prize, Krista gave me a Miami Vice sponsored by Bacardi™ Mojito keychain. That's a great marketing strategy right there — put the ad for alcohol right next to my car keys, as if that won't be Exhibit A in my DUI trial. (No, Exhibit A would be the elevated blood alcohol level. The keychain would be Exhibit C or D.) Remember, drink responsibly and see Michael Mann's pastel-free remake of an eighties guilty pleasure.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Some of my cousins from Arizona came to visit tonight, which surprised me because there wasn't a family funeral happening in town. One might take my mom's family as an archetype of twentieth-century kin scattering, ironically bringing communities physically farther apart even as advances in transportation and communication should've theoretically made it easier for people to stay in close contact. Mom's family moved from a tiny town in southern Italy to a three-family house in Newark, with generations' worth of siblings and cousins living under one roof. I believe they had even more cousins in the building next door, even more in various houses on South Orange Avenue, and a veritable kinship forest throughout the Newark and New York environs. They were close, literally. I'm not sure what happened, but half the family shipped off to warmer climes before I was born and now they pretty much only come back when one of my many, many senescent relatives dies.

The situation has spawned some debate among me and my immediate family. The latter insists I'd be doing a disservice to myself not getting better acquainted with my Arizona family. I don't exactly disagree, but I do overflow with resentmet — Mom grew up with these people and knew them her whole life, and through her, Dad's been to their weddings and family vacations and Christmas dinners — so the whole pre-me branches of the family tree had a really fucking easy time getting all chummy since they didn't have to do it across three time zones. Just like I had a really easy time concluding that the Arizona relatives meant squat to me. My ingeniously self-fulfilling plan justifying how I repudiated them in my mind was that I'd wait for one of them to make like they're interested in me. They might come up to New Jersey, but there'd always folks from the pre-me era — last time, it was my uncle (really a second-cousin once removed), his wife, two of his daughters, his brother-in-law and the brother-in-law's family, a son-in-law, someone a daughter went to school with, and some random dude who just showed up for the food — and I maintained my beliefs that they didn't have the time or interest for me.

But anyway, this evening, there's my cousin and her husband and her baby and this long-ass Italian family dinner that starts at six and ends at approximately October. There's a lot of happy discussion about, uh, which roads go to where, and which supermarket stocks what, and the good-old days — the pre-me days. Like two hours of this stupid dinner was spent was spent with my uncle saying, "Remember how we used to go down to Long Beach Island? No, of course you don't! You didn't exist then! Anyway, now the whole area's being developed as luxury condos."

To be honest, the cousins who I once thought were snobbish at best and insufferable at worst actually turned out to be normal. I'd say they were cool, except somehow whenever I was around, the conversation hovered around one of two topics: "I can't believe you won't eat [insert food here]. What's wrong with you?" and "I can't believe you don't like babies. What's wrong with you?" (Remember when you in were in grade school and your teacher said you should be yourself and be proud to be unique? Yeah, that was a big fat lie.) Like, you'd tell these cousins — to be precise, Mom or Dad, who don't understand the concept of boundaries, would tell these cousins something like, "Jay won't eat salads. He pretty much only eats meat," and I'd invariably get this shocked look as if they found out I subsisted entirely on a diet of crushed glass, Vegemite, and urinal cakes. So I'm gonna say this once, and then I start strangling people: I don't like certain foods. Perhaps you like the foods I don't like. That's okay. There's probably some foods out there you don't like and I do. Again, this is okay. We live in a world where some jackass will eat boiled pig testicles for money, so I won't flip out when I hear you and I have different tastes. I'd appreciate the same courtesy. Thank you.

At least I'm not a vegan.

Now, about the baby. First of all, congratulations! You had sex! The Catholic Church must be so, so proud of you. And now a tiny, slimy blob slid out your vagina. What do you want? A medal? Go ask Darwin for one. This whole life reproducing thing has only been going on for the past four billion years, so I'm not that impressed that you were able to make a miniature you. I don't want to hold it, or touch it, or look at it, or give a rat's ass about it — put it in the incubator and when it's doing arithmetic and playing the piano and talking in complete sentences, then maybe, MAYBE I'll care. And that's only if those complete sentences have interesting content.

The baby itself doesn't bother me that much. I got annoyed when Grandma started making up excuses for why I wouldn't hold it, "He's afraid he'll squeeze her too tight," or something. Which of course, isn't going to keep the cousins from shoving the baby into my arms. Let's be straightforward here: I don't want to hold your baby the same way you don't want to hold my python. The only difference is that when you decline my offer to hold Bessie Sue there, I'll respect you enough to stop asking instead of giving you a lecture about how I didn't like snakes when I was your age but someday you'll meet a girl and what if she wants to have a family of boa constrictors slithering about her home, then you'll grow out of it.

I think we can all take a couple of hints here: I've hated kids, and especially the slobbering, self-shitting kind, ever since I was in day care and told my toddler peers that I didn't like babies and had to hear those little intolerant bastards remind me, "But you were a baby once." Really? You mean I didn't spring forth fully-grown and armored from my father's head? Thanks for the biology lesson, little kid!

Also, I'm calling your baby an "it," and an erudite optimist might think I'm just noting that gender is a cultural construct and defining the thing as a "boy" or "girl," "pink" or "blue" denies it agency to carve out its own sexual niche in society. On the other hand, I did call my aunt's dog by the proper gender pronoun... but then, I'm not one of those people who refers to my car as a "she." Maybe I'd put up with your baby a little more if it weren't, say, an attention hog, or needlessly using the resources of an already strained planet, or being raised by people who arrogantly think it's their place to get the rest of the world to reproduce. Sorry, Mom, that I'll never make you a grandmother, but on the plus side, I will get a dog that you can spoil.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Business Cards

The New Jersey Young Professionals is having another friendmaking meet-and-greet gathering, something called "Speed Friending," which is like speed dating, except minus the date. In preparation, I'm going to have Kinko's make up some business cards, which I've been loathe to do so far since I don't have a business. Or a full-time job. Or social skills. The only thing I'm not sure about is, well... here are the options I've come up with:

The whole "astronaut lion tamer secret agent rock star" thing came from my Myspace profile, where I'm kind of bored, and a little depressed, introducing myself as a web designer. It's a joke. Duh. But people are stupid, and I'm afraid that I'd rather not learn about someone else's brainlessness through a confused, simian expression upon reading my business card.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

I Would've Bowled Better if I Had A Mullet

Carolyn invited me bowling last night, and I was more than a little reluctant to go. The last time I was bowling, more or less around seventh grade, I believe I achieved a final score of nine, which I don't think is very good. What's the highest score you can get in bowling? Fifteen? Twenty? In the meantime, I've honed my skills on that arcade game with the ball in the middle of the table and Yahoo! Bowling, and while I guess there's a chance that in the past ten years, bowling has transcended balls and alleys and evolved to bits and bytes, I didn't have very high hopes. But I wasn't doing anything else on Friday night and I don't get to see Carolyn very often, and I was eighty to ninety percent sure she wouldn't laugh if I accidentally threw the ball across three lanes, so I went.

I guess back in seventh grade, I wasn't really noticing this sort of thing, but bowling is really, really a stupid white person activity. I'm out waiting for Carolyn and company to show up, and the parking lot is full of groups of white kids hitting each other. It's like an infection of idiot, and clearly bowling was invented by some fat guy thinking, "You know what being drunk is really missing? The opportunity to throw something heavy at some other things and knock them down." Thus a "sport" that will hopefully never become an Olympic event was born. A week later, the same fat dude thought it would be fun for kids to hurl sharp objects at each other and lawn darts were introduced to the world. Within an hour, eight kids lost an eye. Good times.
I expected to find some dumb white kid hurling himself down the lane, slip-and-slide style, and posting the video on Youtube. Oh, wait... someone did.

Here's another dumb bowling video I found on Youtube, and I know it was an accident but I'm sorry, it's funny.

But everyone in our party had that commodity in such short supply in America today. Not oil; shame, and the worst you could say about us is that some tall, handsome guy who looked like all the other tall, handsome guys there (and nothing like me) bowled with his right hand and a beer in his left hand. He didn't spill.

It's not really about the bowling, so I'll just tell you that the ball went approximately where I wanted about half the time and directly into the gutter the other half. It was just about as exciting as wearing slippy shoes and rolling a fifteen-pound ball across a wooden floor could be. The downtime, though, was a lot better, and I'm sort of left wondering where the hell all these people were when I was in high school. I'm seriously frustrated that my opinion of the human race, while I don't think it's unjustified, is based on the assumption that normal, friendly people like Carolyn's buddies either didn't exist or just were never going to be normal and friendly to me.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bush hates science. Yes, we know. Global warming confuses the man, and he's not sure about evolution, and I don't think it would be that hard to get Tony Snow to tell us that Bush believes the earth is flat, but he's waiting for all the research to come in from his buddies at the Billy Graham Institute of Casuistry. So try not to be so shocked when Dubya uses his first veto ever to cut federal funding for stem cell research, or as the White House's official position puts it, "Significantly Advancing Research in an Ethical Way." Because for an administration that finds a moral justification for slaughtering forty thousand civilians in Iraq, experimenting on a microscopic puddle of goo in order to cure Alzheimer's or Parkinson's is questionable. You know, someone really ought to just tell Dubya that stem cells can be used to create crude oil; he'd be harvesting the damn things out of the twins' vaginas within five minutes.

Meanwhile, I am so goddamned bored with the situation in the Middle East and the constant news reporting about how the Israeli-Lebanese conflict might destabilize teh region (really, how can you tell?), I can only imagine how the people over there feel. I'll take a guess: pissed. Despite the culture of victimhood that pervades the region, the puerile "But they started it!" attitude, I can at least respect the Lebanese for being slaughterers without pretense. Israel's arguments for — well, just about everything the Israeli military does to the Arab world — is oversaturated with moral righteousness and an unadmitted, though not undue, neurosis that grows quickly tiresome, like the whole Middle East conflict has been a sixty-year-long Woody Allen movie. The Palestinians and now the Lebanese are showing any CNN reporter with a camera and mike one flattened building after another, and Israel — which I think could win the "hearts and minds" battle if it wanted to — goes on a bitchfest: "Yes, yes, that cab driver... I think he was a member of Hamas. The whole ride, I was so afraid he was gonna throw a rock at me!"

I know it won't sell quite as nicely in the West, Ehud, but just say it: you — and I don't mean the people of Israel; I mean you — want to wipe out the entire Arab race the same way the crazy shieks and pan-Arab militias want to take Israel off the map. That might not be the only way Israel will ever be safe, but it's almost certainly the only way Israel will ever feel safe, and that leads me to my plan for peace in the Middle East: Get the fuck out of the Middle East. Seriously, Israel is dropping leaflets warning civilians to leave Beirut, and while Hezbollah wasn't quite as courteous to the Israelis, I don't think anyone should really need an invitation to get the hell out of Haifa, either. I hear Boca Raton is lovely this time of year.

Now, if I had my druthers, we'd raze everything in the region and pave the shit over. Other people might have more creative ideas, like I think Wilmer Valderrama plans on sorting out the Mideast peace crisis by inviting the best trash talkers in the Arab world to go on TV and make fun of each other's mothers — those Muslims have such a wonderful sense of humor! — but I think my solution pretty much distills everything those nations are heading towards and everything they deserve: either shut the fuck up and stop killing each other, or have your entire country turned into long-term parking for the new Mall of Dubai. Whoever's left behind — which, by the way, aren't the same people fighting — can get jobs in the mall food court or something.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Karaoke For Jesus

Harrigan invited me to church with her yesterday, and, even though I'm a proud agnostic, I'm really glad she brought me along. Harrigan has a profound interest in the Big Questions and it's nice to have someone to share my on-the-fenceness with, because Pat Robertson's Christian chatline turns out isn't a very good listener. We went to this sort of ad hoc non-denominational worship get-together called "The River", maybe thirty or forty people in an auditorium doing a friendlier, homier version of that stuff you see on every other TV channel Sunday morning. There's cookies and coffee and new rock-and-roll hymns, so we're not in Anabaptism anymore.

The River brings church into the late-twentieth century, because the service starts with everyone getting all psyched for the Holy Spirit with Christian rock music. Okay, finally I can rant about Christian rock music. First off, The River band — well, has there ever been a Christian rock band that was good? I'm not talking about gospel singers or artists who use Christian imagery to explore larger themes like the value of art or love in life. I mean a bunch of stick-up-their-butts teenagers who condescend to the heathens by diluting both rock-and-roll and the Word of God into sterile spiritual pablum. Jesus, lest you forget, was an anarchist in his time — that's why he was crucified — and I'm a little sad that his cause became co-opted by the power-hungry and the ranks of mediocrity. So I get what The River is doing, projecting the dullest of dull lyrics onto the stage so the whole flock can sing along in a choral community, where our one voice will defeat your self-doubt, but I wish they wouldn't encourage people to be satisfied with this puny, off-key praise for God. I don't buy for one second the people swaying with their eyes closed and their arms in the air, because the sense in the room is less ultimate benevolent force of love in the universe and more battle of the bands.

They were still better than Creed, so that's something.

So I should mention at this point that I did have one moral qualm about going to church with Harrigan, and that was that it couldn't be very right infiltrating this community and treating its members like some anthropological study, and it also seemed like a betrayal to give them the benefit of the doubt that they really were coming to God. They're together in a way that makes them content and gives them meaning, and shouldn't my inherent (and, I might add, well-placed) skepticism detach itself from their visceral reaction to The River? Well... no, and it pains me the way I'm jealous of Harrigan's admittedly unfalsifiable self-assurance that God exists and she has a relationship with Him. Life, and I believe that if God does in fact exist, then He's pretty proud of me for using the brain He so generously gave unto me, isn't necessarily about being happy, especially in conflict with being right. I want to interrupt with, "So God exists? Convince me." Not prove it, just convince me. "And convince me that God is all-powerful and all-knowing and all-loving." Because, really, if you can't do that, than how welcoming is your community really? And — here I maintain that what the believers call "faith" is a possibly selective interpretation of one's own experiences that aligns with that belief — if all you can say about God is how He changed your life, then what good is the community of others at all?

Anyhoo, we're singing — well, everyone else is singing — and for the most part, looking like they've just spent four hours at a Phish concert, and it's not very good but I suppose there's nothing keeping you from being both filled with the Holy Spirit and tone-deaf. The sermon was some dude named Kevin talking about submission, and his argument... well, he didn't have one, but if he did, I'd have to call it unfocused. What he was trying to say was that spiritual fulfillment and peace comes through submission to God's will. Unfortunately, not being a prophet, Kevin didn't have access to God's will so his examples mostly focused around submission to man's will, and that should've killed his argument. It didn't, because people who unfailingly believe in God aren't exactly prone to finding the flaws in a logical argument.... just saying. Like, every Christian rock song — every Christian hymn, in fact — reminds God how totally amazing He is. Guys, He's God — He's already aware that He's great and you're a mere bug in His presence. Don't need to tell him.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

My Social Life Would Be So Much Easier in a Post-Apocalyptic Conformist Dystopia

Every time I head to one of those New Jersey Young Professionals mixers, I'm struck with the same dilemma: what the hell do I wear? You see, I feel like my personal ratio of "young" to "professional" is exceedingly high and my chances of not making a total jackass first impression increase considerably if I at least try to look the part. The club calls itself a Soho-South Beach blend, and tonight's dress code was "casual chic," and I can't even begin to comprehend what that means. Like, I understand "black tie formal" and "no shoes, no shirt, no service," but everything in between is more or less a mystery to me. (Even the "no shoes, no shirt, no service" thing is a little ambiguous: Like, what if I'm wearing shoes and a shirt, but no pants? I can just see some stupid white guy down south somewhere in his underwear arguing with the manager, "But that sign there don't say you can't be wearin' no pants!") I know that I'm a special, individual snowflake and all that stuff, but I'd really just like to fit in — to make my entrance into the club and have everyone say, "Hey, looks like someone's exactly like me — we should be buddies. We could even meld our minds!" This will all be so much easier in the future, when we're all wearing the same Federation-issued silver jumpsuits and eugenically paired off and mated.

Last night's event was a "glow party," which the hyperzealous website childproofer at my local coffeeshop thinks is some of sort of cult activity. It's a five dollar cover, which pays for a glowstick, or a glow-bracelet, whose color depends on your Friendster "I am here looking for..." status. Yellow for friendship, red for romance, green for networking. They don't have a color for "trying to conquer my personal demons." So it's exactly like those ecstasy and glitter-fueled raves I never went to as a teenager. I took a yellow bracelet, choosing to aim low, but I still missed the mark. Not that I didn't meet a few people — and how come I'm pretty much always meeting dudes at these things? Man, I wish I could just choose to be gay! — but I gave up pretty easily as it was clear the whole night would be a futile shouting match with the mega-zillion watt amplifier winning. There came to a point in the evening where I realized I was just being a goddamn phony, smiling and nodding at people's lip movements instead of snarking on the event, the cheap quarter-size glow stick, the terpsichorean slut's busting out her third-grade ballet skills on the hip-hop dance floor: maybe not completely personable but at least not rushing away from my comfort zone and towards a non-descript but well-dressed presence.

So I spent the last hour at the club more or less standing in various corners and watching people make hookups or, better yet, standing in other various corners and not make hookups. And that was all working out reasonably well with my "expect the awkward" philosophy, with two exceptions: perfectly friendly yet imperfectly amiable guys named Steve and John. I'm not one of those people who sends you a ton of sales catalog emails until you choose to opt-out, so I don't get this mindset: I'm going to interrupt your brooding to point it out. And I realize these guys are totally trying to be personable, but the whole small talk reeks of pity friendship, and it's unavoidable. There's nothing I can say, like, "Oh, I'm not by myself. Let me introduce you to my imaginary friends. They're all uninhibited members of the Swedish bikini team."

Okay, I'm aware that I don't meet people easily and I know it's pretty obvious to everyone around me. I'm not thrilled about it but I've come to terms with it, so you can dispense with the pity, thanks. Either way, next time I'll be more prepared, with inane small-talk questions ("Have you seen any of the poorly-reviewed summer movies?" — someone asked me this last night and I totally froze up, because I wasn't sure if I'd get wedgied saying that I saw Wordplay and An Inconvenient Truth.) and filler statements that make it seem like I'm interested in the other person ("Wow, that's fascinating." — but smiling and nodding, so it doesn't seem derisive.)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Science Marches On

Over the course of history, there have been moments when mankind made giant leaps forward in the progress of civilization. Gutenberg invents the printing press, physicists at the University of Chicago split the atom, Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the moon. This morning, on the train into the city, I sat next to what I believe will be the next leap forward in humanity's evolution. Did someone find a cure for AIDS, or wipe out poverty in Central America? No, even better. Scientists and engineers, working day and night, have developed the next generation of shoe.

I know! Finally! The latest in absurdist footwear is the Vibram FiveFingers, this neon scuba-latex slipper thing with individual toes and "elastic gore [that] wraps around lower foot for added comfort and security." Yeah, I'm perfectly secure with my current shoes, thank you very much. They're designed for those sporty, outdoorsy people I can't stand and claimed to "offer the exhilirating feeling of going barefoot," which, uh... yeah. Nothing gets my loins tingling like going about my daily business without my shoes on. Except maybe those microfiber fuzzy socks and that orgasmic Tempurpedic Brookstone mattress.

(Okay, also creepy: their website. Not just the "exhilirating thrill of going barefoot" or whatever, but "FiveFingers gives you a gecko-like grip on slippery surfaces. They protect your tender feet from scorching sand and sharp rocks." And, "They gently separate each toe, while stimulating and exercising the muscles of the feet." What kind of fucked up foot fetishist wrote this copy?)

In any case, the Vibram FiveFingers are set to hit stores next spring, in case you or someone you love needs more pretentious-looking feet. I can understand if you're actually going hiking or rock climbing or something, but if you're like the idiot on the train next to me and just going off to work, they make you look like you dyslexically put your gloves on your feet. Personally, I hope they get laughed off the shelves and I can proudly say that I called it.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Coffeeshop Rant

Can we hire some slightly stupider people at the local coffeeshop because it's really a lot of fun having to explain the concept of an "iced caffe latte" to someone who already knows what a "caffe latte" is. First time this happened, last Tuesday, it took three employees to figure out the iced caffe latte concept, which, just in case you're retarded, is ice + caffe latte = iced caffe latte. It's not a Harvey Wallbanger or anything. Also, despite three brains being tasked on the project, no one figured out on their own why the ice should probably go in the cup first.

So I'm very proud of today's barista for at least getting that far without help. Good for you, being in your mid-thirties, working at some second-rate Starbucks, and understanding Archimedes' Principle. Now if you could just memorize the ingrediends in a latte. Espresso and milk. Spend a few hours going over that.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Here's an article that the recruitment firm Berman Larson Kane emailed me. Berman Larson Kane has been absolutely useless thus far in finding even potential employment for me, but I'm sure they think they make up for it by stuffing my inbox with condescending corporate-world tips. The article proclaims, "AT WORK, IT PAYS TO BE LIKEABLE." As opposed to in your marriage, say, where it pays to be aloof and distant.

Fine, we curmudgeons are pretty much used to this attitude among our more self-satisfied brethren, and it's perfectly understandable. But then, "growing research shows that likable employees may have more success on the job and that likability can even trump competence." Ugh. I get that likeable people are, well, liked more than unlikeable people... but hey, Boss, you're hiring someone to earn money for the company, not to fulfill their duties as senior prom king.

The article cites (well, references) a Harvard Business Review study that found employees don't enjoy working with a disliked colleague — again, that's sort of the definition of "disliked" — and it "almost doesn't matter how skilled they are." First, almost? And second, duh. Bonuses and the like aside, employees' pay has very little correlation to how much they're making for the company, so what do they care if their corporate teammate is good at his job? I sympathize: make your money with as little stress as possible, and we've all seen enough reality TV to know that's a lot easier when you're not surrounded by asshats. Thankfully it's not the employees doing the hiring, because if it were, I'd certainly have my own secretary on the company's dime.

What frustrates me, not just in business but in presidential races too, is that "likeability" is the attribute that we're judged on. How do I make you feel about yourself? It's not, say, "Do I respect you?" or "Do I treat you well?" — my being interpersonally proactive doesn't matter so much as your immediate visceral response. Man, I'd like to sit down and have a beer with you — let's get right on that once you're finished running your failed oil business or your failed baseball franchise or your failed Iraq war into the ground, Mr. President. Tell us about your latest fishing trip cause that'll make up for all the shit we've gotten hiring the friendly guy instead of the competent one.

Monday, July 10, 2006

A Completely Impartial Review of Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room

Ooooh, now I'm real mad, so try to imagine what that's like. Even though Alex Gibney's documentary on Enron's rise and fall and fall and fall preaches to the choir pretty much no matter who's watching it (unless the person watching it happens to be a certain vice president who lets the oil companies dictate our national energy policy), his film is still an instructive polemic for anyone who's not duly reeling with righteous anger and indignance. Which is most of you, by the way. The New York Times review talks about the entertainment value in the schadenfreude and sense of moral superiority you feel, knowing the end of the story and watching these Enron assholes building their inevitable demise, but I didn't pick up on it. Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, who were at the time under indictment for their roles in the Enron collapse, come off as pathetic, insecure losers — not that Gibney or anyone else actually pities these guys buried under the mountain of shit they created and dumped on their employees and shareholders — but the words "tragic hero" are bandied about more than once. Lay and Skilling may be the very definition of hubris, convinced that once they beat the system the first time, they could do it indefinitely, but what Gibney makes both terrifying and infuriating about the Enron scandal is the massive systemic loopholes that are the story's uber-villian. It becomes harder to absolve Skilling and Lay, but simultaneously easier to understand their incessant denial and refusal to take responsibility; they're cogs in a machine from their point of view, and also the system's minions from Gibney's.

The lingering question is how to lay the blame, and there's a lot of it to go around. More from my perspective than from Gibney's, although I now realize how comfortably naive I was thinking that the most published, dumbed-down version of the scandal — Lay, Skilling, and Fastow cooked the books while some nimrod at Arthur Andersen was asleep — was the full story. Gibney exonerates Lay and Skilling on some of the charges levelled against them in order to spread the blame around. Not that the head honchos weren't responsible, especially in terms of cooking up their schemes in the first place (many of which appear to be legal), hiring characters they knew to be ethically bereft, and screwing over their shareholders and California to buy a little more time when it became clear the company was going in the toilet — but Gibney's larger point is that Enron is symptomatic of our corporation-government-media symbiosis that would make conspiracy theorists proud. I don't want to blame the Enron bosses so much for beating the system that I exculpate the accountants, the investment bankers, the lawyers, the deregulators in the government, and the sheepish, spineless media for being greedy enough to make the system beatable. And I want to blame the bosses for creating a trader-eat-trader world environment on the desk floor while still passing responsibility to the traders who screwed the California power grid in order to make huge bonuses.

Where I'm most conflicted though, is with the individual investors. In my mind, the slimiest thing the Enron execs did throughout the collapse was put a lock on the investors' stock while dumping their own, and for that alone, I hope Lay is burning in hell right now. But there's two resonant themes of the film — the first is "Ask Why," Enron's former motto; the second is that no one, including the Lay and Skilling, could actually explain how Enron made its money — and put in the context of the collapse, I think they perfectly characterize not just American capitalism, but American culture in general. We see, for example, a line worker on one of Enron's subsidiary power grids; at Enron's height, his retirement package was worth about four-hundred thousand dollars, but by the collapse, he sold it for $1,200. Which is bullshit, but at the same time, I doubt that he asked any questions when his 401K was making money. For all he knew, his retirement could be built on the backs of genetically engineered hamsters who pooped money (which isn't far off from how Enron actually "made" its profits). I'd be a lot harsher here, but I sort of feel like the lesson "Don't invest in something you can't begin to comprehend" has maybe a $500 price tag and he was still totally bilked.

I'd have more sympathy, maybe, but now I'm scared... and I'm sure this is the same feeling people who don't want to see the Geneva Conventions applied in Guantanamo Bay have. There's this big, apathetic thing out there that has control over you in ways you can't even imagine, and you're helpless against it. Not to mention, complacent. It's that cycle — helplessness, hopelessness, and complacency — that makes the movie, the corporate world, or just the world itself so overwhelmingly depressing; that feeling if I were in charge of Enron or WorldCom or Global Crossing or Adelphia or HealthSouth or Tyco or etc., I'd run the damn thing ethically, with the Golden Rule etched above the building's main entrance. And then there's the realization that I'll never run a company, a successful company, because businesses who choose what goes over their building's main entrance don't get to be that way by following the Golden Rule.

Sunday, July 9, 2006

I had to take Grandma to church today, which I normally hate because the church is a sequacious clique of stubborn idiots, kind of a step above Scientologists on the "Is Humanity Doomed?" ladder and a step below academia, that I become nauseated every time some priest tells the flock that, say, God will judge you for being a homosexaul but forgive you if you happen to molest an altar boy in the confessional. But I finally got Grandma and the rest of the family to go along with what I think is a win-win solution: I drop Grandma off at church, then spend the next hour or so as an apostate in Barnes & Noble down the street, then pick her up after the mass is over. She gets her worship in (and I think she also has a senior-crush on the priest) and I don't have to listen to the religious right morality police condemning everything but crucifixes and rock songs about Jesus. Until, of course, I drop off Grandma today and she leaves the car with a, "I don't know what happened. We try to raise you right...."

Um, mouth agape. Exclamation point!

What the hell, Grandma? First of all, it's not like Grandma is a super-duper Catholic. She prays, but she prays out of helplessness rather than faith and hope for redemption, and she believes God listens because believing the alternative is too dreary. I can't muster up the same belief — and I don't mean to sound proud of my ability to rationalize away God — but I'm comfortable and convinced that, if God exists, He won't be all that impressed if I go to church every Sunday, sit quietly, and lack faith. If I can see through that artifice, I figure God probably can too — maybe at least he'll respect me for not being a sycophant. Man, I'm totally screwed in the afterlife if God can't see through the toadies.

And second, I might not have the world's greatest moral compass, but it's not like I'm going around selling arms to Somalian rebels or bankrupting major corporations and selling millions of dollars in stock while the employees are losing their pensions. So by those standards, my parents raised me pretty well. But I guess there's still time left.

Anyway, today I was pleased to discover that the church has a wi-fi network, and while Grandma's getting saved, I'm surfing the web out in the parking lot. But you'd think the signal would be stronger with all the divine presence nearby, right?

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

There's no better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than with gluttony, the most patriotic of the deadly sins, and thus the International Federation of Competetive Eating sponsored the eightieth annual "Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest." Here's a clip from ESPN's coverage of the 2004 contest, in case you've never seen fat fat-asses stuffing fatty food into their fat mouths before.

If anybody's still confused, FOX news commentators, this crap is why the terrorists hate us — hell, I watch competitive eating and the color commentary talking about how it's a "sport whose atheletes are in prime physical condition" and I hate us... when I'm not too busy being grossed by the sight of a human garbage disposal trying not to vomit up twelve pounds of cheese fries. What's extra ironic is that despite competitive eating being "the fastest growing sport in the U.S." (uh, literally), I still have to need to hear shit from Men's Health magazine and the President's Council on Physical Fitness about how I'm too fat, or my kids are too fat, or my grandparents are too fat or whatever. Seriously, Physical Fitness Lobby, I'm getting really confused with the mixed messages, with you telling me that half an hour on the treadmill will be a cure for everything from acne to heart disease and then Big Pharmaceutical coming in and trying to sell me some Lipitor. These days, though, I think I'll stick with obesity, mostly because I don't see the world's fattest twins getting shipped off to Iraq.

Sunday, July 2, 2006

The highlight of this Fourth of July weekend is definitely going to be the $200 donation I made to the Mohegan Tribal Council in Connecticut: I went up to Mohegan Sun for the free They Might Be Giants concert and stayed for the hot Spanish 21 dealer who took all my money, and also because the bus home didn't leave till 11:30. "Free" concert my ass...

The concert was expectedly cool, even though — prepare to be shocked — the acoustics in a mid-casino ampitheater surrounded by the sounds of people's numbers coming up in roulette and slot machines paying off (not my slot machine, though) and paying off and paying off and paying off (but of course, not my slot machine) and still paying off.... oh, sorry, the acoustics in the middle of the casino suck harder than the buffet food. But on the plus side, the crowd in a casino is over-21, so the band replaced the sappy children's songs that usually satisfy the soccer mom element of the audience with more of their classics, satisfying, well, me. I guess that's the theory anyway, but there were plenty of kids (with their adult guardians, I suppose) on the casino floor, at the concert. I guess on one hand, there probably aren't all that many big venues in south-central Connecticut so if you want to take your kids to see a family-friendly but relatively popular band, they'll probably be performing at Mohegan Sun or Foxwoods. Mohegan Sun even has the mispunctuated "Kids Zone," a toy store and a Jersey Shore style arcade — apparently, dumping quarters in a slot machine for the chance to win useless trinkets is healthy family fun but dumping quarters in a slot machine for the chance to win something of value, such as money, ruins America's morals — so I guess they've got a pretty popular family destination there.... But then again, if you're taking your three-year-old on a fun-filled vacation to a casino, you might have some sort of gambling problem. Just something to consider.

We arrived at Mohegan Sun around five, five-thirty, after four freaking hours of crawling along on the interstate — and did I mention that the bus had no air conditioning? Yeah, the bus had no A/C, but we did have a woman who thought an unventilated bus would be a great place to do her nails, so the fumes kind of took our minds off of... well... everything. Even though I left the casino with a lot less money in my wallet and a lot more secondhand smoke in my lungs, I really enjoyed the place. Mohegan Sun is absolutely beautiful, with an understated (for the most part) Native American motif that comes off more nightclub and less natural history museum, although I did spend some time in the food court sitting on a fakey-fake plastic rock. Like I'm sure there aren't any real rocks in Connecticut, so they had to go and mold one. Or several. The place is huge, and I pretty much needed a sherpa to keep me from getting lost. I wasn't the only one — every few minutes there'd be an announcement on the P.A. system — "So-and-so, come meet your party at Lost Guest Assistance." Thankfully, in the near future, we won't be having this problem because the Bush administration will implant GPS locators in each of our brains.

So for the most part, I enjoy casino gambling, and I even tolerate relatively well the people getting lucky on sucker bets, or the guy bitching to the dealer when he busts, or the craps shooters who think that aligning the dice a certain way will keep them from rolling seven, but I spent an hour at a Spanish 21 table with two people who insisted that the mathematically derived strategy charts I was using were worthless and that there's no teacher like experience, and I was just overcome with despair for mankind. I mean, the one guy wasn't even playing, just handing out bad advice condescendingly, and the other woman who kept telling me to ignore the basic strategy had already lost all her money! I swear, I wanted to strangle the living shit out of their ignorant little brains. But, no, like a rational person, I had to try explaining to them the concept of the house advantage and expected value, and like the slime that grows on the middle school locker room floors and winds up handing its Social Security checks over to Pat Robertson, they were calling me naive. Grrrr..... this is why I think it would just be easier to eat the stupid rather than educate them.