Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Unbearably Cruel Star Wars Embargo

My four-year-old son is crazy about "Star Wars." It has officially supplanted Spider-Man as the only thing he wants to talk about. He can identify all the major characters (adorable mispronunciations notwithstanding), classify them as good guys or bad guys, and match them to the spacecraft they travel in.

Not exactly prodigy-level stuff, but I find it interesting in light of one fact: He has never seen any of the "Star Wars" movies.

He is not alone among his little peers in this: most of the kids he knows and hangs out with haven't seen the movies either, but that doesn't stop any of them from endlessly debating, analyzing, praising, and speculating about their content. Is it "lightsaber" or "lightsaver"? I overheard a 10-minute argument on this topic, and both sides were surprisingly well-reasoned. The details of Darth Vader's transformation from good guy to bad guy are hazy, but the broad strokes are understood as a given. These movies have permeated the culture to a degree on par with folk legend. If the movies somehow vaporized completely out of existence (a proposition I would not oppose when it comes to the prequels), I feel like kids would still talk about them and obsess over them, rewrite what they were told, pass it down, etc. Eventually it would be remade based on a generations-long game of telephone, the remakes of the remakes eventually bearing no resemblance to the original but retaining every bit of their sway over huge swaths of humanity. You know, like the Bible.

A person might reasonably ask, "Why hasn't he seen the movies?" Well. His mother and I made a conscious decision when he was born to limit his TV viewing. And by "limit" I mean "completely disallow."  We don't intend this to be a lifelong ban, but it seems a good idea that he learns to read and think and amuse himself before he starts vegging out in front of Nickelodeon or whatever. I'd hate to see the glazed, blank expression so many little kids wear when watching TV become his default, especially having seen what his imagination is capable of left to his own devices.

So, around the time the boy was born, we replaced our TV with a high-definition video projector, and set it up in the basement, where the boy rarely goes. (We only use it at night, when he's asleep.) "Out of sight, out of mind" has proven to be a true maxim in this case: No TV in our living area means the boy does not pester us to watch TV. He doesn't even think of it as an option.

And our logic seems to have been vindicated: he is perfectly happy drawing pictures at the kitchen table literally for hours. He loves to go to the library and get new books for bedtime, and usually can't wait that long to read them. I have come to love the sound of him talking to himself as he invents ever more complex scenarios for his action figures, alone in his room, happily chirping and muttering away.

Since this is the only kid I have, I have no idea if any of this would be any different if we had TVs on in every room all day and all night. My brother's kids are living that way, and they don't seem any less curious or intelligent or creative than our boy does-- in fact their daughter is way ahead of him on the ABCs, and she's a year younger than him.

But now that we've started down this path, I feel like we're committed to it. We took a family ski trip to Quebec recently that had us spending three nights in hotel rooms, and not surprisingly, the boy was obsessed with the TVs in every room, despite the fact that all the programming was in French. During his ski lesson -- during his ski lesson -- he said he wanted to go back to the room and watch TV. Every time we left the room, he talked about wanting to go back and watch TV.

Of course, we created this monster: if he watched TV every day, he wouldn't care nearly so much about it. We've unwittingly set it up as a forbidden fruit, an extra-special treat, so he wants it in a way that a kid who has it all the time does not. And at this point, even if we decided to let him watch TV (in this case the projector) at home, I'm afraid he would go into a catatonic haze right there on the couch, not eating, not sleeping, a thin thread of drool dangling from his bottom lip. We've made our bed, and now we have to lie in it.

And here's where we come back to "Star Wars." I wonder if his obsession with it would be the same if he had seen the movies or not. Since he hasn't (indeed, has never asked to watch the movies or ever seemed to realize that it's an option), he is left to pore over the abundant tie-in merchandise for clues to their content.

He just got a completely insipid book about R2-D2 rescuing C-3P0 and took it to preschool for show-and-tell, had me read it to him at bedtime that night, and had his mom read it to him the next morning. It has supplanted a marginally more interesting comic book about Luke and Yoda training on Dagobah, about which he was similarly obsessed for weeks. His favorite toy, by far, is his set of "Star Wars" Legos. (We do allow him a little YouTube, and he loves, loves the "Lego Star Wars" videos, which I have to admit are a kind of genius.) He wears "Star Wars" pajamas every night (until they start to smell and we have to remind him that he still likes Spider-Man, too).

As a first-generation "Star Wars" kid, I don't have any problem with any of this: my parents took me to the first movie in the theater the summer it came out, when I was about the age he is now. I grew up on it, I love it, I know it's harmless, and I am completely okay with him loving on it the way he is. It would be un-American to feel otherwise.

But would he be so obsessed with trying to piece together these movies if he could just see them? Moreover, would access to the movies take some of the fun out of it all? Does having to work so hard for it make it better? Forbidden fruit is all the sweeter.

This may be one reason the prequels were so disappointing: the backstory was somehow more vivid and more compelling when it existed only as cryptic lines of dialogue in the original trilogy. We had to work to imagine what happened. We had to speculate about what exactly the clone wars consisted of. We had to imagine what drove Anakin Skywalker to the dark side. We could only dream what an army of Jedi Knights would look like in action. Then the prequels came along and filled in all those blanks with a boring set of movies and took all the work, all the imagination, all the fun out of it.

Every movie we've taken him to has scared the hell out of him at one point or another, so we have felt that the movies would terrify him -- think about Darth Vader, in living color, through the eyes of a four-year-old-- and kept him away, but at this point I think he would find the inner strength to get through "Star Wars." And, thanks to a miscommunication with a new babysitter (totally my fault), he is now hip to the presence of the projector in the basement -- though, oddly, he has not asked to watch it since the cat got out of the bag.  So I'm sure it will happen soon.
The burden of being his guide through the "Star Wars" experience, of curating this material responsibly, is one I take seriously. I would love to pretend that the original trilogy is all there is and ignore the rancid and unwatchable prequels -- and fully intend to -- but his dedicated study of "Star Wars" literature has alerted him to the likes of Anakin, General Grievous, and the Clone Troopers. Not sure how best to navigate those rough waters. (Last night he was confused to see the Clone Troopers called in to assist some Jedi Knights in that R2-D2 book. "But Clone Troopers are bad guys," he protested. I found myself unable to explain how and why the Clone Troopers are turned from good guys into pawns of the Emperor, at least not in a way that a 4-year-old can understand. I barely understand it myself. Thanks again for those prequels, George!)

The series is coming out on Blu-ray in the fall, and I may just prolong the wait until then -- I know little kids don't care about video resolution, but it seems worthwhile to make his first "Star Wars" experience happen on a 100-inch screen in 1080p resolution, comparable to when I first saw them in the theater. (A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...)
Either way, I'm really looking forward to seeing it again for the first time, through his wide, eager eyes.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Big Baggy Pants May Outlast The Cockroaches

What would you say is the standard lifespan of a fashion trend? How long did leg warmers and Wayfarers last in the early 80s, like two years? Three? What about stonewashed jeans? Three years, tops? Day-glo T-shirts? "Frankie Say Relax"? Shoulder pads? Cargo pants? Von Dutch hats? Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera?

Granted, some of these things come back and get a second life, usually about 20 years after the first go-round. Thankfully, the second wave of Members Only jackets seems to have crested and crashed, and when I saw a dude wearing a "Beat It" jacket unironically a couple of years ago I feared it was the start of something we'd all regret. (It wasn't.) But even the rerun only lasts a year or two.

Consider, then, the mightiest, most resilient fashion trend of the late 20th century, one that's lasted over 20 years now, long enough to outlast its own revival: Big Baggy Pants. I'm starting to think "trend" is the wrong word, and that this is the kind of thing that's going to be with us forever, like button-down shirts and the little black dress.

Leaving the merits of this look aside -- I am no stranger to fashion transgressions of my own and am in no position to cast value judgments -- how has this particular fashion become so dominant? I truly do not understand it. I can understand that it happened in the first place; it came in the late 80s, as a reaction to the skintight tracksuits and Jordaches that had taken center stage (and which are now enjoying their own revival). Things ebb, and they flow. Miami Vice pastels are supplanted by earth tones; lipstick and teased hair (a la Poison) is replaced by ripped jeans and flannel (a la Nirvana); tight is replaced by loose; I get it. But what made it different from all the other trends that I mentioned above? Why has it lasted so much longer than, say, Cosby sweaters?

I truly don't know the answer, but the question fascinates me, particularly because Big Baggy Pants actively interfere with the wearer's mobility, and thus require a much greater commitment than any other fashion trend I can think of.

I got to thinking about all this (not for the first time) on my way home from the office yesterday. I was crossing a major intersection, and coming the opposite way I saw a young fellow hustling to beat the light, with one hand clutching the front of his pants to hold them up, and struggling to maintain his stride as the waistline, situated just below his butt cheeks (as mandated by law), resisted his efforts. Because, when you drop the waistline below the butt, that puts the crotch squarely between the knees, which has the effect of handcuffing your knees together. So this gentleman looked like he was going to fall down the moment he raised his speedometer above "amble."

This is not the first time I've seen this happen. It's totally common in my Brooklyn neighborhood to see dudes walking around with the front of their pants in a wad in their fist. In fact, I once saw a guy let go of his Big Baggy Pants (he needed both thumbs to compose a text message) and they dropped to his ankles like a stone. (He pulled them up without missing a beat, stonefaced, as though it was the 80th time it had happened.) But that guy was just standing around; this guy yesterday was crossing Flatbush Avenue, the biggest thoroughfare in the 4th largest city in America. Call me a ninny, but I don't feel like that would be a good place to turf out in a tangle of my own pants.

I have noticed some interesting variations on the look in the last year or two. Last summer I took my son to the beach at Coney Island and I saw a teenager with two bathing suits on: a regular pair of trunks, pulled below his ass (as mandated by law), and a Speedo underneath it (to cover said ass). I tried to get a picture because I knew no one would believe me but it took me too long to dig out my phone.

Of course, I'm not blind: I see that Super Skinny Pants have made a comeback. (I bartend in the Lower East Side, after all.) I'm not even sure "comeback" is the right word, because I don't recall pants ever being as tight as they are now. But even here, vestiges of Big Baggy Pants cling to life: dudes are still pulling them down below their ass (as mandated by law), which makes the crotch-around-the-knees conundrum even more constricting than with the Big Baggies. (At least their hands are free, so it is a partial improvement.)

Since I know not a whole lot of people read this, and I'm grateful for those of you who do, I want to let you in on the next big trend, because maybe you can find a way to get in on the ground floor, via investment or design or whatever, and make yourself a little money. Consider it a thank you for your support.

I have it on good authority that Nike is developing size 22-28 sneakers. Adidas, Fila, and K-Swiss aren't far behind, and I understand Reebok is going to offer a size 30. 50 Cent, Eminem, and Blake Griffin have already shot ads, and rollout is scheduled for the fall.

Be the first one on your block to rock Great Big Shoes! Shoes that fit are so 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th century -- the 21st century is all about Great Big Shoes, so get with it, because as Heidi Klum reminds us, in fashion, one day you're in and the next you're out!

You're welcome.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Starbucks Made My Life Worth Living Until Quitting Made It Better

People really seem to like to hate on Starbucks. I don't know why-- I guess it's their ubiquity. When a logo can be seen from any street corner in any city in America, people (city-type people) are prone to backlash.

Not me. I love Starbucks. I love so many things about it: I love the coffee, which some people say tastes burned but I feel tastes yummy, especially with four sugars. I love the fact that they sell the beans so you can make your own at home. I'm partial to the Sumatra, but when it's not available I'm comfortable with the Kenya, or the French Roast, or any of the Extra Bold varietals. (I like to imagine that while Extra Bold refers to flavor, more flavor also means more caffeine.) I love the fact that they give their workers competitive benefits and room for advancement. I love the color green (that's just a coincidence). I love the Chocolate Chunk Cookies. I love that when I take a road trip I can count on good coffee the whole way. I love that they will let anyone (anyone) take a dump there. In a city like New York, one must always be aware of one's public restroom options -- particularly if one is a coffee drinker or a parent -- and in a city that sticks to "Restroom for customers only" like it's the eleventh commandment, it's hard for me to even imagine a Manhattan without a Starbuck's on every corner.

Sure, their naming convention for the sizes is kind of lame. Tall, grande, venti, trenta, quatorza, etc. For a long time I resisted it and ordered a large. Defiantly: "Large Coffee." But after a while I thought about it: I come to this same Starbucks three times a week. I talk to the same barista every time. I know, and she knows I know, that Starbucks calls it a "Venti." She knows I'm mounting a pointless rebellion and so do I. In fact, rebelling against the word "venti" may be the most pointless rebellion in the history of rebellions. So I gave in and started saying "Venti." Eventually I got over the feelings of powerlessness and surrender and went back to just loving Starbucks.

So it was a heavy heart that I broke off my intense relationship with the national coffee chain almost a year ago. I didn't just break up with Starbucks, I broke up with coffee altogether, but Starbucks and I were pretty much exclusive -- although I did have a nice little neighborhood coffee place tucked away on the side.

The break came when I started thinking about how much money I spent on my beloved coffee every month: my rudimentary arithmetic told me it was in the neighborhood of $125-$150.  I checked and rechecked that math, and will do so here again for the skeptical reader:

  • $10 per pound of Starbucks Extra Bold Sumatra, times two per week, times four weeks: $80 a month. My wife and I (mostly I) drained two large French Presses a day. I personally drank no fewer than six cups a day.
  • $2.50 per Venti Coffee of the Day per bar shift, times three per week, times four weeks: $30 a month. Going in to a job at 10pm after a full day of caring for a toddler requires a little extra pick-me-up.
  • $2 per random coffee, purchased whenever I happen to walk past neighborhood coffee place while not already holding a coffee, average four a week, times four weeks: $40 a month. Hi, my name is Alex, I'm an addict.

You may look at that math and say, Jesus F. Christ you drink a lot of coffee! And I would be hard-pressed to argue. Moderation has never been my strength; just ask my old friends beer and tequila. And tell them I said hello.

At the time of these initial calculations, I was bartending three nights a week and caring for my son in the daytime while my wife attended graduate school, so we were a one-income, low-income family of three, more than a little short on cash. $150 a month seemed crazy. So I decided to stop drinking coffee for a month and see how I felt.

Why a month and not a week? I knew that it would take at least a week, maybe two, for the withdrawal symptoms (headache, irritability, low energy) to subside. Once I broke that cycle of lift-crash-lift-crash-lift-crash, I wanted to see where my energy levels were. I wanted to see if I missed it. I wanted to see what it was giving me. I wanted to see what I was buying for $150 a month.

A lot of people said, you don't have to drink Starbucks coffee. Get a can of Bustelo from the deli for two bucks. Let's just say that the arithmetic didn't just open my eyes to the dollar amount, but to the amount. That much coffee is too much coffee, whatever it costs. Just drink less, they would say. Another fair point, but moderation, as I mentioned above, is not my strength.

That first month, I learned a few things:

1. Without coffee, the highs aren't too high and the lows aren't too low. I refer here to my energy levels.
2. In my uncaffeinated state, I am not nearly as impatient and irritable as I thought. This observation comes mostly from my wife, but I see her point.
3. Bowel movements can be solid!
4. Bowel movements can be limited to one a day!
5. Bowel movements can be accomplished in under 30 minutes!
6. Withdrawal was pretty rough for three days-- I had a brutal headache for all of day two-- but after that it was fine.
7. I can go to sleep earlier than 3am! Who knew?
8. When I get up in the morning, I might actually get moving less than an hour after rising.

People are really attached to coffee. I don't say this in a judgmental way, because I was every bit as attached myself -- probably more. But I was shocked to find my overall energy levels went up once I got the monkey off my back.

My wife and my son and I drive 12 hours from Brooklyn to Cincinnati a couple of times a year to visit my family, and the last time we did it was a revelation: I wasn't compelled to stop the car every time I saw the Siren in the green circle, I didn't have to stop the car to pee every 30 minutes for 12 hours, and I never felt my eyes closing involuntarily because I was tired. So that was awesome.

After a few months coffee-free, I started drinking tea instead. Yes, there is caffeine in tea, but it's significantly less, and tea doesn't taste good enough to be as addictive as coffee became for me. It's just kind of there. It's the methadone of hot beverages.

Coffee gave me bad breath, made me pee all the time, made me think I had Crohn's disease or something, kept me on edge all day, kept me awake at night, lengthened my morning routine by 90 minutes every day, made my forearms feel like they were connected to a car battery, had me ducking into every Starbucks I saw regardless of time of day or my blood caffeine level, drained my wallet, and stained my teeth.

What do I miss? I miss that nice girl at the Starbuck's on Delancey that gave me a free coffee once in a while. I miss the smell. Coffee smells good. I miss drinking it at brunch. I think that's about it.
Bye, Starbucks! Thanks for the memories. Remember me fondly, as I remember you. I'll stop by to visit when I get nostalgic for the good times. Or when I need to take a dump.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Purell Is The Scourge Of Humanity

The dinosaurs had the giant meteor;
 humanity has Purell.
There is a war coming. A war that will rend the very fabric of our society and could eventually result in the end of the human race. I speak not of the war with fundamentalist Islam, or of the otherworldly invasion that we all know is coming; no, this war will be fought -- indeed, is already being fought -- in our nation's preschools and kindergartens. I refer, of course, to the coming war between the Purell people (Purellians) and the non-Purell people (the Resistance).

What is Purell? It's a line of hand-sanitizing products that, according to its website, is "effective at killing 99.9% of most common germs." It was invented in 1988 for use by doctors and restaurant workers, and eventually was made available to everyone in 1997. (1997-- the same year SkyNet became self-aware. Coincidence?) And it is the harbinger of doom. The dinosaurs had the giant meteor; humanity has Purell. But unlike the dinosaurs, humanity has a choice, and if it is to survive, it must fight this growing menace.

The first skirmishes have already begun. It's becoming more and more common for preschools, kindergartens, and other daycare facilities to offer (in much the same way that Don Corleone "offered" the services of Johnny Fontaine to Jack Woltz) Purell. If you decline the Purell, you get sideways looks, clucking tongues, a judgement that you must not care about your kids. How could you decline the opportunity to sterilize yourself and your precious child? Don't you want to keep him healthy?

Funny thing about that: despite never having used Purell on myself or my four-year-old son, he has been sick exactly one day in his life. (And, I should note, it may have been his mother's and my most pleasant day of parenting to date. We played a whole game of Scrabble uninterrupted while he lay with his head in her lap. This may not seem like a big deal to the non-parents out there, but I know the rest of you can appreciate it.)

Has he had sniffles? Yes. Has he had coughs? Yes. Has he had fevers? Yes. But there has only been one day -- one day -- in four-plus years that he was actually sick enough to stop torturing the dog, inverting his toy box, emptying the kitchen drawers, ripping important documents into tiny pieces, inventing words that rhyme with "poop," etc.

So do I want to keep him healthy? Of course I do. Which is why I want him to be exposed to germs. Not only do I not use Purell on him, I let him touch whatever he wants wherever he finds it -- and I live in Brooklyn. If he picks something up off the sidewalk, if he wants to find out what a hubcap feels like, if he finds a half-eaten popsicle crawling with ants, I leave him alone. And I hope you're sitting down for this: when we take the subway, I let him touch the pole.

I can just hear the Purellians out there gasping in horror. You're a negligent parent! He's going to catch Hepatitis! And then give it to my kid! What's the matter with you?

As mentioned above, Purell was made available to the general public in 1997. How did we all survive before 1997 without sterile hands? Let me explain, in case you have forgotten sixth-grade science: human beings (indeed, all living beings) have something called an immune system. When we are exposed to germs or viruses or other potentially harmful agents, our immune systems identify them and develop defenses against them. Sometimes those agents make us sick, sometimes they don't, but they will always have a harder time the next time around because having been exposed to them raises our defenses.

This, it seems face-slappingly obvious to me, is one of the primary functions of daycare and preschool. Sure, it's nice for the little darlings to socialize and learn to share and drink apple juice, but trading all those germs back and forth makes them stronger human beings (literally). The kids who are being raised by Purellians? Have you noticed that they all seem to have runny noses?

My dad grew up in a way-rural small town in Missouri, and he told me recently that when he was a kid, Lawn Boy (the lawnmower company) set up a factory there, and when the new arrivals complained of hay fever, my dad and the other locals had no idea what they were talking about. You see, they spent all their time outside, so their bodies were immune to allergens like cut grass and pollen.

But people seem to have totally forgotten this fundamental principle of health. A couple of weeks ago one of the mothers in my son's preschool was alarmed to learn that one of the kids had come down with walking pneumonia. This mother's response was to petition the management of the preschool to require a doctor's note for the return of any kid who missed a day of school due to illness.

That seems like insane overkill to me. Little kids get sick -- it's just what they do. I don't mean to belittle the seriousness of a toddler with walking pneumonia because I'm sure it sucked for everyone involved, but we're not talking about stopping the spread of walking pneumonia. (The parents stopped it when they took the kid out of school.) This mom wants to stop the spread of germs altogether: a goal as misguided as it is impossible.

There are a million things we all do every day that expose us all to millions of germs every day, but to take one example, let's just focus on the one that everybody does, the one that, as the old song goes, makes the world go 'round: Money. Think about money for a second. They don't call it "filthy lucre" for nothing. It passes through an uncountable number of hands, goes through a million pockets of various contents and cleanliness, is even put up people's noses on Saturday night. And yet we all handle it with our bare fingers every day. A lot of us even lick our fingertips to get a better grip! Based on the logic of the Purellians, we should all contract full-blown AIDS every time we're at the cash register. But we don't, and we won't, at least not as long as we keep our bodies' natural defenses strong.

That's why we can't let the Purellians win. We have to resist! If some hysterical mom reaches into her stroller and tries to squirt Purell in your palm before you get near her precious little Darby, say no thank you! If the preschool teacher won't let you in to pick up your kid until you sterilize your hands, remind her that you pay her salary! This is a war, people, and it's about to get serious. The Purellians are out there, and their numbers are growing. The rolling Twitter feed at the bottom of the Purell website is chilling, but it provides insight into their line of thinking -- a line of thinking that can't be dissuaded or reasoned with. Silence equals Death (or at least a bad flu)!

Join the Resistance!