Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009, in Review

Yeah, yeah, I know this "year in review" thing is a little late...

For me, personally, 2008 was pretty much the Best Year Ever. At the end of last year, I wondered how the hell 2009 would be able to compare, but also had high hopes regarding my career and future travel.

2009 was not what I expected, but still neat in its own way. Sure, I spent most of it rather ingloriously unemployed in Portland (an anticlimax compared to last year) but there was a very, very positive side to that.

When abroad (and before that, in Eugene) I had fond memories and good thoughts of Portland. I remembered it as a vibrant, liberal city, a place where something was always going on, and where the high amount of culture and activity belied the city's more modest population. I was worried, somewhat, that these were memories colored by nostalgia, that Portland was only slightly less gray than any other American metro area.

Fortunately, though, I was wrong. This past year I've found that my geographical parent is even better than the home that I remembered. I hadn't lived here properly since high school, and I've since found out that Portland is a land of zombie bike rides, clever smut, vampiric awesomeness and Star Trek in the park. Also, lots of really excellent beer. Having my nostalgia be confirmed and even exceeded has been an interesting experience, and I love this city more in reality than in abstraction. Portland, the place I call home, has been inspiring. I've had bouts of creativity and productivity here that I never had in Japan, and am perplexed and thrilled by that.

My experience is probably colored by the fact that for the most part I've spent 2009 writing. While I have worked for five different employers this year (GEOS, a canvassing company, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Kaplan Aspect, and Macy's) my primary focus has been on my own creative endeavors. I have managed to actually get paid for it once, and have a small gig with a tourism website at the moment. I've also managed to get myself into a nifty local 'zine somehow, which is a fun project.

This is great. Really fantastic, actually. Prior to this year, I thought that it was kind of ludicrous to expect anyone to pay me for anything I've written, publish it, or whatever. However, I'm getting some pretty dangerous ideas here, and I think I can pull it off. You all may need to pull me back to earth if I get too optimistic- I'm actually pitching stuff to websites, stitching together a *cough* book *cough* (I've been sort of embarrassed to admit that) and (this is the part that boggles my mind) actually being accepted on occasion. Last year I ended 2008 saying "in 2009 I'll start my career." I was anticipating going into the Foreign Service or Peace Corps, but I guess this counts as a different kind of start, something I've always wanted to do, i.e., be professionally creative.

I wasn't entirely stationary- there was a little vagabonding going on. 2009 was also a year in which I rode quite a bit on the I-5 corridor, going down to Eugene and up to Seattle, down to San Francisco, and, of course, to Burning Man. (And yes, Burning Man really is neat- it's not all hype.) Not only is Portland wonderful, but the rest of the West Coast has some pretty cool stuff going on as well. Seeing friends up and down the tectonic plate made me wish I could teleport, or, at least fly really fast. Something like that.

I have no idea what's happening in 2010. I'm scheduled to join the Peace Corps, have a fantastic new girlfriend, am working on turning Hired Tongue into a book, flinging unsolicited proclamations of my awesomeness to editors and literary agents, and suddenly don't really know what's going to happen. I'll be thirty years old, writing furiously, and still wandering about. I don't mind that, really- it certainly beats banality. This lifestyle is fitting, for a time, but it has to lead somewhere to be truly satisfying. I don't know how much of a vagabond I'll still be in a year's time. 2010 looks uncertain, but I know it will not be boring.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Three Reasons Why The Past Decade Didn't Suck

It's the end of the decade. Yes, it really is. Mathematical pedantry aside, we're entering a new, arbitrarily-determined time unit, and that's something to be kind of excited about. People seem to be complaining about the last ten years, though, and I do think that they were a pretty nasty time, all told. But, they weren't all bad. There's a lot to like about the past ten years. Here are a few things:

It Has Been Much, Much Worse

Think about the twentieth century:

1900s- Not much
1910s- WWI, Spanish flu, millions dead
1920s- Decadence, stock market crash
1930s- Great Depression, WWII, millions dead
1940s- Great Depression, WWII, millions dead
1950s- Cold War, Korean War, nuclear paranoia
1960s- Cold War, Vietnam War, JFK assassination, general unrest
1970s- Cold War, Vietnam War, Watergate, recession
1980s- Cold War, decadence, hair metal
1990s- The Cold War is over! WOW! HUZZAH! (Gulf War happens, though.)
2000s- Iraq War, Recession

Our parents and grandparents faced existential threats to the U.S. in the form of the Great Depression, Nazi Germany, and the USSR. We no longer have that. As much as some might attempt to remake Islamic terrorists into the Nazis or Commies of our time, they do not pose a serious threat to Western civilization. Think about it: The biggest and most complicated thing that they were able to do was destroy a significant portion of downtown New York. As devastating as that was, it was nothing compared to what Germany did to Poland, Japan did to China, we did to Dresden, and any nuclear bomb could have done to anywhere.

Moreover, as awful as the current recession is, it's remarkable that we don't have people standing in bread lines or trying to sell pencils in the street. Yes, Detroit has suffered quite a bit, but the economy has started growing again. The Dust Bowl destitution from the thirties stayed in the thirties. We don't have any Hoovervilles. Think about that: We've been through a long, crushing recession, but have managed to avoid absolute destitution. In its own way, that's great.

The Internet!

Remember the internet ten years ago? It was full of dancing hamsters, pirated music and porn. Now, it's full of lolcats, pirated music and porn, but also a bunch of other neat stuff. Think about this: Let's say you want to learn how to decoupage. So, you Google "how to decoupage" and WHAM-O! There are a bunch of sites telling you how to do precisely that! That is really, utterly, super profound. That access to information is unprecedented in human history, and despite all of the annoying memes and pictures of cats, the Internet really is the greatest thing since bread or slices. Cyberpunk (remember that?) was a SF genre chiefly characterized by the existence of a giant web of computers all across the world connected to each other. Now, Cyberpunk is dead because it's central tenant is real. This past decade, we made a subgenre of SF obsolete. How cool is that?

The Decline of Bigotry

Yes, there's lots of problems with the health care legislation, and no, Obama didn't magically fix everything with his ultra-charismatic Jesus-like wizardry, but it's still fantastic that the U.S. elected a black dude. And, despite Proposition Eight passing in California, gay people are getting married in the U.S., and we will have it sooner or later. There's gay marriage in Iowa! That's pretty amazing. If, thirty years ago, you were to tell someone that in 2009 the president would be black and gay dudes would be setting up wedding registries they probably would have said "Shut your pie-hole, hippie!" HA-HA! Take that, you imagined Archie Bunker-like hypothetical conservative person! Woo-hoo!

Carl Sagan (one of my heroes) once said "We live in an extraordinary age." He said that back in the eighties, and he was right-on then. He's extra-super-mega correct now. As much fun as it is to bitch, we do live in an extraordinary age, and it really is getting better all the time. Here's to the next decade.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


"You do realize," said the HR woman, "That you're very qualified for this?" The statement annoyed me. Yes, I realized that I was "very qualified," by which she meant "overqualified." Yes, I knew it would be a pay cut compared to what I was used to, yes, yes, yes.

"You do realize," I wanted to say, "That there's a giant fucking recession out there? Right?" I didn't say that, though. Instead, I held my tongue and got a seasonal job at Macy's, America's Department Store. I was a teacher, once. Now I would sell pants and blenders and underwear and neckties.

Training was insultingly slow. I wanted to simply say, "I have done retail before, and I can see that your proprietary computer system is very intuitive. Can I start working now?" But, I had to slog through it anyhow. "A lot of people don't have jobs right now," I thought to myself, "a lot of people don't have jobs..." (Echos of "There are starving kids in Ethiopia! Now clean you plate!" I don't think my parents ever said that to me, though.)

My job is in Beaverton. The commute is long and I wish I could read on the bus, but I get motion sick. I listen to podcasts and music instead. The commute is the worst part of the job, in it's own way. If I was going two hours to teach or do something meaningful, I wouldn't mind as much, though.

I bought a black suit so I could work there. The dress code is black, all black. I know this makes us easier to identify for customers, and for security cameras.

We are supposed to sell the Macy's credit card. I don't feel comfortable selling a financial product that I don't know the details of, so I haven't bothered to push it. I exceed all my sales goals easily, but as far as I'm concerned the credit card can go fuck itself. They tried to get me to get one, and I said no. I don't have any credit card debt, and I'm not really in favor of it generally.

People have lots of coupons. Most of the time, the coupons don't work, especially with big brands like Levi's and Calvin Klein. When the coupons don't work, people get angry, but they buy the expensive things anyway.

Most of the time when people as me questions about products, I just read them the labels on the products. "Is this dishwasher safe?" they ask. "Yes," I say, reading the label that says so, "it is." "Thank you so much," they say, and then I ring them up.

Selling is easy. Lots of people just want to be reassured.

I wish our Macy's has a Santaland. It doesn't. Santa's out in the mall, and there's just a line up to his chair. He's near the food court.

I talked to a woman who said this job was a ninety percent pay cut for her. I felt sorry for her, but I also wondered where all of her savings or whatever went.

Vendors from companies like Waterford, Calvin Klein and Calphalon are sometimes in the stores. One of them said to me "They treat you season guys like shit," and then apologized for swearing. I told her it was okay.

I keep wanting to tell people that I don't do this in real life, that I'm not actually a Macy's worker, that really I teach English. Being there is a blow to pride, and it really does sting, just like Marcellus Wallace said it would. ("A lot of people don't have jobs. A lot of people don't have jobs...")

I was scheduled to work on Christmas Eve, and talked myself out of it.

Christmas music fills the store. Some of the songs are rock or hip-hop versions of Christmas tunes, and I think that these versions of the songs are embarrassing, like watching my dad try to dance.

There are no religious Christmas songs. I like those songs much better, usually. I like Oh Holy Night, Oh Come, All Ye Faithful, and Joy to the World. I like them all, and they are never, ever played.

They do sometimes play the theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas, though, and I like that.

Macy's in Beaverton is part of a mall. I wish I worked at the downtown store. At that store, I could pretend that I worked at some class joint in the heart of Portland. Instead, I work at a mall.

The mall would be okay if it had a bookstore to hang out in on lunches and breaks, but it doesn't.

It does have two Starbucks', though, and I often get coffee there. I don't like saying "tall" or "grande" because I think it's sort of silly so I'll say something like "Can I get a twelve ounce coffee please?" "One tall coffee? Sure!" is a common reply. I don't like hearing grown up people having to talk like that.

A guy behind me one day is laying it on thick "Thank you so much for shopping with us!" he says, and I want to punch him in the mouth. I'm always polite, but he's obsequious, parroting all of the things in the training videos. I like finding real people in retail establishments, and he was a total Caufeldian phony.

I don't like saying that things are "9.99" or 29.99." Those are bullshit prices, and everyone knows it. I like saying that something is "ten" or "thirty dollars" much more.

My girlfriend drove me to work one morning and brought me coffee. I was touched, but also a little embarrassed that she saw me on the sales floor. Part of me doesn't want anyone I know or respect to see me doing this.

I asked to stay on after Christmas. I don't like it, I'm overqualified, but, yes, there's a giant recession out there. A lot of people don't have jobs...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"Recreational Consumerism": The Ikea Experience

Until recently, until that fateful two days ago, I had only heard of "Ikea" in rumor and hearsay. The furniture and furnishings, yes, those were familiar, but the interior of the blue-and-yellow (if you go cross-eyed, it's green) store remained terra incognita. I'd heard stories of it. Travelers' tales and legends, songs, lays, and canticles. The bards spoke of the Fountain of Youth and Fantastical Beasts. Dragons of ferocity and terror were said to lay within its caves, and Ikea's storied glens and forests were thick with Unicorns and creatures of Faerie. I knew not what lay in store (in this store) for me, as I set out in my gilded chariot (by "gilded chariot" I mean "my girlfriend's Volvo") for a new land of wonder and inexpensive modernist furniture.

Ikea, so long rumored, did not disappoint.

Stepping into the display rooms I was immediately impressed by how everything was, first and foremost, contextualized. Ikea does not start by showing you aisles, boxes, or even displays of buyable merchandise. Before any of that, it puts you in the right mood, it romances you properly. Most furniture stores show you goods in a manner that is totally divorced from how the merchandise will look in real life, i.e., you see a couch and it's in a row with a bunch of other couches. Or, there's a chair displayed on a pedestal, with nothing else. Such methods of display are utilitarian, perhaps, but they are not natural. Ikea's strategy, though, is to show its merchandise off in idealized domestic settings, to put its chairs, tables, and sinks in the sexiest contexts possible, and it works. Before I was able to pick up or handle anything buyable, the display rooms got me good and ready with a heavy dose of mercantile foreplay, and boy, did I appreciate that.

The displays were aspirational, inspiring, and, best of all, I could relate to them. Unlike so many catalogs and architectural advertisements that feature heavy furniture that costs more per pound than I do per hour, I could actually see myself assembling these bits of particle board and screws into a delightful modern living space. I had been located, demographically, and hopelessly seduced. Gazing upon the desks and tables and beds and curtains and television sets and spatulas I couldn't help but enjoy myself. My girlfriend referred to it as "recreational consumerism," and, yes, that was the perfect word for it.

Stopping for lunch midway through the excursion, I couldn't help but order the Swedish meatballs. There was no other option, really. The meatballs were too distinctively Ikean to pass up, too much part of the idealized experience. They were small and distinctive, manageable and delicious like so much of the merchandise that the store offered. Gravy and all they were wonderful, and I looked at a picture of Stockholm on the wall.

By the time Ikea hits you with the part that looks like an actual store, the part where you get a cart and put things in it, you are raring to go. You want it. You've had your aspirations piqued and sweet nothings of consumerism whispered into your ear. Ikea has suggested and shown to you all that it can offer, all that can be yours. You want to stroll through the housewares section, inserting things into your cart with capitalistic abandon. "I don't know what this is," one of us would say, holding some kind of houseware or domestic gadget, "but I get the sense that it's somehow useful. I want to do things with it!" Indeed. I did manage to control myself, to not buy a shoulder bag that I found useful-seeming, but the final part of the store has you wanting to recklessly consume, and things that seem like large purchases look like impulse buys under Ikea's seductive spell. By the time I handed over my debit card (I bought a nicely inexpensive dresser, by the way) a wave of relief and satisfaction coursed through me, fantastic release.

The next day I opened my new box of furniture, and got to relive a bit of the Ikea experience as I assembled my new furniture. (I'm even actually reorganizing my room.) That's what Ikea has going for it, and that's why it's great: It offers an experience. Most of the time when I've bought something, I think little of where I got it, and mostly I just want to get home with my purchase. Ikea, though, has managed to make itself a kind of theme park, a sort of temple that is a font of affordable and neat-looking things. You can't really say that about anywhere else. I'll stop, before I start sounding too much like Ikea's bitch.

I will simply say: Ikea, you sold me furniture, took my money, and I liked it. You win at capitalism. Congratulations!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

You Really Ought to Read The Road

No, I haven't seen the movie, and oddly, I don't want to. I did enjoy Cormac McCarthy's The Road, immensely, though. Well, maybe "enjoy" is the wrong word, as so much in the novel is rather dark and nasty, but it does dark and nasty really, really well.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the story, it's about a father and son making their way through an utterly dead post-apocalyptic landscape, and that's pretty much it. The back of the book describes it as "burned America," but I think that such characterization misses the point. The ravaged landscape didn't so much remind me of a post-apocalyptic America so much as it did Mordor. Yes, I mean that. The father and son in The Road reminded me most of Frodo and Sam in Mordor, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Through a hopeless landscape, through uncertainty, danger, fear, and anxiety, the two principals have no choice but to move forward. They have no idea what their goal is, what will happen at the end, or whether they have the strength or ability to get to where they're going. But, standing still is not an option. They are driven, compelled, to some uncertain goal. It also reminded me of Kafka's The Castle, as well, wherein the main character must navigate through a clouded and hostile landscape to an uncertain conclusion.

Despite the immensely negative worlds that these stories present, I generally find them rather hopeful. The heroes are in Hell, the underworld, a bleak place, yes, and their is no guarantee that they shall reach their goals. But, they know what their goals are, they have no option but to strive. Whether it's truly hopeless or not can't be known, so Sisyphus has to push the rock upward. He has to. It will crush him if he lets go.

So, if you like books about pressing through fear and dread, read it. It's not nearly as good as Blood Meridian (one of the best and most frightening books I've ever read) but it does depict the classic landscape of anxiety in a pretty perfect way.