Saturday, May 28, 2011

On Receiving Tips

I got stiffed on tips earlier this week. It did not do my mood any favors. I had several other things to do over the course of the afternoon, and while I did get some refuge from a quite delicious cup of cold-brewed coffee, the lingering feeling of tiplessness stuck in my craw while I attempted to go about my other tasks. I sort of trudged through them, going "grrr" to myself while I attempted productive ambulation.

On other days, precisely the opposite happens. Some days after a tour the fives and tens and twenties come out in something like a flood, and my wallet has a reassuring fatness to it afterwards. People not only compliment and applaud me, but give me money as well.

On those days, after making perhaps $150 over the course of a few short hours, I'm hugely happy. I'll treat myself to lunch at a favorite food cart, and I know that the rest of the day will have a comfortable ease. My heart won't beat as fast and I'll know that I can look to that stack of bills as a reassuring affirmation that I am, in fact, good at my job. The fives and twenties and tens say "You are smart, charming, and fun to be with. You were worth the price of admission and more. People like you so much, that you made enough in a single day to pay for two week's worth of groceries." (I think that my internal monologue has used the term "baller" once or twice after particularly successful tours.)

I like to think that I have a pretty good sense of when I'm on and when I'm not. After a fair amount of teaching, tour-guiding, and occasional stand-up, I like to believe that I can tell when I have a group of people and when I don't. I'm my own harshest critic, though, and often I'll be self-critiquing my own performance as I'm doing a tour. I'll dwell on the tone of my voice, the meter I'm affecting, and the attention that people are paying to me, wondering if I'm doing it wrong or reading the crowd incorrectly. Then, at the end, they'll tip me. When I'm hard on my self and then get tipped anyway, that's a massive affirmation.

But, getting stiffed inevitably spoils my mood. I seldom think "Yeah, that was a lousy tour and didn't deserve a tip," though that has happened. Instead, I think to myself "What's wrong with you cheapskates? You don't like me? You don't like the massive, personable knowledge-dump that I just gave you? You don't like the map of Portland with restaurant recommendations that I just did for you? You don't like my brilliant (though admittedly dumb) jokes? What?"

Sometimes it might just be because they didn't know to tip a tour guide, or didn't go to an ATM, or really couldn't afford a tour in the first place and couldn't do a tip on top of that. I suppose those are all reasonable. But still. A lack of cash makes me, as they say on the internet, a sad panda.

It's nice to think that someone could be virtuous enough to not care about money, but I don't think I'm alone in admitting that money makes me happy. Getting it, earning, feeling that I'm worth it and and not having to worry about it is a great feeling, and It's somewhat silly to pretend otherwise. Money is one of those things (kind of like sex) that is seldom ironic, sarcastic, or bullshit. It's a concrete backing to applause and thanks.

Ultimately, I would rather where prices and wages were a bit higher, and no one tipped. That would make things much easier, and my personal budget would be much more predictable. However, that's not going to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, I'll keep enjoying that high that I get from getting tipped.

Of course, the nice people who stiffed me wrote a pretty nice review of me on Trip Advisor later, so their lack of tip was probably just an honest mistake. Still, I dwell on it far too much. I love it and am exasperated by it, and the end of a tour when the wallets come out (or don't) is perpetually a high or low part of my routine.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Agony and the Ecstacy of Pub Trivia

I can't believe I haven't blogged about this yet.

For a bit over a year now, I've been sort of obsessed with pub trivia. I enjoy competitively answering questions about historical, literary, and pop culture minutiae to probably an unhealthy degree. There are two here in Portland that I go to with some sporadic regularity: Geek Trivia (which is about comics and such) and Quizissippi, a weekly trivia night about a block away from where I live. I've been to others, but those two are the only ones consistently good enough to keep me coming back. I have done decently well at both of these events- it is because of Geek Trivia that I now own a few Hellboy trade paperbacks, given away as prizes.

Pub trivia is kind of like reading Ulysses or watching The Simpsons. Both of those works of fiction serve as reward systems for knowing lots of stupid arcane factoids. With Joyce, it's fun to see how much of the mythological and literary allusions that you can pick out from the narrative. With The Simpsons, pop culture references abound. In either case, the reader or viewer can say "Hey, I know what that is! I recognize that! I know exactly what you're referencing here!" It's a carrot for knowing useless things, and one can pretend that the various factual flotsam bubbling about inside one's brain actually is good for something after all.

Of course, trivia can also poke ungently at your store of knowledge and mercilessly show the cracks therein. I can't remember how many times I've heard a question and been at least a little familiar with the answer. It is something I've heard, something I've encountered before. The answer is swirling about just under the surface, and I know that I'll recognize it when I hear it aloud, but cannot give it real form. That feels, in a way, worse than not knowing the answer at all. At least when you don't know you can blame simple unfamiliarity. When you know something, but cannot summon it up from memory's basement, that is when you feel ignorant. There have been plenty of times where I've blindly stabbed at an answer, crossed it out, and blindly stabbed at another, only to find that the original guess was correct. The crossed out wrong answer is probably the most wrenching sensation one can experience, and a slap on the forehead usually ensues.

Another pitfall is overthinking the possibility of trick questions. Those certainly happen, but far too often I am my team mates have thought "that can't be the answer, it's way too obvious." Probably the most telling example of this was at Geek Trivia some time ago where the host asked who wore the Iron Man Mark IV armor. My teammates and I thought that Tony Stark was way too obvious an answer, so, assuming that the question was trickier than it really was, we assumed that it was James Rhodes, a.k.a. War Machine. We ended up being quite wrong. It was not a trick question, it was merely easy.

These hazards are, of course, entirely necessary, and I find wracking my brain and conferring with my friends about obscure details of, say, Civil War battles to be fun, especially in the face of a time limit. Without the potential of teeth-grinding defeat, it wouldn't be nearly as thrilling, and there is not shortage of schadenfreude one gets from seeing other teams implode due to wrong answers.

Trivia is not really about how smart you are. That is part of it, but moreso it is about how good your memory is and how good you are at guessing. Being able to conjure up possible answers from the depths of the brain and pick the one that is probably right is the key to winning most of the time. Nevertheless, winning still makes me feel smart. External affirmation is always nice, and pub trivia can be something like the adult equivalent of getting an A on a paper or exam.

I know that I wouldn't be nearly as into it if I didn't take some narcissistic pleasure in my status as a know-it-all, but it is nice to put all those facts and things and details to use, to turn them into a game. That's not a small thing. Deriving a certain amount of pleasure out of all that useless effluvia of information gives it all a sort of ad hod form and meaning. Every time I go to pub trivia, science and pop culture and literature all seem to matter. It's like all of those details are suddenly doing something besides sitting in archives. Paying attention and clarity of thought seem important and valued, and there is an immediate use to all of one's nerdery and disparate interests. For the time being, each evening the contents of one's head seem slightly less trivial.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

In Which I Finally Get Around To Reading Something By Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections has been on my "to read" list for some time. I moved quite a few copies of it when I worked in a bookstore, and Jonathan Franzen has been in the back of my mind as a Big Important Author for quite a while. The release of his new novel last year reminded me, and I finally got around to purchasing a used copy of The Corrections at Powell's a while ago. Last week, I finally finished it.

It was very well done, and I didn't really like it.

Let me get this out of the way first: Franzen is a phenomenally good writer. I want to make this clear in no uncertain terms, because I'm going to spend most of this post criticizing him. His characters are extraordinarily vivid, his language rich, and as I read The Corrections I felt as if he were able to stir bits of recognition in my mind. It was if I'd encountered the people and phenomena he was describing, as if he were writing what I'd thought before, but could not express. His characterization and style are superb, and I'm pretty sure I would cash in an unimportant body part to have his talent.

That said, there are two things about The Corrections that I didn't especially care for. One was the plot, the other was the worldview that Franzen seemed to don while he was writing it.

First the plot. That's a slightly smaller issue. The Corrections is divided into several different subsections, each of which has their own miniature arc. The book mainly focuses on Enid, the stuffy grandmother of the Lambert family, trying to get her grown children all together for one last Christmas in the small Midwestern town of St. Jude. Her children, in turn, all get various subsections and mini-plots in turn.

There is not much in the way of "action" in The Corrections, most of the activity is actually the various characters agonizing about their emotions and relationships. This does not mean, though, that Franzen does not have to provide a beginning, middle, and end. A lack of real, physical action doesn't mean that the author is released from having to provide tension, drama, etc. There still has to be an arc, even if nothing happens. A few dramatic things do happen in The Corrections, but no real satisfying plot connects them, and the whole thing ends up felling disunited in a weird way.

Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers, and I've consistently admired her ability to make plot arcs, climaxes, and satisfying narrative based solely on the emotional lives of her characters. Next to nothing happens in To the Lighthouse, but the ending is powerful and cathartic. That novel has probably one of my favorite final lines of any book, and Woolf pulls it off because she knows that the interior lives of her characters are something that can be exciting and stimulating. A person's revelations, emotional vulnerability, failures, or epiphanies: these are all things that can be used as capstones and plot-points in a good character-based story.

However, as vividly as Franzen paints his characters, he doesn't seem want to give them any kind of emotional dynamism. None of the characters in The Corrections have any moments wherein we see that singular, emotional climax, where the plot-arc of their interior lives comes together and they, for good or ill, are changed. Franzen wants to write a book about the interior lives of a single family, but withholds from his characters the kind of comic or tragic catharsis or epiphany that would serve as a resolution to that narrative. And I'm not just talking about "resolution" in a good way. Horrible and tragic resolutions can be just as narratively satisfying. Franzen seems to want to give The Corrections a happy ending (of a sort), but he doesn't earn it by showing how the characters have evolved. That does not make for satisfying storytelling, and I couldn't help but wonder if he tried to give his characters emotional narrative climaxes, and just wasn't very good at it.

The other, bigger issue of The Corrections, though, is the horribly bleak (and worse, inaccurate) worldview that Franzen seems to adopt while writing it.

Franzen seems to think that because he is portraying his characters as so unabashedly ugly, he is telling the truth. Because he lays bare their selfishness, their fears, their smallness, he is painting complete portraits of them. Because he does not shrink at portraying human frailty, it's as if he thinks he boldly portrays humanity.

I don't mind that he's negative. That's fine. Franzen, though, seems to mistake cynicism for truth. That's why a lot of The Corrections reminded me of Seinfeld.

Seinfeld's basic premise was that its characters were selfish, small, and never learned anything. There was no real character development on the part of Jerry and Co. At no point did one really think that any of the wacky hijinks they encountered actually have any impact on how they lived their lives. The show is amusing in short bursts, but if you think about it as a long-form narrative, it doesn't work at all. People are not static. If someone were to go through all of the weird stuff that Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer did, they would either be wise in the ways of the world or perhaps hugely cynical. They would not stay small and naive, which is precisely what those characters did. They would change.

The reason I can't really watch Seinfeld anymore is because of its insistence that it rests upon a static zero point. I do not buy the characters or their lack of evolution or dynamism. People like that do not exist. It may occasionally be diverting, but it is not accurate or truthful.

Characters in The Corrections suffer this same fate, but Franzen seems to think that because he's presenting a heavily negative Seinfeldian worldview, he's somehow saying something profound or interesting. I know, I know- I'm being slightly unfair about this, that it's a little presumptuous to make suppositions about an author's personality based on their work. Franzen, however, seems like precisely the sort of jaded male hipster who, upon reading and misinterpreting Sartre, would tiredly declare that "Hell is other people."

It isn't, though, and I'll bet that Franzen's a smart enough guy to know better. This is the man who famously asked Oprah to stop endorsing his book, though. I would not be surprised if someone as attached to that kind of supposed authenticity has trouble accepting beauty.

And, weirdly enough, even after all that I will still read Freedom, probably when it comes out in paperback. Franzen really is a magnificent stylist, and his prose is rich enough to make me want more. I hope that in his latest offering the issues from his most famous novel have been, shall we say, corrected.