Sunday, August 29, 2004

Triscuit fills you, but not with regret!

This is the advertising slogan on a box of crackers I recently bought. The side panel goes on to describe how good Triscuits are for you: high in fiber and “made with whole grain”, low in sugar and fat. I’m a big fan of Triscuits. The combination of rough texture and satisfying crunch, and their hearty shredded wheat taste make them pretty much my cracker of choice.

But I hope the advertising flack who wrote this panel burns in Hell.

Regret ought to be one of the heavy hitters among emotions. Like its out of fashion cousin, Shame, Regret implies not only the knowledge that you’ve done something wrong, but a genuine desire to go back and change time. This should be one of the heavy hitters in the emotional lineup.

Perhaps we don’t have a good enough word for the things that you just kind of wish had gone differently. I wish I’d gone to see the Grateful Dead when I had the chance in 1991. I wish I’d done more of the assigned reading in college. Neither of these issues really keeps me up at night, though. I’ve never blearily looked across the bar and shouted into the mirror, “You damned fool! If only you’d read Don Quixote!”

Regrets, I’ve had a few. Times I acted cruelly or pettily stand out. Times I went back on my word. Things I should have said but didn’t. These are the regrets that come around late at night. You’ll notice the lack of Triscuits, or indeed, any foodstuff.

Why do the good folks at Nabisco think I’m likely to be filled by regret by a cracker? Are they concerned that my snacking habits remind me of the inequitable distribution of food in our world? That the elegant crosshatching of a Triscuit-based crudite reminds me of some tiny kindness denied in my past?

Sadly, no. This is just one more step in the immeasurably harmful mixing of nutrition and morality in American culture. What I should regret is taking some less worthy cracker into my body, actually choosing to admit some microscopic amount of sugar and fat into my blood with every sinful bite.

The Food Nazis appeal to Regret and Shame in the hope that it will lead people to better, healthier, happier lives. They mean well, but I’m here to say that has to stop. Sure, we should all eat a good diet. Many religions and codes of ethics would even argue that it’s the “right” thing to do. A “balanced diet” doesn’t imply, though, that every bite has to be an inoffensive neutral mix, or that the occasional indulgence is “wrong.”

I think back to the young women whom I’ve seen order dessert and say they were “being bad.” They even describe their time on the exercise bike the next day as if it were a necessary penance. Ladies, it’s a piece of cheesecake. It’s not like you knocked over a liquor store.

Let’s keep some perspective, folks. We should eat well because it’s fun. It tastes good and makes us feel better. We should also eat healthily, because it’s fun, tastes good and makes us feel better. We should learn about nutrition, and we should learn about the ways we each individually like to get our balanced, appropriate, healthy diet.

And we shouldn’t let Madison Avenue or Dr. Atkins give us the idea that the brand of cracker we choose might be a shameful secret to take to the grave.

(Quote of the day, courtesy, I think, of Lewis Black: Marlon Brando lived longer than Dr. Atkins. Think about it.

In fairness, Brando did eat him. High protein and all.)

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

All right, darn you. I'll learn CSS.

I’ve only been saying I would for 4 or 5 years now. It’s not like I thought this would never come.

But you’ve forced my hand. What is it about the popularity of Minima among people I know? (If you’re not running your own blog on Blogger, Minima is one of the default designs offered by Blogger; it’s the one used by this site and a bunch of others linked to this site. Apparently, someone named Douglas Bowman created it. Thanks, Douglas.)

This might actually be a neat project: how does blog design correlate to age, gender, nationality, topic area, frequency of update… wow, invoke Foucault and I bet there’s a dissertation in there for someone.

But this is a blog, not a refereed journal, so all we have is my baseless speculation.

So what do we know? Well, Minima is immediately readable. It’s a nice, clean design. It’s quite reminiscent of writing on paper: black text, white background,

And the people using it? Well, one might call them “the people of the text.” This is a decidedly bookish lot. They’re all old enough to remember monochrome and greyscale monitors. (And 14.4 modems! And walking a mile to school, uphill, in the snow! Both ways! You whippersnappers today, with your wireless Internet and your cell phones and your Dark Age of Camelot… why, I remember the first version of Ultima! And then there’s…)

(Doctor’s Note: Mr. Murphy seems to have missed his 9 PM dose of medication. This has been remedied. We apologize for any inconvenience.)

My point being, we’re not actually old by most standards, except, occasionally, our own.

Not for us, colors and shapes, oh no. I was happy with a text browser 14 years ago and I’ll write a blog that reminds me of the good old days. (Actually, I seem to remember seeing a green-on-black style sheet somewhere. Maybe I’ll go orange on dark brown, if I can get the right font for an old VAX terminal.)

So, anyway, I’ve figured out how to mess with my stylesheet in Dreamweaver, so perhaps I’ll do something with the design. Personally, I’ve never thought of myself as particularly visually oriented, but I’ll give it a shot.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

If you don’t have your happy thought...

you can’t fly.

Old J.M. Barrie had a point. I don’t know how desirable it would be to never grow up, to spend your days forever 11 years old, chasing pirates and hoping that some young girl might show up to play mommy for you. But he did know his aeronautics. Oh, you can have your Bernoulli, your Wright Brothers and Leonardo, all your jets and models and wind tunnels…

At the end of the day, it’s our happy thoughts that let us fly.

And quite frankly, I’ve been in a bit of a dive lately, spinning out and approaching terminal velocity. (A engineer friend of mine famously described “terminal velocity” as “the speed at which you die.” Amazingly, he passed the course.) If I’ve hung on, it’s only because of my happy thoughts. So presented herewith, a few of them:

Neil Gaiman, for running a really very good blog.

More specifically, for bringing me the news of William Shatner’s new album. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. We’ve been down this road before. Trust me. Take a page from George Michael and listen without prejudice. Imagine perhaps that it’s Lou Reed or Liz Phair talking over the music. Tell me he’s not bringing something special to the table.

You can’t do it.

Avenue Q. What a great idea: Gen Xers are imprinted on Muppets, so let’s write an adult musical with puppets. Perfect. Pity tickets cost a billion dollars each, but hey, I got the soundtrack. I had to: it had numbers called Schadenfreude and The Internet Is For Porn, for crying out loud!

iTunes. One of my colleagues, a Windows programmer, asked me “what the big deal was about iTunes.” The answer is simple. It works. It’s the only damn program I have which works right pretty much all the time. No, it’s not making me more productive, smarter, better looking, more successful, more talented (which is all good, because Rupert Everett doesn’t need the competition). But it works right, the first time, and when computer support is half-plus of your job, that’s more than enough.

And StrongBad. Just for being StrongBad. (And this recent one is particularly good.)

Friday, August 06, 2004

White America, You’re Making Me Sad

I better preface this rant by pointing out that I am white. I’m Irish-Polish. I turn lobster red when exposed to direct sunlight. This would be a problem, but for the numerous municipal codes which prevent me from taking off my shirt in public, because the glare from my pasty chest constitutes a traffic hazard. I listen to Sting. I watched most of Friends. I am what you might call funk-impaired.

I’ve been watching a lot of crowds on TV lately listening to music. It’s summer, and the TV morning shows are broadcasting concerts. Let’s think about this for a moment. The last Western musician known to be a morning person was Johannes Sebastian Bach. Since then, without exception, every successful musician and 86.2% of the unsuccessful ones has been a night owl. Yet when Today or Good Morning America calls, they crawl out of bed for a dawn soundcheck, and throngs of people get up early to stand in the park or a blocked off street.

And that’s what they do. They stand. Like statues. Marble statues.

Now, there is a level on which The Funk is a matter of God-given talent. Most of us are not given to dance like James Brown, sing like Isaac Hayes, strut like John Shaft, or just be George Clinton. That’s just how it is. All of us have some top level of our physical embodiment of The Funk, and regardless of the color of your skin or the content of your character, it just ain’t that high for a lot of us.

But here’s what worries me. Funk-impairment is a physical limitation, but I believe that complete funk-disability is psychological, and it is curable. In particular, the straight white man has been telling himself for far too long that The Funk is forbidden to him. Perhaps in the ‘60s a bunch of academics got together and decided that we would never dance again, for our white-guilty feet have got no rhythm. Maybe J. Edgar Hoover had all the straight white men who could dance arrested, claiming to look for commies but really just searching for someone to spin him around the floor backwards and in high heels.

Anyway here we are, with people going out of their way to be seen, on television, not dancing. Maybe you like Outkast and maybe not, but don’t tell me that Hey Ya! isn’t a catchy song. Is One Week by Barenaked Ladies humorously postmodern or a weak ripoff? Who cares? It’s got a nice beat and you can dance to it. Personally, I think Jimmy Buffet is massively overrated, but Cheeseburger in Paradise does make me move my feet.

And yet, I’ve seen every one of these bands on TV, playing their guts out on about an hour of sleep and a gallon of coffee. And throngs of white people standing there, nodding their heads with just enough rhythm to prove they aren’t deaf.

Wake up, Whitey! For God’s sake, you got out of your bed and fought your way into midtown Manhattan to see this band. Do you really just want to stand there? Is that what you want to tell your buddies? “Yeah, I got up two hours early, took the train in, got right down front, and I bobbed my head like it was 1999!”

Let the rhythm move you. I promise, you won’t turn black or go gay just because you shake your shimmy. Here’s a little anatomy lesson. Below your neck are your shoulders. Give them a shake. It’s OK. Get your whole chest into it. Feels good, don’t it?

Now, down below your waist, above your legs. Those are your hips. They can move too. Side to side, front and back in a circle. Yes, even without moving your legs much at all. You need to try this right now. Hum a song and just do a little chair dancing. Nobody’s going to see you, and if they do, what the hell? Look ‘em dead in the eye and sing out loud. That’ll show them to stare.

If you’re ready for the advanced class, there on the other side of your hips is your booty. I myself have what the American Medical Association calls “No-Butted Irishman’s Disease,” but even I have a booty. Just keep moving your hips and think about getting your back into it. There you go. Big or small, wide or narrow, you’re shaking what your momma gave you. Good for you, Whitey!

(At this point, I should thank Melanie Phillips, who showed me in 1989 where my hips were and that they did in fact move. No, not like that, you dirty bastards, strictly platonically. You changed my life, Mel.)

And one more thing. It’s OK if you’re bad at this. You may be for a while. You might be forever. You know how in any crowd of people clapping on the 2 and 4, there’s somebody clapping her heart out on 1 and 3? Well, that’s my mother. See the person next to her whose movements are just barely too rhythmic to be an actual seizure? Well, that’s my aunt. They are severely funk-impaired people. But they love music and they love to dance just for the joy of it.

And I guarantee, every band on Earth would rather watch them flail with the love of the music than watch you stand there and nod. So give it a try. Get up, get on up, and give it a try.

Remember, you really can dance if you want to.