Friday, January 12, 2007

The Favor Bank

Who's on your case load these days? And whose case load are you on?

If the answers are no one and no one, you're probably holed up in a cave somewhere. Because unless you live in total seclusion, you're bound to get asked to lend a hand sometimes -- to write a recommendation, advise on a consumer purchase, pass along the name of a good doctor, suggest a great restaurant, console a lovelorn friend, read a manuscript, and so on. And then sometimes you're the one in need of a favor. That is when you mentally review your friends and acquaintances and decide who's the right one to ask. Since each of us has our own needs and our special areas of competence, the help you give may not resemble the help you get.

It doesn't matter. It's all part of the same karmic Favor Bank. One year someone advises your child on the process of applying for college; the next year you do the same for someone else's kid. Occasionally total strangers get in touch because they've figured out that you have information they need. I once wrote an article about having a rare pregnancy complication and years later I still heard from women in a similar situation. I was happy to take their calls, because someone had done it for me. And my husband regularly counsels Italian-citizenship-seekers, who've heard through the grapevine that he surmounted the hurdles involved. Such favors help make the world a gentler place, so you make time for them even when your taxes are late or you're about to leave for a trip or your kitchen’s being remodeled.

Last week my case load consisted of: a college friend of my daughter's who's working on a book and wants advice about agents; a friend of a friend who's celebrating a big birthday in New Orleans and asks for a list of the best places to hear music; a work acquaintance needing a doctor for her son, who is a student here in New York.

I didn't include relatives in the above list because family exists outside the Favor Bank. But my biggest recent assist was helping get my 17-year-old niece out of Africa. She'd gone to Guyana with a group to study drumming and when it came time to leave, they discovered that four of the return tickets had been stolen, including hers. After many phone calls from my sister in Indiana to Royal Air Maroc, the kids were no closer to having their tickets replaced. My sister's next idea was that I should visit the airline’s office in New York and plead the case in person, preferably at gunpoint. That's when I had a brainstorm: they should get their congressman involved. I suggested calling the Washington office and asking to speak to the staff person who handles constituent services. Next thing we knew, Julia and her fellow drummers were issued their tickets home.

My sister was gratifyingly full of praise for my red tape-wrangling counsel. “You're so smart and you always know what to do,” she told me, and since she's my sister I asked her to say it again.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Reefer Madness, Anyone?

On his website, California sociologist Mike Males describes himself as an “irritating” aging Sixties throwback. He certainly has succeeded in irritating me. Yesterday Males published a muddled essay on the op ed page of the New York Times called “This is Your Brain on Drugs, Dad.” According to Males, the nation’s most serious drug abusers are not teenagers, as is widely assumed. Instead, he maintains, they are us: “graying baby boomers.”

Males offers a number of unpersuasive statistics to support his argument. Among other things, he points out that there has been a large increase in the numbers of drug-related emergency room admissions among the 35 – 64 population. Hello. The percentage of the population that is middle-aged is also much higher now. That’s why they call it a baby boom. And then there’s this dubious assertion: Among the drugs that Males claims is sending us medicare-eligibles to the hospital in droves is marijuana.

His anecdotal evidence inspires even less confidence. Baby boomers, he reports, “rarely used illegal drugs as youths.” This claim is undermined by his own website, where he describes himself as having “smoked a fairly small amount of dope.” That counts, Mike. Even if you didn’t inhale.

It’s possible that there are some valid points buried in “This is Your Brain on Drugs, Dad.” But Males’s essay is also a prime example of my own personal scourge, Contrarian Chic. If you’re in the pundit biz, nothing will get you attention faster than asserting the opposite of what everyone else thinks. Never mind nuance. Never mind taking a balanced position. Just beg to differ.

Monday, January 1, 2007

10 Reasons Why I'm a Snorkeler

A little while ago, TeeBeeDee member atowhee wrote a charming post about his passion for bird-watching. As I was reading his “10 reasons why I’m a birder,” I started making a similar mental list about my own nature passion: snorkeling. It’s not as easily accessible as bird-watching, unless you happen to live within swimming distance of a coral reef. But once you’re there, all you have to do is pull on a snorkel mask and put your face in the water: instantly you slip through the looking glass into a world so splendid and strange that it’s hard to believe you got there without a spaceship. But to get to the list. With a bow to atowhee, here are 10 reasons why I’m a snorkeler:

1. It’s an Endless Learning Experience. I love climbing out of the water after a snorkel and consulting the local fish and coral identification book. What were those weird ferns that resembled neon eyelashes? And what about that flashy reef fish shaped like a Chinese food container and colored chrome-yellow-with-black-polka-dots? How marvelous to know their names.

2. You must submerge yourself in southern seas. Floating in warm salt water means letting go, giving yourself over to the same fluid that supported you before you emerged onto dry land. It’s profoundly relaxing. Add sunshine and a blue sky: subtract stress.

3. Anyone can do it. If you can breathe you can snorkel. An ability to float is a plus, but with appropriate buoyancy devices, not absolutely necessary.

4. Snorkeling is a life-long activity. You can take it up as a young child and continue into old age, long after other sports may have proved too taxing. And on the reef, everyone is equal. A five-year-old may be the one to spot a marine creature her elders missed.

5. You don’t need a bunch of pricey gear. Getting outfitted costs very little. The three basic pieces of equipment are: a mask, fins and a snorkel. Make sure the snorkel is the “dry” type, one with a purge valve meant to keep the ocean out of your mouth.

6. The camaraderie. Hard-core snorkelers are always looking to bond with fellow enthusiasts – especially in the face of condescending scuba divers. Among divers, snorkeling is widely held to be a somewhat wimpy activity usually undertaken by a diver’s spouse who hasn’t worked up the nerve to get certified. This explains an example of snorkeler humor I recently encountered: a button with the legend “Snorkelers look down on divers.”
7. Saving the planet. Snorkeling, done properly, is a low-impact form of ecotourism that draws attention to the potential value of the reef and thus encourages conservation.

8. The time-traveling. You can encounter remarkable creatures like the crinoid, an insubstantial being resembling Christmas tinsel that has been around unchanged for some 400 million years.

9. The over-the-top beauty. Between the extravagant forms and the outlandish colors, there’s nothing understated in the gaudy realm of the reef.

10. The trance. When I’m snorkeling, I stop thinking and simply see. It reminds me of my favorite line from Eudora Welty: “The thoughts flew out of her head and the landscape filled it.” Seascape, in this case.

Given the short learning curve and the overall simplicity, snorkeling is easy. Getting to the right reef is less so.

The shallow water ecosystems in many parts of the world are being undermined by a variety of causes, both natural and man-made. You need specific, unbiased, accurate and up-to-date information—which can be remarkably hard to come by. The beautiful reef touted in a guidebook may now be a boneyard of dead coral. Ideally, there would be a reliable web site that tracked the condition of coral reefs, but I have yet to find one. (There was one I trusted, maintained by a graduate student at UPenn, but it seems to have gone out of business.) Maybe TeeBeeDee can help. If you’ve been somewhere recently with healthy, luxuriant shallow water coral reefs, please write and tell us. We’ll keep a list.

Another – admittedly pricey – solution is to take a guided tour. Joel Simon, of Sea for Yourself, has been guiding snorkelers for decades. I’ve taken one of his trips and it was well-run in every respect. Past destinations have included Bonaire, Belize, St. John, Fiji and Florida (for snorkeling with manatees). The tours are small—no more than 18 participants.

The Fat Camera

An “early adopter” I am not. The last thing I want is to be the first on the block to own the latest electronic object of desire. But I was seduced recently by a shiny piece of goods with a high-concept feature.

It was a camera that promises to make you look thinner. The HP Photosmart R927 has other attributes as well, but that is the one that caught my attention. In an absurd way, it makes perfect sense. The camera adds ten pounds, we are always told, so why not invent one that subtracts them too? And with the holiday season coming on, who wouldn’t want a little painless slimming? If the thing actually works you could make everyone at your New Year’s Eve party look very fetching.

Candy, who is this Skeptic’s Skeptic, told me she was planning to buy one of these cameras for TeeBeeDee and I would get to be the first to try it. I was intrigued, but uneasy. “Technology reviewer” is not on my resume for a reason. I extracted a promise from Candy that she would have present the official TeeBeeDee dweeb to help me get started.

First, though, I had to get the thing charged. When the carton arrived holding the new digital camera, I promised myself that this time it would be different. But at the last minute, I broke down: I did not read the instruction manual, nor did I watch the explanatory CD. I dumped the contents of the box onto the bed and proceeded to behave like an intelligent chimpanzee.

I tried poking this piece into that piece until I found two that seemed to fit. I put the wafer-like bit into the wafer-like slot. I plugged together the two parts of the power cord. Then I experimented with inserting the little prong on the end of the power cord into the body of the camera, trying this orifice and that. Nothing. Then I rose to the level of a super intelligent chimpanzee. I looked at the picture on the box and compared it with the rest of the parts strewn across the bed. Eureka! The black plastic thing was a dock. The prong went into that. But what about the clear plastic thing? How did that come into it? And why couldn’t I get the camera to nestle nicely onto the dock?

Time to move beyond higher primate functioning. I asked my husband. And that is how my new HP Photosmart R927 camera came to be tucked snugly into its dock for its first overnight charge. I’d have to wait at least 24 hours before finding out if the slimming feature actually worked or if we were looking at a case of the Emperor’s New Midriff.

Next: The dweeb and I try out the camera.

Fat Camera Fails Test

The official TeeBeeDee dweeb and I meet up at a food mall called Chelsea Market. The plan today is for him to help me find my way around the new camera. Eliot does not mind being called a dweeb, he says, perhaps because he’s anything but the stereotype. He’s charming and talkative and not gizmo-crazed. He tells me he’s opposed to “technology overkill,” which he defines as when people “spend money on features they don’t need.”

Like a camera that’s supposed to make you look thinner? The HP Photosmart R927 digital camera has many other features, but to me its most intriguing one is the “slimming” option.

I hand over the camera to Eliot. The first thing I notice is that he doesn’t look at the manual either. He just starts pushing buttons. Like me, only to better effect. He zips through the functions at lightning speed, keeping up a running commentary that goes something like this:

“There are these nice help menus tied to the individual functions, so I guess there isn’t one overall help menu – no, that’s wrong, here’s one – it has the top ten tips for taking better photos! . . . And it gives you image advice, if you want it, telling you how each of your photos could be improved. . . Let’s try the panorama feature that stitches the pictures together. Oops, that didn’t work. Oh, I see, I have to select the image first. . .

I can see that he is having a conversation with the camera, as you might with a friend. I don’t want to interrupt, but I’m impatient to get to the main event: from my perspective, the slimming function. We turn to the camera’s Design Gallery, and Eliot shows me how to use the slimming effect and sends me home to try it on my own.

First, I have to find a willing subject. It takes some convincing, but finally a family member, who prefers to be known simply as P, agrees to pose for an experimental portrait. I take his picture and press the magic slimming button. Then we watch the image in the camera as P appears to stretch like a piece of taffy being pulled. The result is quite pronounced, as well as fairly strange. Once slimmed, P. resembles a gangly male version of Alice in Wonderland after she eats the cake. The effect is not flattering.

You can’t say it’s a case of the Emperor’s New Midriff; the slimming setting actually does pare you down. But since you can’t select which body parts are subjected to the reducing treatment, the results tend to be peculiar. Why elongate the whole body? I wonder. Couldn’t they have invented a slimming feature that just lengthens your legs instead?

The Open-Minded Skeptic

That would be me. Always ready to try the next new thing - but only after I've made fun of it, and teased you for jumping on the bandwagon. Deplore, then explore, in other words. Denounce, then pounce. I regret to say this is pretty much my standard m.o., whenever I'm confronted with something unfamiliar -- from meditation to motherhood. Today's topic is technology.

I'm not what they call an “early adopter,” one of those people who must have the latest service or device. I can never figure out how to make anything work, and as far as I'm concerned instruction books might as well be written in Serbo-Croatian. I carried around the 160-page manual (ok, so half of it's in Spanish) for my new cell phone for weeks, studying it, highlighter in hand, during spare moments. When it refused to yield its arcane secrets, I went back to the store and asked the salesman to demonstrate a few basic functions, and thus my phone and I have carried on ever since.

I have coaxed from it a tolerable ring tone and have stored important numbers. I can make calls and listen to messages. That's about it. For all I know, the thing also can screen previews of all the movies playing in my neighborhood and order tickets. But I don't want it to! Why can't a phone be just a phone? Why do we have to have all these hyphenated appliances? I can imagine a line of gadgets whose selling point is that they do one thing only and have no settings whatsoever. Good-enough gadgets, you might say. These do exist, I'm sure, in some obscure corner of the consumer marketplace. Does anyone know of a good-enough gadget, an easily mastered single-purpose appliance that has no extra features whatsoever? Something other than a disposable camera? Please let me know and I will happily give it a plug.

On the other hand, I refuse to give up on making new technology part of my life -- even if I have to drag myself to it kicking and screaming. My first impulse may be to deplore (see above,) but I've learned that it's all too easy to end up looking pathetic. I saw this happen to someone ten years ago. It was at the height of the internet craze and the Author's Guild was conducting a panel on the impact of technology on literary endeavor. Something like that. The technology-isn't-necessarily-evil position was taken by my husband. Representing the “con” side was a prominent critic, a lovely and literate man, who spoke so eloquently that I was almost swayed. Until he revealed in answer to a question that he still wrote on a typewriter. Game over, I thought. It was like being told that sex is overrated by someone who's never experienced an orgasm.

So now my motto is to at least try. A while ago, when I figured I was ready for some further adventures in personal computing, I signed up for lessons from a pro. Unfortunately the computer tutor and I were incompatible. He had trouble masking his horror over my document-storage practices, and he believed that there could be no higher goal than an uncluttered desktop. I called the employment office of my local university and tried again. This time I ended up hiring a charming film student from West Virgina. A freshman. He was perfectly happy to help me master personal-computing essentials that were exactly my speed, such as how to change the background color on your screen. (“Master” might be too strong a word, as I don't remember how. But I like the background color we picked.) And in his gentle, understated way, he made a very important contribution to my technical education: he cured my phobia of consulting “help” screens. It turns out that they are not, as I had feared, the computer equivalent of my cell phone manual. They do not whisper to me, “you are stupid . . . you are stupid . . . you are stupid.” They help, exactly as advertised. Who knew?

The Short Version::
1. If you need to learn something, hire a kid.
2. Try the Help pages. They help.

So Where's My Picture?

Maybe I am more vain than average, but I have become less than thrilled about having my picture taken. In recent years I’ve noticed that the “me” according to the camera bears only a faint relationship to the “me” in my mind’s eye. So when it came time to think about posting a photograph of myself on my webpage, I couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm.

I wasn’t always camera shy. I went through a phase of photographer-boyfriends when I was more than happy to pose for soulful studies in romantic settings. Those pictures are still around somewhere, but I didn’t think I could get away with posting a photo taken when I was 20.

Then I considered taking a Cindy Sherman approach. She is a photographer who has make a career of “conceptual self-portraits,” that is, dressing in disguises and taking pictures of herself. This self-portrait in dress-up idea appealed to me. Maybe I could make my own conceptual self-portrait. Maybe wear a funny wig. I still have one from the year when parents’ day at my daughter’s college coincided with Halloween. I surprised her by pulling up in front of her dorm wearing a clown wig. She made me take it off instantly, so I barely got any use out of it.

Then I happened to be going through some files and I came across a photo of myself that I’d forgotten about. Not from decades back, but just last year. This was a likeness I could live with. It looked like me to me. Thinking about the day it was taken, I believe I know the reason why. My husband and I were on a trip to Sicily to visit his ancestral village and to celebrate becoming Italian citizens.* We had been kayaking in a salt pond on Sicily’s western coast. He was holding the camera. I wasn’t thinking about how I looked, I was just really happy.

Zydeco Dancing

There are always lots of reasons not to try something new. If you’ve never done it before, how do you know you’ll prefer it to staying home and rereading Jane Austin or watching reruns of The Simpsons? I can’t recall my excuses all the times I failed to get myself to one of the monthly Zydeco dances held in New York. It’s been on my mental To Do list for ages, but I doubted I could corral anyone else to go, and, well, something else always came up.

Until last night. My recent visit to New Orleans reminded me how much I like the music, a colorful website called “Let’s Zydeco” gave me the location (Connolly’s Bar on 45th St.) and the subway on my corner took me there. I went alone, which was fine, since I’m usually braver that way. A small group, including me, arrived in time for the advertised lesson an hour before the band was to start. Surprisingly, there were almost as many men as women, and Laura, the teacher, paired us up in the same embarrassing way I recall from Sixth Grade dancing class. (“Anyone who doesn’t have a partner, raise your hand.”) This might have reminded me of earlier dance floor humiliations, but instead it freed me to notice that, what a miracle, I was beyond being embarrassed on this score. (What else are we no longer embarrassed by, I wonder? Any nominations?)

On a less promising note, I turned out to be no better than I ever was at listening to verbal instructions and translating them into movement. I believe the experts now have a fancy term for it: auditory processing deficit. My feet cannot be told anything; they need to be shown. Fortunately I was saved by a strong, experienced partner, who suggested I ignore Laura’s shouted instructions and just listen to the music and follow his lead.

John Seltzer had arrived in New York earlier that day from Palo Alto to visit his 96-year-old father. He’s an old Zydeco hand and a personal friend of the band leader Geno Delafose. (PBS called Delafose “a standard-bearer for traditional Zydeco.”) John tells me he is a regular at the Friday night Zydeco dances in Alameda, California, which, I later read, attract “a joyously random group of people . . . like an explosion at the Norman Rockwell factory. All races, all ages, all demeanors.”* That’s a pretty good description of the hundred plus people who end up at Connolly’s by the end of the evening. There are guys in cowboy hats and guys in suits (one, anyway); guys with dreadlocks and guys with ponytails. Women are just as variously arrayed—in everything from jeans to swirly skirts and spangled tops. One lovely woman, who told me she was a widow, was wearing fabulous lavendar cowboy boots I wanted to snatch off her feet.

It’s a friendly, benevolent scene, and if you were of a mind for it, I’m sure you could connect with someone. But that’s optional—there’s certainly no sense of people checking each other out. The point is to dance and have fun. Which I do. The band is terrific, and I’m lucky enough to be twirled around the floor by some great partners, who don’t seem to mind doubling as dance teachers. But I make myself the same promise I did at Tipitina’s: before I return I’m going to take some real lessons. If I can have this much fun faking it, imagine if I really knew how to dance the dance.

How I Became (More) Tactful

Sometimes when you stumble across an artifact of your past in some dusty file folder it makes you realize how far you've come. Other times it reminds you that you are exactly the same now as you always were. "Memorize this List" belongs to the second category. It's a fading, crumpled sheet of paper dotted with numerous push pin holes from when it was tacked on kitchen bulletin boards of assorted apartments. I was in my mid-twenties when I wrote it, and I don't remember the specific stimulus. But I can still relate to my original objective. I was trying to teach myself tact. When I heard something I disagreed with, I wanted to be able to come up with an alternative to my usual "That's ridiculous!" I still do. I'd like to think that things strike me as ridiculous now less often than they did when I was 25. But I'm glad I kept the list:

Memorize this List
What led you to feel that way?
That's an unusual point of view.
I never thought of it that way before.
You may well have a point.
Hmmm …
You could be right.
I see your point.
I think you just put your finger on it.
Is that right?
Tell me more about that.
I can certainly see what you mean.
I can see why someone might think so.
You must have had a hard day.
That's certainly a bold theory.