Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Secret is Not Caring

 I have a high tolerance for disorder.  My desk says so; my car screams it.  I consider it Zen-like – something to be admired.  But then I got a dose of my own medicine.
My wife, we’ll call her “Jen,” is the kind of person who likes laundry to be put away.  You know the type – always with the folding and the finding a proper place for clothes. 
I do not share her obsession.  I’m okay with clean clothes sitting in a laundry basket at the foot of the bed.  I’ll find what I need.  And if what you need is a laundry basket, just dump the clean laundry on the bed.  Have I napped on, or under, clean laundry?  You better believe it.  And if the clothes are straight from the dryer and nice and toasty?  I’m getting drowsy just thinking about it.
But my rationale for not putting away my laundry is two….fold. 
First, in some ways it’s very practical.  It saves me time.  I have two dressers – nine drawers.  I have an armoire with two shelves and lots of hanging space.  I also share another large closet with that wife I mentioned.  The shirt I’m looking for could be anywhere!  To open and sift through all those drawers and potential hiding places for my long-sleeved Legoland t-shirt (a favorite) would take literally minutes.  But the laundry basket is like a wide-mouthed drawer – open at the top, and with holes in the sides.  I can peer down into its maw, or circle it and find the shirt in seconds.  Seconds!  Consider that I get dressed every single day – that time will really add up.
Second – and this is key – I know that if I don’t put my clothes away, at some point, “Jen” will have had enough, or she’ll need the basket, and she’ll do it for me.  More time saved.
This symbiotic relationship has served us well for the past 17 years of marriage, but apparently all good things must come to an end. 
As our family has grown, so too has the sheer volume of laundry we generate.  Out of necessity, we’ve acquired an absurd number of laundry baskets.  And this means she doesn’t need mine anymore. 
We have at least six in use in the house.  And right now four of them have my clean laundry in them.  They sit lined up between the closet and one of the dressers, mostly out of the way, clothes folded (by her) within. 
It would seem “Jen” has developed her own high tolerance for this particular brand of disorder.
Actually, one day she was struggling to put away my laundry.  She had a basket-and-a-half of clean clothes to go and absolutely no drawer space left.  She threw in the freshly-laundered towel.  She told me I’d have to go through my clothes and donate or toss that which I don’t wear anymore, and until that was done, she was done worrying about it.
I told her I understood and supported her decision.  Later that weekend I was walking through Target and saw t-shirts had been reduced to $3.  I bought five.  (They’re fully in the rotation in laundry baskets “Bravo” and “Charlie” – I saw them this morning.)
My unwillingness to put away my laundry is not hostile.  I simply believe my time is better spent on other pursuits.  Pursuits that are more fun, easier, or offer an immediate reward.  And no, a laundry basket-free room is not particularly rewarding.  At least not to me. 
It’s why this essay languished in my mind for weeks, then in fragments in my notebook, and finally as bits and pieces on my computer.  I thought it would be fun to write about laziness, but when I started looking for a theme it turned to hard work.  Like finding a place for my cherished teal “Cape Cod” shirt I bought in the summer of 2001.  I wanted to finish the essay, but other essays were more fun or easier to write.  Likewise, I wanted to find a spot for the t-shirt, but I might wear it tomorrow, so I’ll just leave it on top of the laundry basket.
So, like everyone, I am constantly navigating this delicate balancing act between that which I must do and that which I would like to do.
Must do?  Reclaim the basement from the clutter caused by recent reorganization.  Like to do?  Reclaim the high score in Temple Run that was recently snatched from me by one of the children.  Must do?  Take my car in for service.  Like to do?  Take my car to the mall and go to the movies.  Like I said, a balancing act.
The balance works in our house because as hard as I’m tugging on the “fun, instant gratification” side, my wife is there pulling on the “responsible” side.  But recently it all got turned on its head.
Our cat, I’ll call her “Mao,” has a tendency to work herself into a frenzy when she’s hungry.  She attacks her food, wolfing it down like a New York City straphanger devouring a Papaya King hot dog as the 2 train approaches.  The result, in both cases, can be a little indigestion.  In the case of the cat, this can lead to her throwing up a little dry food from time to time. 
It’s dry food, so it’s not a big deal – one can scoop it up with a dry paper towel.  We’ve all taken turns doing this – even the kids.  But recently the cat threw up a little dry food exactly in the middle of the top step leading to our basement. 
Since it was in the dead center, there was little risk of stepping in it, thereby negating the house rule, “you step it in, you clean it up.”  Also, the step is carpeted with what, now that we think about it, we would call “Cat Vomit” colored carpeting. 
Nobody saw it for quite awhile.  I finally did, but didn’t have a paper towel in my hand.  Since it was so well camouflaged I decided to un-notice it, quite confident that “Jen” would soon see it.  She didn’t. 
I side-stepped the puke for the better part of a week.  Then it became two.  I decided she wasn’t going to see it, the cat wasn’t going to eat it, and the kids weren’t going to step in it, so I’d just clean it up.  But at the moment I reached this magnanimous decision, there were no paper towels on the roll.  And the responsible moment passed.  I had new “like to dos,” and The Steps Puke was pushed down the list.
Look, I’m not particularly proud, but a third week went by and it dried out even more.  I was sure “Jen” would see it any day now.
Ironically, we had all cleaned up other bits of puke in other locations in this time, but The Steps Puke remained unmolested.  One full month after I first noticed it, I decided I had had enough.  There were paper towels in the dispenser, I was full of coffee, and ready to take on the world.  It was a perfect storm.  I stepped into the living room and said, “Fine, you win.  I’ll clean up the vomit on the stairs.” 
“Jen” looked up at me – she had been sitting there folding laundry – and said, “Oh, yeah, thanks.  I figured it was disintegrating and would eventually just disappear.”
I was speechless.  As laundry baskets stacking up wouldn’t get to me, apparently out-of-the way cat vomit wouldn’t get to her. 
She’s gone native.  And I don’t care for it.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some clothes to sort through, the donation truck is coming on Tuesday.

Friday, February 03, 2012

My, how big your brain is!

I’ve been trying to come to terms with e-books for some time now, and I simply can’t do it.  I won’t!

It’s not that I fear technology – I embrace it, I really do.  I have an iPad.  I speak text.  I stream Netflix movies…wirelessly!  What?  Yesss.  I have technology street cred, my friend! 
I have two problems with e-books.  First, and I don’t think I’m overstating this here, e-readers and e-books are harbingers of the apocalypse.  Like the Real Slim Shady, they have been sent here to destroy us.
E-books are pulling the rug out from under the traditional publishing world by giving everyone the ability to publish their book.  But just because one can do something, does not mean one should.
This new technology has put great power in the hands of ordinary people, but as Cliff Robertson told Tobey Maguire, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” 
Sadly, ordinary people are reckless, egocentric maniacs.  No offense.
There was a time – a good, sensible time – when a person told you he had self-published his novel and you smiled politely, mumbled something encouraging, and then hoped like hell you could get away before he took you out to his car to sell you one of the thirty copies he had in the trunk.
Are there well-written self-published novels out there somewhere?  Probably.  Am I willing to sift through stacks of garbage to find them?  No.  (If you are, and you find a gem and tell me about it, will I believe you?  Um, no.  Sorry.)
Originally, self-published books went through a vanity press, which told you that at the very least the author had $500.  Now, with e-books, it doesn’t even take that.  You can write your screed for free on a computer at your local library, and for a fraction of what a vanity press run costs, convert your work to an electronic format and get it up on Amazon or and start harassing people to download it.
You’ve completely bypassed The Establishment! 
Well, how nice for you. 
But what about us?  We now have to read the thing.  And, yes, we understand your mom said you’re a great writer; and we get that your boyfriend loved your manuscript.  We also understand that all your coworkers told you how funny you are; we even understand how impressed you are with yourself.  But that doesn’t mean what you wrote is worth our time.
I’m a big believer in the gate keeping responsibilities of The Establishment.  And I say this as an outsider looking in, hoping someday to be on the inside, pouring boiling oil on people who are then as I am now. 
Those gate keepers provide an invaluable quality control mechanism.
Do the gate keepers keep out good work unintentionally or because of a scarcity of resources?  Most definitely.  Are traditional publishing houses limited in the number of titles they can release in any given year, regardless of merit?  Absolutely.  Do the traditional publishing houses release garbage some times?  Of course they do.
It’s not that I believe all books published traditionally are of superior quality to self-published books.  What I do believe is that there is a far greater percentage of self-indulgent, unedited, rambling trash amongst self-published books – and e-books make it easier than ever. 
Hence the coming fall of western civilization.
But even worse, e-readers don’t let people realize how very smart you are. 
Look, if I’m going to read a 500+ page Jonathan Franzen book it’s only partly because I think he’s a great writer.  I’m also reading it because I want you to see me reading it!  I want you to think, “wow, look at that guy reading David McCullough.  He must have an enormous brain!”
With the Kindle, the Nook, or any of the other e-readers out there, I could be sitting in the coffee shop reading Dostoyevsky.  But I could just as easily be reading a book by Snooki.
This point was driven home to me twice recently.
In December I was reading “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star,” a very esoteric travelogue by essayist and novelist Paul Theroux.  I was so close to finishing (and at this point I was anxious to be done with the damn thing) I started carrying the book with me, sneaking in pages here and there as I limped to the end. 
After a particularly grueling day at the TV studio where I freelance, two coworkers and I decided to unwind with some beer in the snooty bar in the snootier power restaurant above the studio.  The regular clientele are lobbyists, Congressmen, and the occasional high-priced call girl; we were, to say the least, underdressed and out of place.
But we were thirsty and undeterred.  I plopped down into the booth, set Theroux down next to me, and got ready to pay $14 for a Stella Artois. 
The hostess looked at us and scrunched up her nose; customers stole sideways glances at us, and I began to think we might be on the road sooner than I thought.  Eventually, one of the bartenders decided our $14 was just as good as anyone else’s, so she begrudgingly came over to take our order. 
She spoke to my colleagues first, reciting the draught beers (starting with domestics – we had that look about us) and made a wine recommendation with as few words as possible.  Then she looked at me, and her eyes wandered to the book by my side.
She practically gasped, leaned in closer to see that her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her, and asked me incredulously, “Are you reading that?” 
“I am,” I said.
We chatted very briefly about the book and Theroux, and just like that, we were elevated from riff raff who had wandered in, to some elite class of intellectuals.  We got our drinks quickly, and we even received a free round.  All because I had a pretentious book by my side, on display!  If I had been reading it on my Kindle, she never would have known.  We might still be waiting for those drinks.
A few weeks later I was walking around with the late Christopher Hitchens’ most recent book, “Arguably Essays.”  The bright yellow book, from which Hitchens’ mug dolefully and disapprovingly looks out at us is 816 pages and weighs in at almost three pounds.  How smart I must be to be able to carry this book around!
I was stopped by none other than my Temple’s Senior Rabbi – not just any Rabbi, mind you.  The senior Rabbi!  She touched my arm, stopping me as I walked by and said, “Wow, some light reading, eh, Michael?”
You’re darn tootin’, Rabbi!  You’re darn tootin’!
Let me sum up my arguments against e-books: 1) self-indulgent self-published authors lead to end of days, and 2) on a Kindle nobody knows how smart you are.  I think that about says it all. 
Now if you’ll excuse me, I just bought a book “The New York Times” called “one of the most extraordinary books of the year,” and I need to go read it somewhere in public.