30 January, 2011

Public Transportation & Me

Taking buses is kind of like casually dating someone who also happens to be dating 50 other people. Sometimes things are going great: we take road trips together and it takes me to the places I want to visit. Sometimes there are funny things that happen on them that bring us closer. Remember that crazy woman that started yelling about overhead storage space? And what about the time that you broke down on the side of the road and we had to wait 2 ½ hours for that tow truck? Oh, buses, you are too funny. We have so many memories together!

But after several dates, the honeymoon glow begins to fade. Then some of the uglier aspects of the relationship start to make themselves known. How come you lied to me about having internet? Why do we have to hang out with your other 50 “friends?” Why do we always stop at the Arby's on 684; can’t we try someplace new this time? Just WHAT is that weird smell? You know what, don't tell me. Let's keep some mystery in this relationship alive.

Despite this love-hate roller coaster, I still find myself going back to them, month after month after month. It is the same way that one might keep crawling back to a boyfriend that they know is cheating on them, yet the appeal of convenience and familiarity is too good to let go forever. You might convince yourself that it is not the worst option out there. It has to be better than being stuck at home alone, right? Besides, you have already done it so, so many times before. So I find myself buying another ticket, telling myself that it is only going to be like this until I get my own personal chauffeur. Or a segway. Or a segway driven by my own personal chauffeur while he drives me piggyback style over the Brooklyn Bridge. But I digress.

I am a better traveler than I used to be. When I was little, a 20 minute ride felt like an expedition, and I prepared for it as such. Any trip longer than the drive to the grocery store required no less than five activities with which to be entertained by: a game boy with at least five games, two books, a deck of cards, a miniature magnetic checkers board game, and a stack of Brainquest trivia flip-style questions. Never mind the fact that playing cards in a moving vehicle is one of the most impossible activities to successfully do, just having them there in my backpack was my pre-teen form of Prozak. I was seriously concerned about even the slightest possibility of being bored, as though there were no worse threat to my *Nsync-riddled mind.

Today, I packed a computer. Seeing as a computer encompasses 1,000 activities in one, I will conceivably never get bored. I can even play cards without the mess that occurs when physical playing cards inevitably meet the card-flinging effects of deceleration. (Let's be honest- 52 pick up was the lamest game, ever.)

Traveling by bus can be an unnatural experience because humans, by nature, are noisy. There are things to chatter about, plans to sort out, gossip to discuss, things not going right that need a proper complaining, etc etc etc. There are ample opportunities for loudness. But on the majority of buses I’ve taken, it’s been silent. Eerily so. The kind of silence where you might possibly hear the lower levels of a dog whistle if you try hard enough. Today is no exception: the other passengers around me have their multiple gadgets to entertain and pacify them. Only a select few are reading or napping.

How can 50 human beings in the same 300 some-odd square foot area be quiet for 4 and a half hours, you may ask? Because though we are all smushed together into an area no larger than your average New York City apartment, we are all being entertained by no less than 3 gadgets. This is exactly how I picture Fahrenheit 451 to be, minus the government-restricted education and the smoke from the pyres of burning books.

One day, I might look back on this experience as emblematic of a simpler time, a time where one had to sit on a bus for hours but with the convenient luxury of wireless internet. Where one could go onto a virtual site and “post” on the “walls” of our “friends” from the slow-moving, gasoline-powered machines of yore. Before the weekend trips to the moon and eating food that comes in easy-to-swallow pill-capsules.

When I was young, there weren’t none of these fancy-schmancy teleportation devices,” I will instruct the youths, throwing in a slight country twang to help flesh out the down-home nature of my point. “Riding the subway only cost $2.50. And don’t even get me started on how cheap those buses were. And quiet, so, so quiet.”

We may not be there yet, but I can see that horizon line fast approaching. And by fast, I mean 45 mph "fast" due to traffic. There is nothing like that extra hour of enclosed space surrounded by strangers on that most special of all places, el autobus.

06 January, 2011

Cultural Drinking

Not counting toes, which have a tendency of getting caught between the rungs of the antique furnaces that used to line the walls of my parent's house, the only bone I every really broke was my wrist. It was my right wrist, to be exact, and a spiral fracture, to be graphic.

These type of fractures, I soon learned, are caused by torque. For those of you who have been out of a physics classroom for a couple of years, when torque is applied along the axis of an object there are two results: either the force stops or the object fractures. In this instance, the force (the Rialto Bridge) was greater than the object (my wrist). That, my friends, is how one ends up in an ER with Italian doctors looking at my wrist, concerned that I was in an abusive relationship.

"I fell down the stairs."
"Would you like to speak to someone? It's entirely confidential..."
"No, no. There's no abusive boyfriend. I am just an idiot."
"Well. Here's a list of services we offer that are available to you, if you choose..."
"No, it's not like that. I swear. It's just...look, I'm really embarrassed about it, ok?"

It was a lose-lose type of situation, because the only way to assure them that I wasn't involved with a man that took his anger out with his fists was to assure them that I was just abroad and drunk one night. Yeah, I'm that American. The doctors did eventually let me out of the ER with black flexi-cast and a stern warning about alcohol. "But it wasn't even really my fault." I told them. "It was the mojitos!"

The summer of the "mojito incident," my twin had been taking courses for college credit in Venice, Italy. By the time I visited her, she told me that she was "cultured," having exhausted the Piazza San Marco, the Basilicas of both Saint Giovanni and Paolo, and all of the Catholic iconography tours, at least five times over. She informed me that Venice was fun for a week, but "there is only so much gelato you can eat, Em."

During my stay, I discovered that she had learned a maximum of five Italian phrases. They mostly centered around how to order a chocolate brioche for breakfast. ("Vorrei una brioche.") A very important skill, to be sure, but perhaps ever the slightest bit shortsighted.

We played scrabble in cute little cafes off the canal, or walked down random streets just to see where we would end up. At night, we drank with a lot of Americans. It was Italy, minus the Italians. It was that trip that made me start to recognize why Americans abroad are so reviled. We ordered traditional Italian cuisine like "tagliatelle al nero di seppia" only to discover, a minute too late, that it's name means "squid ink pasta." (A marine creature's defensive excretion as my pasta? Really, Italy?) We asked for ice in our water at restaurants, and were taken aback by the confused looks we received. (Do only Americans like to be refreshed by the temperature of their beverages?) We get drunk off of the poorly mixed mojitos from the one Spanish bar in Venice and fall up the Rialto Bridge in front of every Venetian citizen who happens to be out for a late night stroll to get some gelato along the canal. We are suddenly happy that we do not know enough Italian to understand what they are saying.

No, that summer I did not help promote positive international relations on behalf of the red, white, and blue. But I did learn a valuable lesson: when you're visiting a new and exciting country, just don't drink. But if you must drink, you stick to the cultural beverages of the land that you happen to find yourself in. Would I have broken my wrist if I had drank red wine or spritzes instead of those mojitos? I can't definitively say yes, but it's not a clear no, either.

But I can tell you one thing: no Italians were physically harmed on my fall up the marble steps of the Rialto. And that has to count for something, international relations-wise.

04 January, 2011

Yes, I Have A Few Concerns

Life today confuses me.

There are ugly sweater parties popping up with plague-like popularity, so prevalent that there are entire sites devoted to providing you with all your ugly Christmas sweater needs and, of that weren't enough, even the Wall Street Journal wrote about it. One time, not too far back in my generation's past, we would have inwardly (and perhaps even outwardly) cringed if some distant family member (with all the best intentions, we're sure), sent us a sweater from someplace where sheep might have a greater domination over the road than cars. The type of place where the temperatures were so cold that people didn't care how bulky their sweaters were, but they still tried to make them festive with pom poms and glitter thread, anyway.

These are the sweaters that I'm talking about. Such a sweater would have been buried way deep inside our collective closets, hidden beneath the XXL tee shirts our mom's wanted to get us because we would "grow into them" one day and thus, fully grown and still too large, we will never actually wear be able to wear them. But now, thanks to my generation's inclination to think that it is suddenly incredibly hip to look like the kind of uncoordinated dork that would have never been invited to Stephanie Miller's no-adult-supervision-7th-grade-make-out party, there are very real opportunities that prompt us to dig that sweater out of the back-of-the-closet obscurity and don it publicly in front a group of our peers. Perhaps we might even take a few photos and post our favorites on facebook, so that other people will be able to see how cool, ironic, and refreshingly un-self-conscious we have become.

But I ask you, when does this "ugly-as-cool" mentality end? Will one day Ke$ha be slipping on shin-length socks, suspenders, and shoes without laces, the kind traditionally chosen more for their time-saving nature and utility than their fashion forwardness? Will it one day be cool to, instead of looking like a 40 year old in the 1980s as we strive to now, to look like an 80 year old in the 1940s? I see the future, and it's all too real.

Then there are some old conveniences that have stirred up new guilt. Since the early 1800s, modern refrigeration has afforded our species a whole new level of nutrition that can be accessed year round, a technology that has tacked on years to our average lifespans. But this convenience brings with it a whole slew of new concerns. Should one even be buying tomatoes at all, since it is the winter season and present day opinion pressures us to "think global" but "buy local"? But, on the other hand, if New England-ers were to strictly buy local, the only available foods would lean heavily towards the less-than-nutritionally fulfilling winter squash, leeks, and potatoes, prompting the potential new marketing campaign of "buy local, get scurvy." Though you are not an 18th century sailor, should you be concerned with getting scurvy? Possibly, quite possibly.

There is the national health care reform that can provide everyone with access to medicine and health services, but it may be a sign of the apocalypse. I'm all for everyone getting access to a doctor, but do I personally want to be a playing piece in the end of the world? Deodorants might give you cancer, but not wearing deodorant will label you as the "smelly kid" and may also damage your health. If research shows that stress can play a big role in overall health, should I now feel stressed about being stressed? Where do I go when I start feeling guilty about feeling guilty?

If we were to take a look at what our music is telling us to do, Katy Perry instructs us to show the world what we're worth by shooting fireworks out of her breasts. Ke$ha's chooses to hide her inner firework by forgoing conventional dental hygiene and "dancing like she's dumb," but at least she's trying to not be such a douchebag. Then there's Bruno Mars who insists that because we happen to be young and bored, we should all just get married.

We're told over and over again "don't sweat the small stuff," and we get books for graduation like "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" (though the only places most of us ever seem to go are our homes, offices, public transportation, and back again). Was this what Dr. Seuss was talking about? Where are my rainbow-striped hilltops and banners flip-flapping?

There is lot of talk of "c'est la vie" when we meet with something we can't overcome, and "carpe diem" when we get discouraged. However, because of the under-funded public school education system, we might not have learned any language besides Spanish, and studying about that culture is apparently pretty frowned upon in certain parts of the country. (These are the same parts of the country that grow the tomatoes that sparked the think global, buy local concerns.)

And lastly, there's our fashion trends which, much like the in-vogue ugly sweaters, have taken a turn into the world of glitter and unexpected adornments. (This is most definitely an influence from MTV's tv show the Jersey Shore.) At first blush, I thought that this purple beauty (found in an aisle of a favorite local discount clothing store) read "Lobe Kills Slomly." Tell me you didn't, too.

I stared at this top for a full 3 minutes before I realized that it was supposed to read "Love Kills Slowly," words more clearly scripted in the upper left hand corner, above the heart on the skull-n-crossbones glitter decal. While tempted to buy it as a Christmas present for my older sister, I ultimately decided against it, because at the end of the day, I just couldn't justify New Jersey Shore as a local source. I just couldn't.

But don't worry, if it all gets too much for you there are anti-anxiety meds for that. Even though you probably shouldn't be taking them.

UPDATE: I received this article from a friend who had a former student who actually contracted scurvy. And then that same student won an award for it from the Washington Post. So now, through the transitive property of  equality, I know someone who got scurvy. The threat is real, people.