Monday, January 31, 2011

A Tech Independence Movement

Ever since the late spring of 2005, many of my acquaintances between the ages of 16 and 45 have mocked me for maintaining an old-school, fake leather-bound day planner/address book that I carry with me almost everywhere I go. Members of the cool crowd tend to be comfortable with exclusive reliance on their portable electronic devices for the storage of certain data. I generally regard people in the conventionally cool crowd the way I regard their pieces of up-to-date technology – they look good, but I don’t completely trust them.

When the salesman at Sprint (the only large, publicly-traded company that’s never once let me down) handed me my new multimedia phone yesterday, he suggested that I would have to inconvenience myself by visiting an out-of-the-way repair center in order to have my old phone’s contact log transferred into the new phone. I wasn’t surprised by how surprised he looked when I told him about my system - I have the current numbers of everyone I care about backed up in the 1990s-style address book that’s been the subject of so much ridicule. When I was traveling for work last year and stayed with a friend, after she dropped me off at the place where my conference was being held, I realized that I left my phone at her house. If her cell number hadn’t been written down in my special place, I wouldn’t have been able to quickly get ahold of her so she could bring me the phone later that morning - and if I hadn’t had that phone with me during this conference, my day would have been unforgettably derailed.

My computer’s less-than-one-year-old hard drive crashed last week and the great minds at Dell have yet to send the correct replacement equipment. For the past 8 days, I haven’t been able to work on my writing projects or access the Internet from home, and I don’t really care that much anymore. I’ve been writing down and organizing my creative thoughts on paper and 75% of what I use the Internet for is bullshit that I can easily resume from my office computer or the multimedia phone. And with this unexpected free time that’s opened up, I’ve spent the past week taking care of tasks I’ve been putting off for months like shopping for corduroy pants and sports bras, getting a modern-day cell phone, and reading The Vagina Monologues.

As inept as Dell is, I’m pretty confident that this vacation from one of my routines is going to come to an end within the next few days. It was relaxing while it lasted.

Monday, January 24, 2011

One-On-One, One by One

I wish I could turn the clock back to college. I never wanted it to end. I’m infatuated with my alma mater and, when the time comes, I want my ashes scattered across a certain spot of my campus’s botanical gardens, where I used to nap, eat burritos, and daydream about moving to the English countryside in between classes.

I sometimes send the university’s Annual Fund committee a check for $50, but I mainly give back to the school that has given so much to me by serving as an alumni admissions interviewer. Every admissions season, I interview a few of the local high school seniors who have applied to my second home. I’ve been stuck with my fair share of unimpressive clowns, who don’t know what state the school’s located in or who respond to my open-ended questions with one-sentence answers. But I usually end up meeting 17- and 18-year-olds who kind of blow my mind – the two young women I spent Saturday morning with fall into this category.

When I arrived at the cafĂ© 10 minutes early, I saw another person on the other side of the room who also looked like she was waiting for someone. I initially ruled her out as even possibly being a high schooler waiting for a college interview because she looked too pulled together and mature - she was more likely to be one of the Columbia grad students who live in the neighborhood. When we finally got down to business, she turned out to be smarter and more interesting than any of the neighborhood Columbia grad students that I’ve dealt with – at age 16. After the interview officially ended, we sat around for another 30 minutes, idly chatting about the recent gentrification of West Harlem (and about a little fix I got myself into on the island of Puerto Rico last fall), until my second interviewee showed up.

The next kid looked and sounded exactly like the actress who played the lead role in Juno. She was much less calm, cool, and collected than the first interviewee, in a way that was refreshingly charming. She’s already been served a heavy dose of suffering, the magnitude of which I didn’t have any experience with myself until my mid-20s. So she now has that cynically optimistic bent toward self-assured risk-taking that usually only takes root in those who feel like they have nothing left to lose.

Hardly any of the kids I interview end up getting in. But the ones I like know that those rejection or waitlist letters aren’t my fault. I always tell my favorites just how special I think they are. And then I save their names and e-mail addresses in a carefully labeled folder, because I might need one of them for a job one day.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Finding Faith in Something

As I was teetering across a sheet of unshoveled ice on Central Park West one morning last week, a young foreign tourist jumped up from her bench to ask me if I knew where the nearest church was. I know my way all around the Upper West Side, but there’s never been a time when I’ve paid attention to its places of worship. “What kind of a church?” I asked, to buy time. “Any kind,” she said, distressfully staring me down as though she might kill herself if she didn’t get situated in a pew within the next hour or so. Behind us, her man stayed put on the bench, unconcerned as hell.

After I skated away, I tried putting myself in her shoes, imagining how a church visit might ever possibly be able to help me through a particularly bad or sad time. I eventually figured out where she was coming from, without having to dig too deep. Whenever I was taken to a church service as a chronically skeptical child, the candles, the lighting, the stained-glass windows, and the sounds of the organ kept me calm. Freshman year of college, I almost auditioned for my university’s Chapel Choir (which seemed to have much lower selection standards than the other campus singing troupes) to prolong my tenure as a low-level amateur vocalist. Over the years, I’ve sat in churches for weddings, baccalaureates, and speeches, and I’ve hidden out in a couple of them when I’ve been umbrellalessly caught in the rain. Earlier today, I ended up in a church for a Martin Luther King, Jr. remembrance service (the same church where King once delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” address). On none of these occasions was I ever in a big hurry to leave. So being on the inside of a church must be that much more soothing for the people who actually believe in most of what those buildings stand for.

The Central Park West tourist looks at churches the way I look at my books, my music, and a couple of other outlets. It’s the same void, filled via a different venue. We’re both lucky to dependably have somewhere to turn when our hours get dangerously dark.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

D.D.S. Now Stands for “Dentistry’s Downward Spiral”

Unlike most people, I used to love going to the dentist. My family’s dentist is the cream of the crop and I respect him the way practicing Catholics respect the Pope.

He kept critically-acclaimed children’s books and magazines in his waiting room, and one of my most vivid childhood memories is of trying to teach someone how to read while waiting for one of my parents to come out of the examination room. As end-of-appointment freebies, all patients were given the good, small-headed toothbrushes and packs of Trident gum. Classical or opera music always played in the background and while scraping away at my teeth, he would unpretentiously talk about something compelling he had just read or watched on PBS the night before. On top of the intellect, he’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever known.

Thoroughly spoiled by the relationship, I thought all dentists (and trips to the dentist) were like this. Having to find a new dentist in New York Shitty set me straight real fast. Instead of Oral-B toothbrushes and Trident, my first NYC dentist gave out cookies. A big Tupperware container of them sat on a table in the waiting room, along with a note reading: “Please Take One.” I usually took 4 or 5, and wrapped them up for the road. He once offered me a cup of coffee while I was reclining in an examination chair with a bib around my neck. Other inappropriate, unprofessional behavior followed in due course.

NYC Dentist #2 was better than the cookie monster, but that’s like comparing a deadbeat dad to a child molester. After confirming that NYC Dentist #1 was quackish, she gave me a root canal to correct a problem with a filling she claimed he had mishandled. She kept bankers’ hours and, with my full-time work schedule, setting up an appointment with her free clinic-style office became close to impossible. One morning, when I came in early, I overheard her joking around with her assistants about “black people’s” dental hygiene. And none of them are black. That appointment was our last.

I spent yesterday morning with NYC Dentist #3. Just as with #2’s office, it’s the kind of place that schedules about 5 people for the same time slot, so you end up sitting in the waiting room for an hour before you’re summoned. By the time I made it into the hot seat, I was starving and dozing off. I wanted some cookies and coffee. The hygienist bibbed me up and then turned a chairside television onto a startlingly strange cartoon show before taking off. If I’m going to be forced to watch TV, at least let me have something interesting like the Real Housewives or 16 and Pregnant. Or give me the remote.

When NYC Dentist #3 finally made her grand entrance, she was worth the wait. She appreciates the fine art of sarcasm and, aside from her telling me that I need to do a better job with my flossing, we had a very nice time together.

The whole ordeal took 2.5 hours – for a check-up and a cleaning. For something this simple, my family’s dentist would have had me in and out in less than an hour, during the course of which he may have softly recited lines from an obscure Alfred Tennyson poem. But, to paraphrase Tennyson, it’s better to have lost something great than to have never experienced that greatness at all.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

For 2011 and Beyond

When I was going through a drawer in my childhood bedroom last week, I found an old newspaper clipping that I think my mom once gave me. A local journalist had put together a laundry list of New Year’s resolutions – “take long walks nowhere . . . get out of your comfort zone . . . floss.” Here’s some of what I would add to it:

1. Live/spend considerably below your means.

2. Be mindful of who your real friends are and never take those deep, authentic, reciprocal bonds for granted. Don’t expect much from or get too emotionally invested in the more superficial relationships you’ve accumulated.

3. Read (novels, short stories) more fiction than you watch (TV shows, movies).

4. Eat out less, cook at home more often.

5. Keep your own version of a regular journal. Before you go to bed every night, write a few paragraphs or sentences about something that happened to you or how you felt that day. Years later, when you read all about where your head once was, you’ll be fascinated.

6. Separate your professional life from your personal life, and remember that your life outside of the office (or the classroom, or the factory, or wherever you work) takes precedence.

7. Smile at strangers.

8. Lift weights several times a week, instead of purely focusing on cardio routines - women in particular don’t realize the physical benefits that come from strength training. For about $20 you can buy a set of hand weights that will last forever.

9. Always listen to your loved ones’ unsolicited advice, but never blindly execute their expectations for you. Have enough self-respect to think for yourself.

10. Find something funny about every bad situation you’re in.