Thursday, August 27, 2009

Working Hard to Slack off

When I was in high school I ran cross-country.  I wasn’t very fast or slow, so I mostly went unnoticed by the coaches, which was fine with me; I really just ran to hang out with friends and because at my school you didn’t have to take P.E. if you did a sport (and no one cool took P.E.).  Years later, I look back on my cross country experience with great fondness.  I did exactly what I set out to do, and a lot of the time that included slacking off. 


Most of the cross country team’s practices involved long-ish runs through the streets of Glendora.  Because my fellow medium-speed runners and I had friends spread out all over the city, that meant that we could often cut miles off the run by hanging out at friends houses.  Sometimes we’d go swimming.  Sometimes we got free Baskin Robbin’s samples from a friend who worked there.  Sometimes we just sat on the curb and waited for the team to come back our way.  Oh yeah, and sometimes we actually practiced.  The bottom line is that my friends and I didn’t put in even close to as much effort as we could have, though I was in pretty good shape at the time.  (I think it’s important to mention that we never cheated on races and that nobody wanted us to become top runners, including ourselves.) 


In retrospect, I actually wish I would have treated more activities the way I treated cross country.  I put in enough effort to benefit from the sport, but not enough to interfere with other activities that mattered more to me.  In other areas of my life, however, that hasn’t been the case.  Take, for example, high school academics and getting into college.  I went to BYU, but I had an application that was much stronger than it needed to be.  I don’t regret going to BYU, but I do regret having put forth so much effort when I could have spent my time doing other, non-academic interests.  (I know someone will read this and tell me about the valedictorian-class president-service nut at their school who got rejected from BYU.  First, I should say that I’m skeptical that any such stories are true.  I think it’s more likely they are myths told by parents to get their teenagers to work hard.  Second, if those stories are true, why would such a person even waste their time applying to BYU.  They could have gone to a much better school and been in the company of other altruistic geniuses instead of being with people who had GPAs in the low to mid 3.0 range.)


I can think of similar experiences that I’ve had throughout my life that make the same point.  As a graduate instructor for example, I started out putting in vast amounts of time and effort into teaching.  After a couple of semesters of that, I realized all that effort was preventing me from enjoying other parts of life, so I put teaching way down on my list of priorities.  In other words, I decided to slack off.  To my surprise my student ratings stayed high, my students continued to learn, and I even got an award for being a good teacher.


My point here isn’t to show what a slacker I am, but to illustrate how sometimes it’s actually better to not work as hard as possible because when we’re not “working” we can be doing other things that matter more.  Of course, I’m not an advocate of sitting around doing nothing all day.  Instead, I’m suggesting that people shouldn’t feel guilty about making time for the things they enjoy, even if those things are done at the expense of the what they’re “supposed” to be doing.  In the end, then, maybe we all just need to slack off a little harder.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Commuting Part 2

In the past I’ve been highly critical of suburban living generally and the commuting it requires specifically.  While I still believe that suburbia is an ecological catastrophe, I’m quickly approaching my own moment of truth in which principle meets practice.  Unfortunately, that moment is looking more and more like it’s going to be a no win situation. 


The situation that I’m talking about is mine and Laura’s newly acquired status as college graduates.  Laura recently got a job in American Fork (about a twenty minute drive to the north) and we no longer have any reason to live next to BYU campus.  Because I still don’t have a job, the logical thing for us to do would be to move to American Fork so that Laura could bike or walk to work.  Such an act would be in keeping with my earlier statements about the environment and the need to eliminate commuting from American culture.  In other words, it would be the ethical choice because it would avoid causing unnecessary damage to the environment.  


The problem is that American Fork is a really undesirable place for a young couple to live.  Generally speaking, there’s nothing to do there.  There are a few bottom-of-the-barrel chain restaurants and a movie theater that plays the most mainstream of films, but as far as I know there’s nothing that caters to a diversity of interests (with the very notable exception of the Chocolatier Blue).  The surrounding communities (Lehi, Cedar Hills, Highland, Apline, etc.) are more of the same, only worse.  Obviously these communities cater to a specific group of people, but they hold absolutely no appeal for me.  What’s more, rents are actually higher in these areas than Laura and I currently pay (and apartments are smaller), so we couldn’t really afford to live there if we wanted to.  These factors have combined to create a situation where the choice I see as most ethical also means months of insufferable ennui.  


So we’re faced with a few options.  We can live in American Fork or the surrounding communities.  Laura wouldn’t have to commute (which I’m sure would be nice for her) and I wouldn’t feel like a hypocrite for condemning something that I’m overtly complicit in.  However, we also wouldn’t have many (or any) friends and we’d have to drive a considerable distance to do any of the things we enjoy.  We’d also be paying more in rent, which would obviously be difficult.  On the other hand, we could stay where we are and continue to have easy access to many of the things we love.  Still, that’s hardly the behavior I’ve argued for in previous blogs.  


I draw several conclusions from this scenario.  First, that people often have to make hard and unpleasant choices when it comes to where they live.  Unfortunately, environmental factors rarely take precedence (or even show up on people’s radar) when they weigh the pros and cons of a particular living arrangement.  For me, I do weigh environmental factors against things like social life, but I’m not sure which is more important.  I’d like to say that I’d sacrifice all my friendships and hobbies for something that I believe is ethically right; I’m just not sure that I will.  For other people it might be schools or big houses, and while I don’t think those reasons are any good, I recognize that to some people they're much better than my own.   


Second, I conclude that many modern communities are not set up to provide for all the needs of their members.  American Fork definitely isn’t.  (Provo might not be either, but it does a better job than a lot places.)  In turn, people have to drive considerable distances if they want to do anything outside the home.  This seems like the bigger problem to me.  People are constantly forced to choose between schools, social life, etc. and how much time they spend in the car.  If housing choices always represent an expression of values, it seems immensely problematic that the environment is so often on the losing end of those choices. 


For the time being we’ll be in Provo while we figure out what we're going to do (and while I figure our what I’m doing post-graduation).  Ultimately, I’d like to put all the blame on the way our culture has been set up to encourage unethical behavior.  And while I think that that is definitely part of the problem, I also believe that I can’t completely avoid culpability for being willing to contribute to the problem rather than sacrifice for change.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Anonymous Blogging

For the most part, anonymous blogging is a really bad idea.  This point is illustrated by a recent case in Pittsburg, where a woman lost her job when her anonymous blog was outed. 


Obviously that doesn’t happen to everyone, but as soon as someone begins publishing nameless material others will start trying to guess who is really behind it.  Because people will interpret differently, imposing their own values and preconceptions onto the blogs, the revelation of the real author will almost always come as a disappointment.  The person behind the persona won’t live up to expectations, and in the end everyone will be more disappointed than if the blogger’s name had been available from the beginning.  What’s more, remaining a nameless author in today’s world is simply an unrealistic goal.  Though it may historically have worked well for political figures, philosophers, etc. who managed to assume a kind of “everyman” role, similar results are increasingly impossible in a digital world where an author’s identity is only a mouse click and subpoena away. (This article discusses both the case mentioned above as well as some others.)


Besides the practical problems of remaining nameless in a digital world, anonymity reeks of cowardice.  By it’s very nature the internet isolates people somewhat, at least physically, and that perceived isolation can lead to perceived freedoms; if someone is simply on their computer they may feel at liberty to say whatever they want, no matter how questionable.  (I know that I’ve fallen into this trap many times before and some extreme cases might be called cyber bullying.)  Anonymity lets someone have all that freedom, without any consequences or repercussions. In other words, anonymous bloggers disregard accountability for their writing.


Ultimately, there may always be a need for conscientious but nameless observers to decry problems in society.  However there will always be an even greater need for people who are willing to put their names on the line for progress.  Hopefully the blogosphere will get a few more people with the guts to take that risk.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Teen Pregnancy and Choosing to Believe

A couple of years ago a friend and I started talking about teen pregnancy.  The conversation started out with this friend arguing in favor of teen pregnancy.  Of course I (and those with us) were initially very skeptical.  However, after a little discussion I began to see the many advantages to teen pregnancy.  In fact, before I knew it, I was actually one of the most ardent supporters of this controversial idea.


Before I get to the point of this story, let me explain the argument itself.  First, teen pregnancy as it exists today is indeed a tragic phenomenon that disrupts the lives of many teens.  But, if society were to reevaluate itself and radically change, teen pregnancy could actually increase the standard of living and help maintain America’s position in the world.  That would happen because as soon as teenagers were physically capable of having children, they would be encouraged to do so.  However, as soon as a couple had a child they could return to school for college or go directly into the work force.  They could also spend time traveling or exploring their interests, like many twenty-somethings do today.  While all this was going on the babies would be cared for simultaneously by multiple generations, who would all be living close by. Because a generation would only be about fifteen years, instead of thirty, there would actually be more people to care for kids.  Ultimately, this would also produce more workers, which would add to a strong economy and American wealth. 


There was more to the argument than that—we talked about this for days—but that was the gist of it.  I think the underlying assumption was that people should be as productive as possible, and that “adolescence” is an artificial stage in life where most people don’t contribute much.  This plan would eliminate that relative unproductiveness. 


Whether you’re convinced by this argument or not (and probably you are not), I bring it up to illustrate how we can convince ourselves that something is a really good idea, even if that idea is normally ridiculous or even quite repugnant.  Though the discussion was never quite serious, I found myself believing that, given a radical enough social paradigm shift, the idea could work.  In other words, I convinced myself to believe in this silly idea. 


Though I haven’t thought much about this idea since, the experience itself led me to ask hard questions about belief in general.  How often do we (or at least, I) allow lop-sided evidence to persuade us of outlandish things?  How often do we choose a particular set of values based on something completely external to those values?  For example, I remember when I first came to college and discovered that I was slightly more liberal in my politics than my peers.  Once I realized this, and once I was labeled a “liberal” by my friends, I also found that I liked feeling different.  I liked the style of being liberal.


As time has gone on and as I’ve studied more, I genuinely think I believe in ideas that align with the left side of the political spectrum (though I dislike political labels).  In fact, I find myself drifting farther left the more I know.  Still, I have to ask myself how genuine my beliefs really are.  Would I have come to the same conclusions if I first hadn’t initially been attracted to the aesthetics of the ideology?  Is there any way to adopt a set of values that doesn’t include, at least initially, a simple and visceral satisfaction with those values?  I don’t know, but it seems that just about everyone—and I’m a prime example of this—chooses to believe something and then goes about justifying and explaining that belief.  This can happen with hypothetical ideas about teen pregnancy, or it may be higher stakes ideas about politics, religion, social behavior, etc.  In the end, what do we believe and how deep do those beliefs go?  I think I am as earnest as anyone, but I have to wonder, how much can we trust ourselves?  What does it mean to be genuine?  How true are our truths, beliefs, and values?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Acting Your Age

When I was eleven I dreaded turning twelve.  Despite the relative milestone that turning twelve marks (especially for a young Mormon boy), it was also the age when I knew I could no longer play with Legos.  Though no one told me to box my Legos, I knew it was true because the packaging they came in had an age recommendation printed right on it: ages 6-12. (It must not have occurred to me that I could play with them through age twelve.)


I suppose that if I had been a more critical child I would have recognized the many reasons that the age recommendation was on the box and understood that it wasn’t a guideline telling kids when they needed to grow up.  If I was more free-spirited I might have just done what I pleased and ignored what the Lego execs thought.  Instead, I cared a lot.  I didn’t want to act like a little kid when I was getting older.  So I put my Legos away and never took them out again.


In the years since I’ve come to see this experience as a small but adequate illustration of the impact age has on our actions.  In my case there was really no reason not to continue playing with Legos, but I didn’t want to seem oddly immature.  We’ve all probably seen this work the other way, where a kid (probably a teen or tween) is unusually mature but has to mask that fact to fit in.  In essence, the pressure to “act your age” is immense and if someone fails to give in to that pressure they risk becoming an outcast.


While many people probably have similarly illuminative experiences from childhood, I don’t think this phenomenon stops when people grow up.  Instead, a lot of us get good at acting our ages.  We learn to dress and act according to our roles, but when someone doesn’t it’s easy to spot.  After all, who hasn’t seen an adult trying to act younger (or older) than they really are?  I have, and even though I think age is a relatively arbitrary thing I still can’t help thinking those people are kind of pathetic.


Ultimately, if the pressure to behave in age appropriate ways continues indefinitely, I think the phrase “act your age” is more appropriate than we might realize.  If, when we hear this phrase, we usually focus on the word “age,” it’s also worth remembering that “act” is at the heart of the mandate.  In turn, this word suggests that the connection between behavior and age is an “act.”  Significantly, the word “act” doesn’t necessarily imply any relationship to reality but instead indicates a performance at best or a façade at worst.  Finally then, learning to “act your age” means learning to perform in ways that satisfy the needs and expectations of those around you.  (Those needs may be very physical, such as caring for an ailing family member, or more abstract, such as people’s need for equilibrium and a lack of extreme figures in their lives.) 


The reality or truth behind the age-act façade may be non-existent or simply unknowable.  (After all, what is the best absolute and most objectively appropriate way to act for each age?)  I don’t think it’s a stretch in this context, however, to see the phrase “act your age” as more or less synonymous with something like “conform to your community” or “submit to your station.”  Those phrases may connote more negatively than I really want, but the point is that age is an arbitrary determiner of behavior.  And while it may be a socially useful guide, I think that recognizing the underlying meaninglessness of age might ultimately result in greater communication and understanding between people.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Recently, I read an article on about a Trina Thompson who decided to sue her college because she couldn’t find a job.  To someone like myself who just completed a master’s program that, to my knowledge, has 0% job placement (and no services to speak of to raise that number) my first thought was that she was being ridiculous.  However, as I considered the situation more I started to agree with her.  In fact, Ms. Thompson’s situation made me wonder if I should consider doing the same thing. 


I have no plans to sue my school, but the incident raises questions about the purpose of higher education.  Much of the criticism leveled at Thompson seems to be based on the romantic idea of a “liberal education,” which might be summarily described as a broad effort to make people better, more ethical and well-rounded citizens (and people).  While, as a recent MA, I’m obviously a disciple of this idea, I also know that just about everybody goes to college today because it will make them more marketable for a future job. 


The point then, is that nearly every college degree is simply a technical certification from a trade-oriented school.  Ms. Thompson’s school is more obviously so, but even students at prestigious schools are there because they’re trying to become more marketable.  The skills they’re learning might prepare them for white-collar jobs, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re learning the “techniques” of a “trade.” 


This reality is a problem for a couple of reasons.  First, because no one is admitting it.  Most college educated people look down on someone like Thompson because her argument is painfully honest about what people expect from an education.  There are a lot of people who don’t have jobs when they graduate, but the criticisms of Thompson demonstrate that people don’t see that fact as a problem (with either the education system or the post-graduation market place).  Indeed, the defense of education-for-education’s sake that has been invoked actually suggests that people don’t think there are any system-wide problems at all.  It doesn’t matter, the argument implies, that people today take longer to get through school, are more saddled with debt, and have less of a guarantee of employment after college; just because that happens with many people, the system is still working just fine. 


Second, this is a problem because liberal education has a lot to offer and because if we abandon it, eventually no one will be able to think critically about ideas like ethics, citizenship, and community.  Instead, people will be locked into roles determined by class and economic status (as well as race, gender, etc.) without the ability to raise questions about those roles.  In other words, the recent debate sparked by Trina Thompson suggests both that liberal education is quickly slipping away from us while we delude ourselves into thinking that it isn’t.


Luckily, liberal education isn’t completely gone.  It coexists with work-oriented schooling in a way that apparently satisfies many people.  (If it didn’t satisfy them, they’d stop going to school.)  Still, if people refuse to recognize the effects of business and the market place on education there will be nothing to mitigate the capitalist onslaught in colleges.  People will continue to be in debt and unemployed, and no one will stop to consider if that is a problem.  At the same time, high-minded ideals embodied in a liberal education will keep slipping away from us until no one even remembers what they were.

Monday, August 10, 2009

College Parking/Environmental Responsibility

The Provo-Student Alliance has recently received a fair amount of attention and press for its efforts to involve students in local activities.  While it’s genuinely exciting to see another organization getting students more involved, this particular group is wrong about the very idea it was founded to protect: student parking. 


Like many college towns, Provo has serious parking problems.  The streets are filled with student cars, which I know frustrates permanent residents.  Related to (or possibly stemming out of) this conflict, Provo city has recently pushed a plan to require permits for students to park immediately south of campus.


The goals of the students fighting for the right to park near campus are understandable, but also painfully near-sighted.  For one, simply maintaining the status quo will merely postpone inevitable conflict; students will continue to park in increasing numbers on the streets, while residents get angry and city leaders eye student pocket books.  This isn’t going to change, especially since BYU slowly increases its enrollment over time.  More importantly however, the Student-Provo Alliance is arguing in favor of an activity that is environmentally destructive and practically unnecessary.  Driving pollutes, and student cars are typically among the oldest and dirtiest on the road.  Accordingly, advocacy of student parking implies advocacy of student driving and, subsequently, of student polluting as well.  Though I doubt that many in the Provo-Student Alliance think of the issue in these terms, their agenda will cause lasting and harmful collateral damage to the environment by fighting the curtailment of a destructive activity.  Ultimately then, when considered in terms of environmental impact, the students are on the wrong side of the debate when they argue that their own convenience trumps greater responsibility to the environment.


While I suspect that the motivation behind the permit proposal was ill-conceived and largely an exercise in resentment directed against students, the ultimate result of the idea—fewer cars on the streets—is a desirable one.  If students are required to buy parking permits, fewer of them will be willing or able to park (though I’d like to see the plan altered to not blatantly favor rich students over poor ones).  In the short-term this will create frustration, late nights looking for parking, missed classes, and a multitude of other hardships for students.  Basically, it’ll be rough.  However, as current students begin to graduate and move on (and take their cars with them), the lack of parking will become simply one of many other considerations new students have to think about.  With no place to store cars, fewer students will be able to bring them in the first place.  More people will have to walk, bike, or use public transportation.  The city will have to adapt planning and zoning practices to a populace that can only travel a few miles, as opposed to one that drives everywhere.  With time (at least five or six years, though maybe as much as a generation), the hardships immediately following the permit plan will recede, having become merely growing pains during a time of change.      


If the Provo-Student Alliance really wants to help students, it might pause to consider what will be most beneficial to students in five, ten, or fifty years.  Unfortunately, driving isn’t that thing. In addition to the many wonderful things that this organization is now doing (things like voter registration drives), it should shift its focus toward reducing students’ need for driving.  For example, the Alliance could petition the city for mixed residential and commercial zoning that would allow students to work and play closer to where they live.  For it’s part, Provo city could explain their proposals in better terms that demonstrate a benefit to students as well as residents (in the end, the problem with this most recent plan wasn’t so much the idea itself as it was the fact that its branding left it reeking of prejudice).  If that happens it’s likely that both long-term residents and students alike will assume greater responsibility for their shared community and our environment.

You're Not Hard Core Unless You Live Hard Core

I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  If that isn’t very impressive, I saw all of them many years before the advent of DVD.  That means that I watched nearly all of them when they first aired on network TV, and all the rest I had to catch during the rerun season.  (I saw every episode before the series was playing in syndication for six hours a day on Spike, G4, etc.)

Still, these days it doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment to have watched every episode of a show.  Because of DVD and the internet, even casual fans of a show can see it all.  If a 10 year old kid in the early 90s was hard-core by faithfully tuning in every week, the digital age has completely changed what it means to be hard-core.

This phenomenon is even more apparent as Laura and I have been working our way through Battlestar Galactica.  (Yes, I like Sci-fi and I guess that makes me a nerd.  I compensate by trying extra hard to be cool and by subsequently developing a complex.)  At this point, it’s basically a given that a fan will have seen every episode.  Real fans, I’m discovering by watching the BSG special features, go online and participate in online communities.  They go to conventions and have action figures.  Some of them even start marriages based on their love of the TV show. 

While science fiction TV probably has an unusually devoted fan base, the bar seems to have risen for what it means to be a fan of anything.  Other TV shows like The Office or American Idol have their own cadre of devoted fans, as do performers like Miley Cyrus or the Jonas Brothers.  In each case being a fan of these phenomena doesn’t mean simply putting up a poster or talking about the characters with your friends.  Instead, it means reading about them online, knowing back-stories (that were never a part of the show/public persona/etc), and finally immersing yourself in the culture of the show or performer.  Basically, fans today are more hard-core than ever before because they’re living within the culture of their obsession. 

The result of all this hyper-fandom is that people know a lot about the things they love and, more importantly, build their communities around those things.  One hundred years ago for example, if you loved the theater, you might go every once in a while but you’d still have to go home to friends, family, and neighbors who wouldn’t necessarily share your particular interests.  Today on the other hand you can go to a cultural event and then return to people who are connected to you because of that event.  In other words your friends, family, and neighbors are determined more by your interests today than ever before.  Battlestar Galactica or American Idol aren’t just shows, they're lifestyles.

Ultimately, the communities created by fans are places where people think long and hard about what culture means to them.  I wrote before about how TV and movies might be more important than reading, but I think that the real issue here is simply that the conveyances of culture are currently visual and digital, as opposed to literary or theatrical.  With that shift our society may have lost some things (a literacy in the art forms of the past, for example), but I also believe that we’ve gained a great deal as well.  I may have a harder time being a hard-core fan (it really requires so much more work), but I think it’s good that someone is picking apart the meaning of just about everything.   

Friday, August 7, 2009

Talk To Strangers

The Family Matters theme song opens with the line “it’s a rare condition, in this day and age, to read any good news, on the newspaper page.”  Of course, it’s probably been rare to see good news in newspapers in any age, but that doesn’t make the song any less apropos for our time.  More specifically however, I’m always surprised to see “news” that exists seemingly for the sole purpose of making people afraid of some commonplace thing.  For example, I remember when my mom stopped letting us eat raw cookie dough because she read that the raw eggs could give us salmonella.  A lot of the news I read online seems to work in similar ways.  It makes us afraid of common foods, different people, normal behavior, and global pandemics (really, just look at the “Crime” or “Health sections on any news site for numerous examples).  None of this news is fabricated; instead it finds a real problem and suggests that it might be a real big problem.  (Jon recently discussed hitchhiking and how people become afraid of people, among other interesting points.)


While all these threats may be very important, the result of all this fear mongering “news” simply seems to be less trust.  People suddenly have to avoid activities they enjoy and, even more disheartening, they avoid new people because those people may be drug addicts, "gang bangers," or mass murderers.  As a result communities shrink and interactions become laced with suspicion.  The pattern of fear is perpetuated as parents remove their children from social situations because they can’t trust other adults not to molest their kids.


I see this as a real problem, so maybe I’m guilty of doing the very thing I’m condemning by describing a situation and then raising alarm over it.  The difference, I hope, is that there is a simple and rather pleasant solution to this problem: choose to trust.  I think it’s possible to choose to believe that every person out there is actually a great person.  It’s possible to assume that public places won’t make us sick.  It’s possible to assume that every child who goes over to a friend’s house or gets on the internet won’t fall victim to a sexual predator.


In some circles, choosing to trust is already common.  One example that comes to mind is couch surfing, which involves allowing total strangers into your home while they’re traveling.  Depending on how it’s done the participants may know more or less about each other beforehand, but ultimately it requires that people simply believe that they won’t hurt each other.  And in the end, they usually don’t.  I experienced a similar situation recently when a band from Las Vegas offered to let my band stay at their house on an up coming trip.  They didn’t know us and we very easily could be the kind of people who would rob them blind (or worse).  Still, they chose to believe that that wouldn’t happen and the result was that we’ve all made new friends.  

In the end, these examples can’t solve the world’s problems, but they do lead me to believe that fear and suspicion are choices that can be avoided.  I also know that if everyone chose to trust everyone else all the time, there would be causalities.  Someone would end up trusting the murderer or the sexual predator.  Still, fear doesn't seem to provide much protection now, and, more importantly, the trade off is worth it.  If we try to trust more we'll be happier and have more fulfilling experiences.   

Local Location in Review: Muse Music Café

For a while now I’ve wanted to write up a review of Muse Music.  As a member of Electron Deception now, as well as previous bands in the past, I’ve spent a handful of nights on the stage at Muse.  More importantly, however, I keep going back as an audience member and café patron.  The atmosphere is gritty and rock and roll, and the people who work there are among the coolest members of the local music scene.  There’s also really good food and innovative community events.  In other words, Muse Music is one of Provo’s most valuable treasures. 


Food: Muse Music has been a staple of Provo’s music scene for a long time, but in recent years owners Jake and Melissa Haws converted the front half of the space from a record store to a full fledged café.  The menu fluctuates somewhat: there used to be soups and other assorted items, but today they mostly just serve sandwiches and snacks.  Still, the current offerings illustrate well the old cliché “only the strong will survive.”  I’d recommend the Ultimate Grilled Cheese.  I know, you can make a grilled cheese sandwich at your house, but you can’t make this sandwich at your house.  I was skeptical at first too but now I’m hooked.  The Turkey Pesto is a close second.  There’s also a wide array of Italian Sodas. I’m not actually a huge fan of Italian Soda generally, but these ones are as good as any I’ve tried elsewhere, so if that’s your thing, go for it. 


Atmosphere: One of the best parts about Muse Music is the way they’ve partitioned their space.  You can treat it as a restaurant, a music venue, or some combination of both.  If you’re not into local bands go pick up some food in the early evening and there’ll be a quiet cafe ambiance; if you want to feel like your in the thick of things, go later (they’re usually open late because of shows).  One of my favorite things to do is to go see a band I like but when it gets too loud move to the café where I can still hear the music but it’s quiet enough to have a conversation.  Also, check the calendar for special events.  All summer they’ve been doing movie screenings on Monday nights and there are frequently acoustic nights, jazz nights, and free open mic nights.  (Keep in mind that if you go to something free at Muse Music, it doesn’t hurt to buy a drink or something.  That’s how they stay in business and pay the rent.  Don’t mooch, it’s lame and if people don’t buy stuff obviously businesses go away.) 


Service: The service at Muse Music is what I’d call “local.”  That means that you might have to wait for the person taking concert admission money to finish and come make your sandwich, and that nothing operates with the slick efficiency of a franchise business.  I think these things actually make the place more personable and charming, but if you’re expecting generic fast food (or if you’re just a jerk), you might be let down.  In the end, the up side of “local” service is that if you go in a bunch, you’ll be remembered; if your friendly, you might have an interesting conversation with the person on the other side of the counter; if you hang out for a bit you might see some cool art or discover a new local band.  Ultimately, Jake and Melissa are among the nicest, coolest people I’ve met and it seems like they hire people who take after them.


Whether you’re into local music or not, Muse Music is a great place to hang out, eat, and participate in local culture.  It provides (much needed) continuity to the rapidly changing downtown area and, if you aren’t careful, it might make you start to fall in love with Provo.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

He’s Just Not That Into You: A Fantasy about White, Upper-Class, Urban Professionals

What makes the recent romantic comedy He’s Just Not That Into You so frustrating is that it completely botches what could have been an interesting and entertaining premise.  Unfortunately,  the movie takes all the conventions we might normally see in a rom-com and slathers them with an insipid, faintly bigoted tone. 

Basically, He’s Just Not That Into You tells the story of a bunch of urban professionals and their various pursuits of love.  The assorted relationships are complex and intertwined, but not interesting enough to go into here.  What actually stands out is how unsympathetic all the characters are.  Ginnifer Goodwin’s Gigi, for example, is the axis around which everything else seems to rotate, but she is also a socially retarded stalker.  It’s not remotely funny or endearing (though it tries to be), and by the end of the movie I just wanted something really bad to happen to her.  To some extent or another, that’s how I actually felt about most of the characters: they’re flat, uninteresting stereotypes that aren’t even fun in a mindless romantic-comedy way. 

Still, what makes this particular movie worth mentioning isn’t it’s trite story (which could nevertheless have been interesting), but rather the strangely homogenous world it seems to advocate.  In this world almost everyone is white.   If they aren’t white they’re probably a construction worker, which also means they’re an undocumented immigrant.  Also, everyone is rich and lives in hip, spacious apartments with exposed brick.  (Or, when Ben Affleck breaks up with Jennifer Aniston, he luckily has an expensive yacht to live on).   Similarly, all the character’s work environments are absurdly cool.  Each work place looks like an Ikea ad.  At Drew Barrymore’s job, the men can actually walk around with their shirts unbuttoned to their waists.  (Don’t get me wrong; I think it’d be cool to work in a place like that, I just am skeptical that such places exist and if they do why are they all in this one movie?)       

The main problem with this hyper-cool world is that it leaves a lot of people out while actively marginalizing others.  For example, Luis Guzman’s portrayal of Javier was actually one of the more entertaining performances, but he was only on screen for a few minutes (and wasn’t even credited).  There are a number of African American actors in the film, but they all have minor roles and work for the more successful white characters.  Maybe these casting decisions were made to appeal to some specific audience, but I just kept wondering why the filmmakers didn’t include any non-white actors in their ensemble cast.  The ensemble was big enough to do so, and there are many successful actors who don’t identify as white, so it almost seems like an active decision to cut minorities out of the picture. 

If the portrayal of minorities in He’s Just Not That Into You is problematic, the way it deals with homosexuality is simply offensive.  Like a number of Hollywood productions that have come before, this film seems to think that all gay men are effete, lispy stereotypes that are only good for comic relief.  The entire film I kept waiting to be introduced to a major gay character, or at least someone who was complicated and who didn’t fit a stereotype that was forged in 90s sitcoms and was outdated from the beginning.  Unfortunately what did happen was that like the film’s racial minorities, homosexuals played insignificant parts and served merely as a foil for more important characters.  Thus, in the end, the film’s attempts at diversity only ended up confirming its thesis that rich, white people are the coolest and have all the fun.

He’s Just Not That Into You is, in a round about way, a descendant of Sex and the City, which itself seems to be part of a larger trend to telling stories about cool urbanites and all their hip adventures.  Maybe I should be paying more attention to this genre; I think that urban living is culturally attractive and has the potential to be environmentally ethical.  However, this film disregarded all of the social benefits of urban living in favor of a strange, homogenous fantasy.  If all film might be accused of being fantasy, this film took it to a different level by saying that only white, upper-class, urban professionals get invited to the party. 

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Green Technology/Green Living

It should go without saying that our world is something we need to take (better) care of and I’ve been excited lately to see a gradual shift toward greener living in mainstream America.  But lately I’ve begun to believe that many of the “green” advances we’ve made are little more than superficial shifts that allow us to become complacent while environmental problems continue to worsen.  In other words, just because we can say that our society is a little bit “greener” today, we’re not really addressing the source of our problems. 


Probably the most salient example of America making superficial changes while ignoring the real problems is hybrid cars.  Like many people, I think hybrids are great and if at some point I have to buy a new car it’ll be a hybrid (though hopefully something even better will come along soon).  Still, hybrids are cars.  They produce destructive, if fewer, emissions.  In reality, even if we all drove 100 percent electric cars there would still be emissions from the manufacturing processes and from the power plants that charge the cars.  So, in the end, the problem is absolutely not that our cars are producing emissions; it’s that we’re driving cars in the first place.


Of course manufacturing anything produces waste, but imagine if everyone spent their time and money buying bicycles or good walking shoes instead of cars.  The amount of waste that we produce would go down dramatically (not to mention the fact that everyone would be a lot healthier).  Unfortunately, however, few Americans live close enough to anything to make walking or biking practical modes of transportation.  This means that the real environmental problem isn’t that we’re driving clunkers or SUVs (though we should get those vehicles off the roads too), but that we’ve spread ourselves out in such a way that we’re required to pollute to get anywhere.  In essence, the issue is the layout of our cities and the composition of our neighborhoods, not the miles per gallon we get in our cars.  What’s more, if it’s our cities that are forcing us to drive so much, it’s our underlying cultural and ideological assumptions that allow our cities to exist the way they do.  So change has to begin with a radical reassessment of these underlying assumptions.   


The problem with hybrids is that they’ve become an excuse to ignore this radical change.  They allow us to sidestep questions about the ethics of commuting, suburban and sub-suburban city planning, and a whole score of other issues that sit much closer to the source of our environmental problems.  When we drive a hybrid we’re doing our part and we feel like we’ve answered those questions.  The problem is that in reality, we haven’t even begun to ask them. 


Hybrid cars are simply one example of green technology distracting us from actually living green lives.  There are many others.  Finally, however, if we actually want to make a difference we need to reevaluate not only the type of engine we want in our car, but also the underpinnings of our society.  We need to take a holistic approach to improving our lifestyles.  We need a paradigm shift.

The Golden Corral Hates Your Town

I’m no fan of chain restaurants, but The Golden Corral has recently crossed the line from an irritating big business to a malignant antagonist of local eateries. 


In a TV commercial the chain is currently airing a man orders a number of normally expensive items from a local restaurant.  The waiter is accommodating until the man says he wants everything for under ten dollars (or something close to it, I’m not sure about the exact value), at which point the waiter seemingly panics.  The thesis of this ad is that while you can get the same menu items from local restaurants, The Golden Corral will undercut their local competitors and give your cheaper food.   (I saw this commercial on TV and couldn't find it online anywhere.  If anyone can I'd love to link to it.) 


Like many commercials, this one was probably supposed to be funny and like many it also utterly fails in that regard.  What’s more problematic however, is that the ad characterizes local restaurants as inept, buffoonish establishments that can’t compete with chains.  This attitude brings the march of generic, mediocre food to our doorsteps as it tries to wipe out not only competing corporate restaurants, but local ones as well. 


In reality, local restaurants are better than chains in nearly every way.  They offer better food and usually competitive prices.  (When they’re more expensive it’s usually because they serve better food.)  On the other hand, chains like The Golden Corral have banal menus written in office suites.  How that is a good thing I'll never know.  


If this recent ad campaign were to completely accomplish its objective, no one would visit local restaurants any more.  In turn, local restaurants would go out of business.  Money would be siphoned away from local economies and there would be less innovation in the market place.  I don’t necessarily think The Golden Corral intended for their ad to be as malicious as it is, but then again not many people who do bad things started off trying to be bad. 


The ultimate result of this commercial is that The Golden Corral has cast itself as a corporate bully pushing around smaller businesses.  There’s no reason to support that behavior.  There’s no reason to endorse a company whose objectives also happen to be destructive to our communities.  In the end, there’s no reason to eat at this restaurant.