Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Thank You Notes

Have you ever actually been disappointed to get a present because of the obligation it creates to write some bullshit letter? You stare at it - it's probably a shirt... or a fullscreen DVD of The Aviator - and you immediately resent it. You look at it with frustration and a resigned annoyance. Because there you were, enjoying your day, not a care in the world, and now you've got shit to do. Now you've got to pull out your nice stationery and go through this formal little dance and curtsey.

Well I hate it. I hate writing thank you notes. If society permitted some kind of opt-out, like maybe you send me a present and I give you a $5 paypal deposit, I would definitely take it. It's not that I'm some ungrateful sumbitch. I do appreciate the present. But it's just the case, and I really need to stress this, that if your generosity results in the creation of a tedious chore for me then you haven't done me any favors. In the case of your standard gift - like a shirt - it's a net loss. I'd rather have no shirt and no chore.

Here's what I can offer, and I think this is reasonable. The next time I see you... the next time we talk on the phone... the next time we're emailing or I see you at work or I bump into you on the street, I'll give you some warm and sincere thanks. That's a promise. Isn't that a good system? It passes the golden rule test - I'd be perfectly happy if people did it for my gifts. In fact, with any gift I'd send, I'd include a little card that said "TM/SM" - thank me when you see me.

I just think the standard thank-you-note system is the relic of a much different era. A time with no computers or phones, or cars. Where the handwritten letter was the standard form of communication and you might not see the other person for months. Probably also an era when a gift was a real pain in the ass to give. You want to give someone some socks? Have a seat at the loom here and make a pair. I can see, if I had to shear my own sheep to get the raw materials to physically construct your sweater, I might appreciate a note.

But if some aunt swings by Barnes and Noble on the way home to pick up six $10 gift cards to give to the peripheral family members for Christmas, do I really need to sit down and compose a letter? Can't I just mention my appreciation the next time I see her?

And even if I do write the thank you letter, there are annoying rules to follow. You can't say "Thank You" anywhere in the first sentence. Have you ever stared at a blank sheet of stationery, wondering what the hell you were going to put in that first sentence? I've been there man. "Dear Pat, Wow. Can you believe it's January already?" "Dear Mrs. Stevens, How are you? Today I found out that a potato is not, in fact, a vegetable." And so on. I think the point of the no "Thank You" in the opening remark rule is so that the letter doesn't appear to be some unwanted, mercenary task - even though that's exactly what it is. The letter has to at least pretend to be genuine, voluntary correspondence. Because, you know, every day around 4:00 I sit down and write letters.

A secondary problem with a full thank you letter is that this may not be a person I want to stimulate a real conversation with. Let's say you're really not that close to great uncle Fred and in fact you think he's a little creepy and weird. But, alarmingly, he sends you a shirt for Christmas. What do you do? Let's face it, you're screwed any which way. Don't send him a note, you're a jerk. Do send him a note, hello creepy great uncle Fred. It's lose lose.

When I was 13 I had a Bar Mitzvah and got over 100 presents. Oh, pooooor me, right? Well, first of all, you've never seen so many atlases in your whole life. I mean, I got a shitload of atlases. I can't figure out why. Maybe I came across as someone who desperately needed an atlas. Maybe I said things like "I can't wait till I'm old enough to drive to Germany." But whatever the reason, I got around 7 or 8 of them. Couldn't tell you where any of them are now though. But secondly, my parents sat me down and wouldn't let me get up until I had written at least the first 50 thank you notes, making sure I didn't make them all too similar (in case the relatives compared notes). Just try to imagine a 13 year old kid trying to come up with a seventh unique way to thank someone for a book of maps. It was pure hell.

So you think I'm just some ungrateful little snot? Fine! Spare me your little Dilbert calendar! Ooooooooohhhh, what else are you going to deprive me of? A shoe polish kit? A comical tie? An ice cream scoop with a sound effect on the handle? I'm soooooo scared!!! What will I do without these precious gifts?

I will thank you the next time I see you or talk to you, and if that's not good enough, then you're a mentally warped, insecure, preening little fussbudget.

Good day.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Mmmm... Potpourri.

Sharing My Food

This is a really touchy subject for me. I mean, sharing food is fine - and there are different ways to share food. In general, a family style meal like you'd get at a Chinese restuarant or a Buca di Beppo is okay. The problems only occur when, through the magic of sharing, I'm simply not allowed to eat the food I want to eat. There was a recent situation at a sushi dinner that illustrates it exactly. "Hey," says my friend, "Let's go out for sushi!". Great idea. The thought of two spicy tuna rolls dipped generously in soy sauce and wasabi sounded perfect. I'm on board. So a whole bunch of us go to my absolute favorite sushi restuarant: Sumo. Now, it's important for the story if you remember: I just want my two spicy tuna rolls.

But you see, we're all sharing. One of us becomes the sushi order-slip MC and starts writing down all our sushi requests. When it comes to me, I say "Put me down for two spicy tuna rolls." This is where the trouble begins.

MC: "No no, we already have a spicy tuna roll."

Me: "Yes, but I'd like to eat two spicy tuna rolls."

MC: "So you want to put another spicy tuna roll on there? Are you sure?"

Me: "Well actually, if you already have one, you'll have to add two more, because I want two spicy tuna rolls."

MC: "But the first one was for sharing. You can already have the first one."

Me: "Well, no... Look, I want two spicy tuna rolls. Order as many as you have to so that when the food comes, I get to eat two spicy tuna rolls."

MC: "You know we're ordering family style. I think two spicy tuna rolls is more than enough for the whole table."

Me: "No. I want two spicy tuna rolls. For me. I want two dedicated spicy tuna rolls for my own personal use."

MC: "So what, you're just going to eat your own private meal in the corner while the rest of us share?"

Me: "I don't mind sharing. I just want to be able to eat a quantity of spicy tuna roll equal to two. Let's just order three of them."

MC: "Why don't we order two, and then if you're still hungry, we'll order another round."

Me: "Why are you trying to stop me from eating two spicy tuna rolls? Why are you so motivated to block me from eating this food? I don't give a shit about your caterpillar roll, or your unagi, or your salmon roe. I just want two goddamn spicy tuna rolls, that I can eat myself. Put me down for two separate rolls or so help me I will dunk your head in a boiling pot of edamame."

Well no, I didn't say the last part. But you see where I'm coming from right? "Sharing" is fine if at the end of the day, I ate the food that I wanted to eat. But if sharing means I have to cut back on my spicy tuna roll so that we can round out the order with a Philadelphia roll that no one's going to eat anyway, well fuck that. What ended up happening is that we did order three spicy tuna rolls, but then I ended up in the confusing position of having to numerically keep track of how many I was eating, because everyone else was taking from the same plate. It was like "That was my tenth piece... no no, eleventh!"

The Politically Correct Bastardization of My Beloved Zebra Puzzle

There's this incredible, fiendishly challenging puzzle known as the Zebra Puzzle or the Einstein Puzzle. (Einstein supposedly authored it, but it wasn't published until the 60's) I first encountered it about ten years ago in college. It starts out fairly simply, but requires increasingly nuanced deductive and logical abilities to solve. There are few puzzles that have been more satisfying to crack than this one. I'll just cut and paste the puzzle here, in case anyone wants to try it.

  • There are five houses in a row. Each is a different color and is inhabited by men of different nationalities - with different pets, drinks and cigarettes.
  • The Englishman lives in the red house.
  • The Spaniard owns the dog.
  • Coffee is drunk in the green house.
  • The Ukrainian drinks tea.
  • The green house is immediately to the right of the ivory house.
  • The Old Gold smoker owns snails.
  • Kools are smoked in the yellow house.
  • Milk is drunk in the middle house.
  • The Norwegian lives in the first house.
  • The man who smokes Chesterfields lives in the house next to the man with the fox.
  • Kools are smoked in the house next to the house where the horse is kept.
  • The Lucky Strike smoker drinks orange juice.
  • The Japanese smokes Parliaments.
  • The Norwegian lives next to the blue house.
  • Now who drinks water? And who owns the zebra?

    The puzzle is often used as a educational tool, and this of course is where the hippies step in and make me furious. You see, kids can't be permitted to see this. No no no. People smoking cigarettes? Houses inhabited by men? People drinking coffee? A Japanese man being called A Japanese? Where are the positive messages about women in the workplace? Where's the affirmative imagery of senior citizens maintaining active lifestyles? Where are the necessary lessons about the handicapped meeting all of life's challenges? Does the puzzle at least offer a cautionary reminder about our historical treatment of Native Americans? Sadly, the zebra puzzle lacks any of these things. But all that has changed, thanks to our nation's educators. Now the zebra puzzle can teach us all something about cross-cultural understanding and recognizing the hidden potential in every human heart. Let's look at a few of the new versions, shall we?

    (Becuase in case you didn't know, a woman really can become an engineer.)

    (The orange juice drinker hang-glides? Get outta town!)

    (The "Japanese person" "grows gardenias.")

    You pussies. The "Japanese person" doesn't grow gardenias. He smokes Parliaments. He will always smoke Parliaments. You know who says so? ALBERT EINSTEIN says so. Not Andrew Dice Clay. Einstein. You don't just take Einstein's zebra puzzle and substitute flowers and career women wherever you want. The Japanese smokes Parliaments!

    (And just as a side note: Frenchman = fine, Englishman = fine, Chinaman = offensive. Someone want to explain that to me?)

    These Widescreen TVs

    I mentioned this over a year ago in one of the annoyance lists, but since then the problem has just gotten worse and worse. It's out of control now. People buy these widesreen TVs. They're really big and expensive. Unless they're watching one of those very few channels that broadcasts in widescreen (those HDTV channels) they're getting a normal, square TV, 4:3 ratio picture on their screen.

    So what the widescreen TV does is either blow up the image and crop it on the top and bottom, or it stretches the image horizontally to fit the whole screen. a newer method I've seen recently is even uglier: the middle slice of the screen shows a non-distorted picture, and the edges of the screen do a superstretch to compensate. It creates a fishbowl effect where if the camera moves around, the stuff in the middle of the TV pans at a normal speed - while the image on the edges whips around really fast. It looks like absolute butt.

    Here's the message that the opulent, luxury, forward-looking TV crowd needs to hear: If you truly claim to care about resolution and fidelity and clarity and crispness, and S video and all of that bullshit, then you do realize that the crappy distortions you put up with as your TV performs sleight of hand to take a square broadcast and fill the whole screen - you do realize that the distortions completely, utterly, entirely outweigh any benefits you get from improved picture quality?

    You do know that right?

    It's like getting the crispest, clearest television image on earth, but having to view it through a fun house mirror. The one alternative you have (with some brands) is to choose to view the broadcast in 4:3 as it was intended, with vertical black bars on the side of your TV. But as it's been pointed out to me - if you do that for an extended period of time, the black bars will burn the screen. So you're really pretty much just screwed.

    Saturday, February 04, 2006

    Women That Are Just a Little Too Into the Karaoke

    I've kept a polite silence on this for a long time, but just last week I went out for some Karaoke with friends from work and now I think I've had enough.

    There was a moment, in childhood, when I was at a wedding and made a startling realization. The wedding isn't about the couple. It's not about their love, or their future. Weddings are about the bride. And I was always kind of disgusted at that. The wedding is ostensibly about two people and the connection they're forging, but the facade is thin. It's really just the bride and how beautiful she looks and how this is her big day, and well, the groom is her cute little accessory.

    Karaoke is the junior varsity version of this. It's supposedly about getting drunk and having a great time and letting loose, etc. etc. But no. That's not really what it's about, is it. It's about these women (and we know who they are) fulfilling some kind of deep-seated, quasi-sexual fantasy where they're the big pop star.

    Now let me be clear on one point. I'm not saying these women suck at singing. That's not it at all. I would describe them as good. Competent. Satisfactory. Perfectly adequate. A solid B+. You gotta figure all that hairdryer-as-microphone practice paid off. So no, they don't suck. But are they wildly talented, diamond-in-the-rough gifted singers? Hellllllllll no.

    And that's exactly what they think they are. Every single one of these women is under the full impression that they're unparalleled and peerless. They truly believe it. There's no pretense there. They think they're God's gift.

    You can see this narcissism on display all night at the karaoke bar. Women sit at tables together. They gossip together - they go to the bathroom together. But as soon as that karaoke songbook gets passed around, there's no more camaraderie. Notice how they don't share the book. They study it carefully, alone... strategizing. Planning out about 4 songs. The first one will be a tour de force ballad, stunning everyone with their full vocal range. The second one will be lighter and more fun - cause she's versatile after all. The third one will be a duet or trio so she can pull some friends onstage. After all, she's not vain - she's willing to sing with others.

    This all gets planned out like Rommel moving his tanks around in Morocco. Then after she hands the list to the DJ it's back to the socializing until yes! It's showtime! Notice how the eyes glaze over and the smile plays across the face. Is it my turn? Right now? Already! Well shucks!

    It's my guess - and this is just conjecture - it's my guess that the basis of their confidence in their singing talent is their ability to hit the high note. Cause all these songs they choose have the one high note toward the end. And believe me, they can hit that high note. I feel like when the music starts, every one of them is thinking "They don't think I can hit the high note. Well they're about to find out I can."

    On behalf of everyone in the karaoke audience, let me say the following: We know that you can hit the high note. In fact in any one of these interchangeable slow ballads where a man done you wrong but now you're standing on two feet - you can hit the high note. We will further concede that you can sustain the high note at an impressively loud volume. Even more than that - you can hit the high note, sustain it, and then relapse it into vibrato whenever you feel the moment is right. There. We acknowledge it. Now please finish the song because your assertive, 0n-key, loud twang of a voice is fatiguing, and you're standing too close to the mike.

    I just don't like involuntarily being made a part of someone's personal fantasy. Cause look at them up there. They aren't with us, they're in their own little world. They truly think they're dazzling us with their secret talent. And if you hang out with the same people enough, you'll see the same women sing karaoke a dozen times. And each time, it's the same fantasy - "They don't think I can sing. Well they're about to find out how wrong they are." Give it a rest, karaoke women. Take it down a notch.

    Still haven't been paid back by that friend, by the way.

    Wednesday, February 01, 2006

    Lending Money to Friends

    Let's set the record straight on this one. Lending money to friends is a no win situation. It's an arrangement that cannot possibly work out well. In the last 5 years, I've lent what I consider a serious amount of money (say, over $500) to friends on about 6 occasions. I've observed two broad results: 1) That the % of the time I get paid back promptly and at the prearranged time is exactly 0.00%, and 2) that somehow, perversely, I've gotten this reputation as some stingy tightwad who cracks the whip on his friends for every last cent.

    Addressing the second point first. I stepped up. I opened my wallet and lent out hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars to friends in need. Where the hell were the rest of you? I have never denied anyone a personal loan, ever - except when they have a history of burning me on loans in the past. I once drained my checking account to the last $100 so that a friend could fix his car, with only the friend's word as collateral. And then, months later, when I corner the guy and insist on being paid back - now I'm a tightwad. Now I'm an asshole.

    That's the strange result of my generosity. Somehow, it makes me the asshole. I've observed this a dozen times. All I want is to be paid back at the time we agreed on - and by insisting, suddenly I'm Satan himself. And the attitude I get from the lendee's. How dare I ask for my money back. Don't I know they're going through a rough time? They slink away from me. They avoid me. When I confront them they get defensive and accusatory.

    A typical scenario is this one: The date of repayment has been pushed back a second time. The new repayment day is approaching. Gingerly, and with extreme sensitivity, I broach the subject with the lendee. "Hey bro. Just wanted to ask. Is everything still cool for giving me $200 on this payday?" And the reply: "Dude - how am I supposed to pay you back this week? They're going to shut off my water in two days if I don't make a payment. We need to wait two more pay periods."

    So many things fly through my head when this happen. What's the point of sitting down and commiting to a repayment schedule if you can't anticipate something like "the water bill". "Oh no, the water bill! Who could have seen that coming! Damn you water company and your surprise bills out of nowhere! How can we possibly plan and budget our lives when at any time - say once a month - you hit us with a bill!" Secondly, if you're going to miss a payment, shouldn't you be volunteering that information to me? Shouldn't you find me, get me up to date on the situation, a propose a new repayment schedule out of your own initiative? Why is it up to me to hound you? And the attitude of frustration and annoyance with my gentle requests to have my money back? WTF?

    I BAILED YOUR ASS OUT. The only attitude I should ever see from you is gratitude. Every conversation should start with profuse thanks. My very appearance should elicit a warm smile and a hearty hello. And if you presented me with a small gift - say a box of homemade pecan sandies in that white crinkly paper - well that would be entirely appropriate.

    My friends don't deliberately set out to burn me. None of them ever thinks "Hah, that's the last he'll see of his money. I'll never pay him back!" That's not how it works. The reason they burn me is simple: shit comes up. Shit will always come up. Shit cannot fail to come up. Any loan arrangement between friends has to be predicated on the idea of a certain amount of shit coming up, and must deliberately take that into account. What happens is that when the shit comes up (Oh no, the water bill! Damn you cruel fate!) paying back the generous friend becomes the last priority on the list. The water company can shut off your water. The repo man can come take back the car. What the fuck can I do? Basically all I can do is gingerly and gently prod you, falling over myself with politeness and sensitivity, as you swat me away like some enormous, Jewish horsefly.

    So I should just stop giving anybody a loan, is what you're saying? I should stop being naive? Stop giving money to degenerates. Well, I don't know. I can't do that. It's ingrained in me to help a friend in need who sincerely and honorably asks for my help. Money in the bank is nothing but a tool to make things happen. Helping a friend in need is what money is for. I can't say no. Then at least I should have some sort of contract drawn up, right? Make them sign something? Get their signature? Well, that's smart advice. But it leads you to a dilemma a bit like asking your fiance for a pre-nup. You can't ask your fiance for a pre-nup. And similarly, it's very difficult to ask your friend for a document that will hold up in court, should you ever have to sue them.

    And make no mistake. I will sue you. I will spend $2000 to get back $500. Why, you ask? It's a bit like this. You know all that worthless shit you buy all the time? Rims? Designer clothes? Down payments on cars you don't need? Huge televisions that don't even make sense given the size of the room? Why do you buy all that worthless shit? Because it makes you happy, right? Well you know what makes me happy? Spending thousands of dollars to show you what happens when you burn me on a loan. That's what makes me happy. Having your paycheck garnished for a year and a half so that every week you can be reminded what happens when you burn me. That's what makes me happy.

    I make the same $12 an hour that you do. I open my wallet and give you weeks worth of pay so you can get your life back on track. I do it because you ask me, and ask for nothing but your word in return. Then you burn me. Not once or sometimes, but every single time. And when I ask for the cash, I'm an asshole.

    It's a raw deal, is what I'm saying.