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Advice to People Who Own Cafes: Do Not Be Creepy

In Crazy People, Food, Social Conventions on February 28, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Earlier today I had a bad cafe experience. Bad to the point that I will almost certainly never walk into the given establishment again. I had an appointment in SE Portland this afternoon and was biking down SE 52nd, an area that I am unfamiliar with. I noticed that I had some time to kill, and thought that I would spend perhaps half an hour in a coffee shop, doing coffee shop things. Namely, sipping coffee and reading news. That was all I wanted. A nice place with coffee and wi-fi. This, I thought, was a simple and straightforward thing to ask for. I walked into the first place I saw, an establishment that shall remain unnamed but did advertise as a cafe on its exterior signage.

A man who was certainly past middle age but definitely not elderly greeted me. “Hello!” he said. I looked around for something like a point of sale, bar, counter, or other place where orders could be transacted. There was none. Various refrigerated display cases abounded, but most things weren’t labeled.

“Hungry?” said the man. I wasn’t really.

“Can I get a cup of coffee?”

“Sure! You want something else? We got lots of food.”


“We got meatloaf!”

At this point I really should have held my ground and just stuck with the coffee. However, perhaps because it was sort of close to lunch, my resolution broke and I asked if they had any sandwiches. “Sure,” said the guy, “I can make you a sandwich.” He went on to extol the virtues of their offerings, declaring it to be the “best food in Portland.” I know he did not mean it literally. He merely meant to say “our food is good.” However, I found the remark to be rather naive and kind of arrogant.

The man eventually gave me a ham sandwich the size of my head. I stared at it, and wondered how the hell I’d been so irresolute to order something I didn’t actually want. I began to eat the sandwich. I cursed my lack of steadfastness, and resigned myself to lunch consumption. (To be fair, it was a very good sandwich, though by no means among the best in Portland.)

Then, things got weird. The sandwich guy, instead of walking away and letting me eat the sandwich, sip coffee, and read news in peace, sat down at my table.

“So,” said the man, “what’s your name?”

I was kind of stunned. Suddenly, I was eating a lunch I didn’t really want and had a completely unsolicited dining partner. Over the course of my sandwich-consumption, the man asked me what my job was, what part of town I lived in, what it was like being a bicyclist, and sundry follow-up questions. He also asked me if I wanted to play chess. At the end of it he said “You come back now!” and I left. It was like he’d tried to adopt me as his new BFF, just because I’d walked into his place

I know that he was trying to be friendly. However, it was still very disconcerting. I don’t think that things like my name and profession are particularly private, (this website, after all, has my name on it) but the man earlier today violated a few unspoken rules about what happens in a place like a cafe, bar, or restaurant. To wit:

Don’t aggressively upsell customers. Upselling (“would you like fries with that?”) is fine.  Aggressively upselling, though, is alienating. While it did work in this instance (I bought a sandwich) can harm you overall with repeat business. For instance, I don’t want to go back- I didn’t like being strongarmed into sandwich-acquisition.

Respect the personal bubble. Given that I work as a tour guide, I’m pretty much extroverted and friendly on a professional basis. I enjoy it, but it means that I get socially drained on a fairly frequently, and often need to recharge with a bit of solitude and noninteraction. I was on my way to an activity that was going to be somewhat socially taxing, so I wanted to take some time to collect myself before having to activate the social subroutines. Coffee shops are usually a great place to do this- you can chill out in a nifty space while sipping a tasty beverage. The man in question, though, did not respect my social cues- I was hunched over my phone, reading news, and not interacting with my environment. Most people can detect when a person is in their own headspace, and respect it. This guy didn’t, and it felt highly weird and kind of inappropriately squicky.

Personal questions, out of the proper context, are weird. This is the big one. In the context of ordering food and drink small-talk, banter, and the like is all fine. While tour-guiding, I banter incessantly with people (“Where are you from” works as fantastic conversation fuel, as the vast majority of people I see are tourists) and if a barista, bartender or other service person is completely silent, then that comes across as cold. However, buying something does not mean that a given service person should suddenly quiz you about who you are, your occupation, your proclivities, or what your deal is. (This goes both ways, too. Never hit on your barista. It’s weird.)

If a customer is a regular, that’s probably another matter. I don’t mind having actual conversations with my local bartender because I actually know who he is, see him all the time, and have an established thing going. Chatting with regulars is a pretty organic and nice thing to do, because in that instance the relationship is something that has a fair amount of bedrock and social interaction is actually earned. What happened to me this afternoon, though, was just kind of creepy and space-violating.

So, yeah. Service people: don’t interrogate your customers. I’m not your new special friend. Sometimes, all I want is coffee. Go away and let me read the news.

A Ritual

In Relationships, Social Conventions on April 9, 2010 at 11:28 am

There is a ritual to it.

Last night at I was over at some friends’ house, drinking a rather delicious vodka cocktail that was going to my head. We talked about, refreshingly, trivial things. Books mostly. I had some leftover pizza, and went home where I couldn’t sleep. I opened a bottle of wine and began clicking away at intellectually undemanding websites, watching humorous videos and looking at amusingly captioned pictures of cats and other animals. For some reason, I started listening to Prince, an artist whom I’ve always admired more than i enjoyed. It seemed like a good idea at the time, though.

Eventually, after consuming the entirety of a bottle of wine, after I couldn’t stay awake any longer, I went to sleep. I’d made my bed and cleaned my room because she was coming over, and seeing that tidiness just before sleep was somewhat painful. I went to sleep, woke up, and slept again. I woke up and read for some time, despite being tired.

In a certain way, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had some wonderful relationships, and none of them have ended particularly badly. I have only, once, yelled at a girlfriend. I have never had a relationship end with a fight or any any kind of acrimony. My relationships have ended as well as anyone can hope for, with a minimum of drama, and a certain degree of amicability. For that, I think I’m truly fortunate.

Nevertheless, there is a certain amount of ritual wallowing that goes on. Even as I’m sitting here, somewhat unkempt and watching episodes of Lost on Hulu, I’m conscious of the fact that I’m indulging in a pattern. Sad music, alcohol, consoling words from friends. I know it’s a ritual, a thing that plays out again and again. What I think is fascinating is that it remains meaningful.

The exasperation of the post-breakup, the behavior and the indulgences, the conversations are all iterated again and again. There is always comfort and mucking about in negativity, always a little bit of a wallow. Nevertheless, despite the predictable nature of it, it remains necessary. How fascinating, I think, that I need to do what I know is predictable. I need to seek comfort from predictable places.

Ritual is not necessarily empty, and not necessarily codified. My hood is over my head, and I’m bent over my computer, and not planning on going anywhere anytime soon. Any fiction writer could have written my actions, and anyone astute in the ways of behavior could have predicted them. Nonetheless, in my subjective perspective, this time of post-breakup wallowing, this ritual retains its importance.

A Common Dilemma

In Social Conventions on March 12, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Let’s say that you’re walking down the street. Let’s say it’s mostly unpopulated, and you can see, about a block in front of you, a person walking in your direction. Very soon, you and that person will pass each other.

What do you do? Do you give them a short “hello/good morning/good evening” (etc.) or do you simply walk by in silence?

I have no idea what the right answer is.

On one hand, you want to say “hi.” That’s the nice, basically pro-social thing to do. You acknowledge them, they acknowledge you, if only for a passing moment.

On the other hand, a greeting can be sort of presumptive. They (or for that matter, you) might be doing a rather important bit of thinking, and who are you to interrupt them? They might be enjoying their walk, enjoying their time without people, and why the hell should you presume to interrupt their perfectly peaceful headspace with a meaningless and perfunctory greeting?

I honestly don’t know what the preferred course of action in this case is. Part of me wants to err on the side of being pro-social and say “hi,” but I can’t do an adequate job of convincing myself that that’s actually the right choice.

The larger issue, though, is that part of me wants to live in a world where it’s okay to strike up conversations in public by saying, “Hello, sir! What a fantastic hat you have on today!” or something to that effect. However, my recent experiences with people talking to me in public have been, at best, annoying. A while ago a woman on public transit saw that I was reading and asked me “How’s your book?” I wanted come back with a rejoinder like “More interesting than you,” but thought the better of it. I was also in line for a restroom recently, and a man said something like “This sure is a long line!” I couldn’t conjure up a good response to such an asinine unsolicited comment.

Those experiences notwithstanding, though, I’m not a misanthrope and, when it comes to people, generally like them. However, social norms tend to be in favor of introversion, and while that’s nice if one wants to read in peace, I often wonder how many interactions and potentially edifying social experiences we miss out on.

In Praise of Coffee Shops

In Portland, Social Conventions, Writing on October 8, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Working at home is possible, but it takes discipline. One must focus intensely while the objects of leisure are right there. I’ve been working on a manuscript for a while, but to write or edit at home, I have to ignore the Internet, video games, my roommates, and my books. I have to shut out people who may be over, or other stimuli that seems to show up at my house on a fairly frequent basis. Besides, this is my home. This is where I relax and do fun things, the place where I sleep, read novels, and watch movies. I associate it with idleness and off-time.

Fortunately, there are coffee shops.

I’m convinced that coffee is not really the primary product of most coffee shops. Coffee is something I adore, and if I don’t have either it or tea I usually am in for at least a noticeable headache later in the day. However, the primary product of coffee shops is really a place to sit. A place, outside of your house, to read, socialize, or work. I’ve found them an ideal place to focus on my manuscript about Japan. I finally printed out the material I have so far (224 pages, single spaced) and have been editing it for the past week and a half.

I sit there for an indeterminate amount of time, imbibing my favorite stimulant, and spilling red ink. Without fail, there is someone else with a laptop or a notepad or some other such portable object whom I often imagine working away on a similarly creative endeavor. I like the simple presence of others, and I like the atmosphere and smell, the piles of alternative weeklies in the corner, and the paintings on the walls with price tags like footnotes. Oftentimes, there’s some kind of music playing, usually jazz or some obscure imported genre that is simultaneously interesting and easy to ignore. I like that, too, a low-level white noise that eases attention to detail.

I’ve been staggering which ones I go to, and seeking out new coffee shops. Yesterday, I found a new one in Southeast, in the Hawthorne District, a converted house filled with paintings. The owner had dragged in an old-style school desk which I found too amusing not to sit at. When I went in, there was a guy on the porch reading a newspaper. He was there when I left, too. Across from me a guy with extremely long hair and hemispherical earphones sat at a laptop for the entire time I was there. A girl reading what looked to be a gigantic novel said “thanks” to the counter guy as she left, and he said “see you tomorrow!”

Not home, not an office, but another node or point of contact, another place on the map that can be used as “base,” a resting zone. If all coffee shops had was coffee, I wouldn’t go to them nearly as often, wouldn’t drink nearly as much of the stuff. I go there for the state of mind, the focus, go there to be outside and at rest at the same time.

In Which I Go to Burning Man

In Burning Man, Social Conventions, Travel on September 9, 2009 at 7:42 pm

The Playa glowed like a flattened, Jesus-free Christmas tree on fire. The cracked desert was filled with noise and shining movement, fanciful creations of freaks and artists, the spitting and exploding light of a dance stage lit with flamethrowers. Despite my fatigue from the day’s drive from Eugene, I couldn’t help but be impressed with how otherworldly it was. The landscape, the lit-upedness of it all, was just neat.

I approached Burning Man with a mix of expectations. On one hand, I was very excited about going to what is essentially one of the biggest parties in the world, a vast, odd collection of all things awesome. What’s more, I was going with Seph and his very cool girlfriend L. Nifty things are always best shared.

On the other hand, my unquenchable skepticism kept acting up, bristling with reflexive spurts of ire at the hippie ethos that seems to float around the thing. (For instance, don’t let anyone ever tell you that Burning Man is ecologically friendly…) On another, third, hand I didn’t know what to expect. I would just check it out, see what was up.

Not that that’s really an option. Everything I’d read about Burning Man emphasized the ideal of complete participation, of having “no spectators.” Not in the sense that all of the art and performances were interactive, but everyone had to do something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something huge or complicated, but walking around in just jeans and a t-shirt and merely looking at things is not in the spirit of BM. Every single person there is expected to participate in some way, get their freak on, act a bit strange, get into the mindset.

This, I found, is what makes Burning Man so neat. It’s not merely the scale of the event that’s mind-blowing. It’s not the fact that it’s especially large or in such a harsh climate, though that is a bit part of its unique appeal. The thing that makes Burning Man especially incredible is that it is a temporary setting in which different sort of social norms apply. It’s a big swathe of unstructured playtime wherein you can mess with just about everyone and everything there. For instance:

I was walking about on the Playa (that is, the dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert on which Burning Man is held) alone one day, when all of a sudden I saw a giant slide. It was perhaps sixty feet high and twenty wide, and at any one time perhaps thirty people were either climbing up or going down the thing. At its foot were a collection of large foam blocks to break the fall of the sliders, and several people at the bottom were also chucking them at people who were going down. Of course, I wanted to slide down the thing, but I wondered: Who was in charge? Was there a line? Had a group already claimed the slide, and would I be intruding by climbing onto it? What was the etiquette and protocol? I shook of those thoughts, though, and realized that the protocol was basically “do what thou wilt,” climbed onto the thing, and slid down while going “woo!”

At the foot of the slide a rather large red bus was parked, blasting dance music. The driver was a big butch lesbian dressed as a Catholic priest, and a mostly naked woman lounged on the hood of the vehicle, writhing to the music. Several people were dancing on the bus’ two levels, and I wondered again “what is the protocol for getting on?” And again, I had to remind myself that it was socially acceptable to just climb on it and start dancing.

Now, it may sound like I was overthinking things in those last two examples, but such thoughts and hesitations are valid. How many times have you asked yourself “Ok, how does this work?” or “What do I have to do to get X?” We go through those thoughts all of the time in our daily lives because we want to live in a socially acceptable manner, do things in a socially acceptable way. In general we want to not be (at the least) embarrassed or (at the worst) a total sociopath. Every single day we think “What rules, spoken or unspoken, must I abide by?”

At Burning Man, several of them just aren’t there, and that is simultaneously really odd and a lot of fun. I’ve seen shiny, loud and weird before. Saturday nights in Shibuya and Sundays in Yoyogi Park provided for plenty of that. The upheaval and substitution of social conventions, though, that was the real show. There are almost no monetary transactions in Black Rock City (the temporary community where Burning Man takes place), and that changes the environment fairly dramatically. Two guys came by our camp and just gave us screwdrivers (the drink) no questions asked. A complete stranger gave me a beer. I was given a few memorial trinkets, and obliged several people who asked for hugs. It was awesome. Burning Man is otherworldly in the sense that it is a spectacle, yes, but it is also somewhere where lots of everyday assumptions don’t apply.

Because a complete narrative of what we did there would be tiresome and probably inaccurate, I’ll limit myself to some bullet points of things that I thought were awesome.


Every year a group calling themselves Death Guild reconstructs a Mad Max-style Thunderdome at Burning Man. Just like in the movie, people climb up on the sides of the geodesic dome and shout at the two combatants who are strapped into bouncing harnesses. At Burning Man, the fighters used padded weapons, so unfortunately there as no resorting to chainsaws or spiked hammers. It was all excellent nonetheless, though, particularly in that the goth atmosphere served as an antidote to the hippie love fest that was going on elsewhere. Peace, love, forgiveness, self-expression and all that shit are all well and good, but damn it was nice to see some action. Girls in black corsets, grinding, thrashing guitars, huge shouting dudes bringing the hurt on each other. That was fun. Hippie niceness is okay, but what really got me going was the awesome adrenaline rush of regulated violence.

As much as it seemed to contrast, though, nothing going on at Thunderdome was really “against” the spirit of Burning Man. The goths and metal fans were as free as anyone else to show off what they had, regardless. The hippie ethos is very dominant, but not at all mandatory, and those who “transgressed” it were as welcome as anyone else.

There was also roller derby, which was also awesome and combat-filled.

-The Rocket!

A large, shiny Buck Rogers-style rocketship jutted up from the Playa, and via a gantry one could go inside and take a look around. The interior was a collection of space-age doodads, shiny buttons, comical alien specimens, blinking lights and screens, and a swiveling captain’s chair at the very top. The artists who’d made the rocket said to nearly everyone there that it would be taking off on Friday night.

“Really?” was the inevitable reply, “you’re going to launch this thing?”

“Oh yes,” they said with an entirely straight face, “we have a plasma engine expect to get it a good two or three feet off the ground.” I’ve got to give them credit- they got everyone talking about their installation, and what they were going to do with it. Lots of people wondered if they were serious about it all or not, and whether that thing was going to rise at all. There was no way that they could actually generate enough thrust. Costs alone would have gotten in the way. I thought for a moment that they might have buried a pneumatic elevator underneath it, but that, too, would have been a huge undertaking.

The day before the launch we were sitting around our camp doing nothing in particular when one of our neighbors, an Australian, started talking to us and the subject of the rocket came up.

“You know they’re going to launch it on Friday, right?” he said.

“Well, that’s what they say,” one of us replied.

“Yeah, well. They got this plasma engine in it. You know what plasma engines do, right? They give the finger to technology, that’s what. That’s what they’re all about. They’re going to fuck every bit of technology here. Watch out for your credit cards. They’re not going to work after that. The plasma, you know- it fucks technology. That’s why all of those Chinook helicopters have been circling around. The military is very interested in what’s going on here, all these Silicon Valley types building weird shit out in the desert. You watch. They’re going to launch that thing.”

(I’d assumed that the Chinooks were circling mainly because we were on protected federal land.)

“It has lots of vents in the side,” I said, “I think they’re just going to do a pyrotechnics thing.”

“Nah. It’s going to launch. You’ll see.”

Listening to this guy, I dearly hoped that he was being extraordinarily sarcastic and dry, though I don’t think that he was. It was my least favorite part of Burning Man, all of the people who believe in absurd things like government conspiracies or auras. The rocket, it turned out, did not really “launch” and didn’t fuck all of the technology in the area (my cards work just fine). The rockteers who built it made it the center of a sizable fireworks display, albeit one that I wasn’t able to catch for a variety of reasons. Sure, I only beat out a crazy conspiracy loony, but it still feels good to be right.

-Naked People!

While there were a few attractive naked people about (no, not me- I enjoyed dressing oddly) the vast majority of them were older men. I was a bit perplexed by this at first. Promises of public nudity bring with them adolescent male ideas of firm, nubile, unclad women flitting about the atmosphere clothed only in the admiration of my appreciative eyes.

Okay, I know better than that. But still…

While individuals fitting that idealized description did indeed exist, most of the nudity on display was in the form or rather unappealing, aging, graying man-butt. Talking with Joseph about this, it soon became utterly logical as to why that would be the case. Women are probably less likely to doff all of their clothing than men, what with apprehensions regarding sexual harassment and all. What’s more, most young people (I believe) don’t view nudity as an ideological thing at all. I’ve never met anyone my age who thinks that they’re making some sort of political or social point by taking their clothes off. Those kind of ideals belong to an older generation. When viewed in that light, it’s entirely sensible as to why old, gray dude-balls were more likely to be seen than perky, young lady-butt.


There were two sizable dance clubs at Burning Man, and several small ones. (One of the smaller ones insisted on recitation of poetry before dispensing booze, which was fun.) The setups were amazing, all the more because looking at the sound systems, lasers, projectors, props, etc., I was very cognizant that someone carted all of that stuff into the desert, and would be carting it out pretty soon. One of the large ones, aptly named Opulent Temple, featured no small amount of fire dancers performing amidst the appreciative crowd and beneath of blanket of pulsating lasers. One of the fire dancers actually caught himself on fire, which was good for a laugh. Don’t worry. He was alright. I hope.

These clubs were not provided by the Burning Man organization. Like everything else, they were put together by participants. They obviously took a staggering amount of time and money to put together, and I wondered what the incentives were for the coordinators. The DJs, I imagined, could gain a fair amount of notoriety by playing at Burning Man, and whoever bankrolled this was in for a fair amount of return with regards to reputation and social capital. But, really, this was it. This was the biggest party in the world. If you’re going to run a dance club, if you like electronic music, this was the place to be. I could see some very dedicated rich people doing this sheerly for fun, purely because no party in any city was going to be better than this.

-The Temple

Every year at Burning Man there are two recurring large-scale art installations, both of which are burned at the end of the event. One, of course, is the Man himself. The other is the Temple, whose structure changes every year.

For a temporary structure, it was impressive, a three story high building that resembled a lotus, each panel cut in patterns that reminded me of classical Islamic art. The timbers themselves were strewn with markings, people’s written messages to lost loved ones or other such personal things, all of which would go up in flames on Sunday night. In all honesty, I was surprised at how sincere they all were. My first reaction on seeing all of the heartfelt personal messages was to write something clever, something cutting or sarcastic that would wither the hippie sentiment. Unexpectedly, though, that I couldn’t find any sarcasm or wit written on the timbers. I was surprised as well, when I actually wrote something sincere on the Temple the day before it burned. I suppose it’s easy to write something honest and heartfelt, to get it out of you, when you know that it will be immolated in the near future. It’s like confessing to a stranger, shouting to an empty room, or tearing up one’s nocturnal poetry. Not that I’ve ever done any of those things. Goodness, no…

-The Burn

Saturday night was the big event, the night that the Man would finally go up into flames. There was a brief moment of doubt, though, because of a considerable dust storm. The winds had been calm for most of the week, but that night we could hardly see twenty feet ahead of us. Tents whipped about and the whole of the Playa seemed to be a swirling mass of white and darkness. We hunkered down in a friend’s camp, set up like a bar. I had some rum, and wondered if the storm would subside at all.

It did, though, and nicely. Just before ten we made our way out onto the Playa and saw nearly the whole of Black Rock City’s population focused upon one point. The art cars were all stopped in a giant bright circle around the Man, pumping music and colored lights into the now-calm desert night. Fire dancers gyrated and gamboled in front of the gigantic wooden effigy and all about us people screamed and buzzed with an undefined enthusiasm.

Preceding the burn itself was a fireworks display made all the better by the thumping music and ambient light. People were jumping around in costumes just as they had been earlier in the week, but now there was a sense of communal anticipation and excitement. The fireworks popped, and suddenly a massive explosion of flame flung itself upwards from beneath the Man. The effigy and all of the wood around him had been licked by flames and heat, and soon the Man himself was on fire.

And he took a damn long time to burn. According to one of my campmates, who’d been to Burning Man the year before, the Man last year took only a little while to burn and fall. This time, though, he and all of the wood around him were on fire for a good half hour before everything collapsed. I was expecting a sort of final fireball or explosion, but it never really came. Instead, the Man and everything around him smoldered in the fashion of a gigantic communal campfire, falling only after taking its sweet time to burn.

Hours later, I rode a bike out to the site of the Man by myself, and walked about amidst the embers. There were people there, sitting down in a heat that I couldn’t tolerate for long, and no one was really talking. One guy did pound on a drum arhythmically, and other people sat off to the side, warming themselves against the huge, orange coals.

The fact that the Man (and the Temple) are both burned, I think, is rather essential to their appreciation. With both structures, I would have been not nearly as impressed with either of them had I not known that they’d been temporary. The fact that a group of artists and engineers can build something that they know will only be appreciated within a given time period is something that I find rather inspirational, a word that I use very sparingly.

Things are not meaningful because they are endless or immutable. They’re not significant because they’ll always be there. Things, people, jobs, relationships, works of art, conversations, whatever can be immensely important and wonderful even if they only last a couple of days. Or hours. The Man, the Temple, and indeed all of Black Rock City are gone now, and that doesn’t invalidate, at all, the temporary experience that they imparted on me or anyone else who was there. If anything the brevity makes me appreciate them all the more.

I’m back now, in Portland. The other day while I was on my bike I saw a pair of goth kids, leaning against a wall, smoking and surrounded by less radical Portlanders. Not an unusual sight. I was immediately reminded of Death Guild and their huge camp and Thunderdome setup, at home in an environment that was unconditionally accepting of whatever they thought was awesome, whatever, on some level worked. I like it that those sort of environments exist. As cynical as I might act about hippie ideals, it was absolutely spectacular being in an environment that unlimited, that unrestrained and free. If I can ever attend again (no idea if that will happen) I know that I’ll be even more into it. I’ll be bringing an art project, or at least a really nifty outfit or camp, with me. Something definitively mine, something that I can throw into that brilliant and beautiful insanity on the Playa.


In Language, Social Conventions on July 31, 2009 at 7:48 am

My students have a new favorite word: Awesome. I didn’t teach it to them, and I don’t know how they learned it, but almost every time they utter it, it’s with a sort of exuberance and emphasis. They are not saying “awesome,” they are saying “Awesome!” you can hear it, the capital letter and the exclamation mark, and I’m pleased with their use of American slang.

I’ve noticed that the word “awesome” (or rather, “Awesome!”) has come into a particular kind of popularity. I hear it all the time, appended to all manner of things, and I like how it’s being used. Granted, I do like the old meaning, as in something that fills you with awe. (As in, “The awesome power of the atomic bomb utterly leveled Bikini Atoll.”) But, as a word, it seems to be succeeding because it fills a niche, specifically in that it describes good, admirable and laudable things that are worthy of note, but not exactly “cool.” There is a certain amount of overlap, and I do use the words interchangeably, but I do think that there is a subtle difference in connotation between “Awesome” and “Cool.”

Awesome is different from Cool. Related, maybe, but different. Cool listens to Jazz and dresses impeccably, even when wearing jeans. Cool can mix the best martini you ever had. Cool is James Bond and James Dean at the same time, and hangs out at the Playboy Mansion. Cool can dance. It can tango, breakdance, and salsa. Everyone would get in bed with Cool in a heartbeat. Then Cool won’t call you, but it was all worth it. Cool can treat you like shit, and you’ll still come crawling back. You’ll crawl back on your knees for cool.

Jimi Hendrix was Cool. Frank Sinatra and Mick Jagger were Cool. Marilyn Monroe and Billie Holiday were Cool, and in their day Prince and Madonna were Cool. Bruce Springsteen remains Cool, as does Tom Waits, in a certain way. Beautiful people are Cool. Beautiful, sexy and aloof is Cool.

Awesome, though, is a very different animal. Awesome, for one thing, is much smarter than Cool, and much more exuberant. Awesome does weird shit, like making homemade flamethrowers. Awesome can’t dance, but dances anyway, and pulls it off. Awesome plays obscure musical instruments, speaks weird languages, wins at Trivial Pursuit, and dresses up splendidly and hilariously for Rocky Horror. Awesome sings the fuck out of karaoke and wins spelling bees. Awesome knows all about irony, and makes use of it on occasion, and can juggle and hang glide.

Batman is awesome. The Talking Heads and Devo were Awesome, as was Hunter S. Thompson. XKCD and Simon Pegg are awesome, and so were Richard Fenyman and Einstein. Geeks, nerds and science fiction are Awesome, and so was Lester Bangs. The best concerts I’ve ever been to were the Awesome ones. I saw Van Halen in high school, and they tried to be Cool. It was… okay. I saw Amanda Palmer in a park, and she was Awesome. More worth my time, definitely.

Being cool is exhausting. Trying to be stylish, sexy, or have that ineffable “it” just seems like a lot of work. I like cool, yes, wish I was cool, sometimes, and want to sleep with cool almost always. But I’m not cool. Neither are you. You’re not cool. Admit it.

Awesomeness, however, is more attainable, and more human. “Awesome” means dynamism, varied and myriad spontaneous bursts of life, creativity and joy. It’s not an aloof or uncaring sort of mindset, not something that beguiles your allures you with an almost unnoticable come-hither. (But, like I said, that shit’s not worth it.) Instead it is shiny and involed ans says to you “get the fuck over here!” Awesome is loud, brazen, egalitarian, pluralistic and ebullent. It lets loose its barbaric yawp at the world, flings open its arms and loves the world, rather than sulking in cool, icy aloofness.

I want to pursue Awesomeness, and leave Cool by the wayside. I’ll leave it for the insecure and grossly supertalented to make tries at Cool. Have fun with it, guys. In the meantime, I’ll be enoying myself, not giving a shit. I’d rather be Awesome.

(Of course, who knows- maybe in fifteen years “awesome” will sound like “groovy.”)

Annotations To an Enjoyable Experience

In History, Social Conventions on July 28, 2009 at 7:38 am

(Don’t get the wrong idea about the following post- I had a great weekend. But, I’ve already talked about the positive aspects of dressing funny whilst camping, and this post is about something else. Think of this as an annotation, or addendum, to something that is mostly positive.)

Celtic knots and skulls seemed to be on everything. Bracers, boots, coats, necklaces, tatoos. The intricate, interweaving braids and headbones formed the ornamentation of choice, closely followed by pentagrams, dragons, and the occasional fairy. It was hot, unpleasantly hot, and I wanted a cigarette. No idea why. It’s a vice I try to limit, but I was in a mood and craving one. I was dressed as a pirate. All around me, other people were also dressed as pirates.

I was at what people who are into this sort of thing term an “event,” a large-scale camping trip wherein lots of people strut about in historical garb, maintain historical personae, and generally carouse and drink a lot. Several of these events are associated with the Society for Creative Anachronism. This one wasn’t- it was a pirate-themed extravaganza Called Sea Dog Nights and Gypsy Carnival. I’ve done this sort of thing before and enjoyed myself, but last Saturday found myself wandering and filled with a peculiar kind of anxiety about it all, an anxiety that I think had something to do with all of the Celtic knots all over the fucking place.

I don’t want to sound too pedantic, but Celtic imagery has about as much to do with historical pirates as petunias have to do with janissaries, and the juxtaposition was bugging me. (Bear with me here- I’m not trying to bitch, really. This is not a “Joe spews bile on x” post, not that I ever do that.) What was bothering me, is that the connections seemed tenuous and almost arbitrary. All over the place people were dressed in in Hollywood-style pirate garb, kilts, belly dancing skirts, boots, tricorn hats, flowing dresses, etc. It seemed, at once, a wild motley of unrelated things, a hodgepodge of anachronism. At the same time, though, there was a weird, settled uniformity to it. Almost all of the visual elements were things that had been adopted by geek culture, things that I was familiar with because they’d been adopted as recurring visual tropes by the sort of people who know what THAC0 means.

This bothered me. I looked around, very much hoping for some kind of originality, some kind of garb or conceit that would surprise me, and found not much of it. There was one guy dressed up in gear that looked African in origin, and I thought that was quite cool, but saw little else in the way of aesthetic differentiation. There were only the same sorts of variations- look, here’s a skull! Here’s a ship, a dragon, a pentagram!- recurring again and again. I wanted someone (for clearly there were a lot of creative, driven people involved in this thing) to mix it up. I wanted someone to wear a Fez or samurai armor, to dress up in a toga or gladiatorial gear. I wanted see someone bedecked in Aztec finery or have the rigging of a Chinese junk set up in their camp. The whole thing was crazy, yes, creative, definitely, but I wished that it was more insane and unrestrained, more varied and unrestricted. More diverse, divergent, and arbitrary, even more anachronistic. If histories were going to clash with each other, if supposed “pirates” were going to walk around with kilts on, than I wanted it to be anachronistic all the way. Vikings in cowboy hats. Centurions with muskets. Persian Immortals behind Prussian artillery. It wouldn’t clash any more than this Norse-looking figurehead at a pirate party.

The standard tropes seemed far too comfortable. I wanted someone to do something risky.

Make no mistake- I had a great time. I had a really good time. I mingled with my friends, drank a lot, and greatly admired the industriousness of my roommate K who managed to construct a wonderful and quite comfortable pavilion for us to hang out in. The inside was strewn with carpets, drums and cushions and a hookah acted as a centerpiece, making the camp a bit different from the normal “scurvy dog” theme that kept popping up. Lounging about inside, I had nothing but appreciation for her creative energy, and, indeed, saw her deviation from the norm as laudable.

At night I took in fire dancing and music, and in the dark the ships’ masts and pavilions of the participants lost all hokiness, and I was taken in by the experience. Yes, I was taken in, eventually. I sang, pranced about, and had fun, even as I thought way to much about it.

But, I kept thinking to myself: Go further. If you’re going to play fast and loose with history (and I’m okay with that), then play as fast and as loose as you can. I would have nothing but respect for someone if they showed up at something like this dressed as Barbary Corsairs or Zulu. I would applaud anyone who dressed as a detachment from the Golden Horde or the Huns. Variation, daring, rather than staid replication of the standard tropes, would have breathed even more life into the event. Instead, the same safe themes and memes were stamped out again and again.

There is a Wondermark comic that I quite like, purporting to show next year’s internet memes. Instead of ninjas and pirates it shows deep-sea divers and gendarmes, among others. I appreciate it greatly, because it shows the arbitrariness of fads and crazes, and posits that deep sea divers are just as potentially meme-worthy as, say, ninjas. It’s a nice wake-up call to anyone who has been immersing themselves in the cozy repetitions of the internet and popular culture. The fad that you see as so whimsical may indeed be, but it is not apogee of quirk or fun. There is plenty of other stuff out there to gawk at- plenty of the world that can be mined in the name of oddness.

I’ll definitely go to an event again (I like camping, and I like drinking, and they tend to be mainly that) but I think that the participants could learn a thing or two from that Wondermark comic. Remixing the same song over and over again does not make for a good party. Yes, pirates are kind of neat. Even the Hollywood sort. But c’mon- branch out, reach out. It’s not like anything is historically accurate right now, so you might as well go fuck-wild and be awesome about it. I think these last guys were onto something: Pirate motor cycles. Purple, chrome, and ahistorical in a gleeful, badass way.

"So, why did you get your ears pierced?"

In Social Conventions on July 2, 2009 at 4:50 pm

That’s the question that’s been asked of me for the past week or so. I got my ears pierced a bit over a week ago, just two metal studs in my lobes. Pretty understated, but I may get more prominent earrings when the piercings heal completely. Inevitably, friends and family have asked “why.” There are two reasons. The first is that I felt like it, and thought that I’d look alright with pieces of metal in my head. The second reason requires a bit more of my characteristic verbosity.

When I was in Japan, my friend D would often say of the various Harajuku kids that they were cute because they were “all rebelling in the same way.” This is the sort of clever-guy observation that I normally appreciate, but I think that it sort of misses the point. Firstly, looking unconventional is not the same as looking unique. Not at all.

If something is “unique” then it means it is singular, one of a kind. (Which means that something is either unique or it isn’t. Saying that something is “very unique” is rather silly.) Very few people, I think, want to affect styles and modes of appearance that are unique. Sure, there might be a few weirdos out there who want to be the very first person to wear a flying ferret on their head, but for the most part folks want take part in stuff that already has established meaning. This includes looks and modes that are often described as “alternative.”

The kids in Harajuku were just as much expressing solidarity with each other as they were rebelling from the Japanese norm. If anything, their construction of their own group, their own “us” was probably more important than any ideals of rebellion that they might have had. Likewise, I didn’t get my ears pierced because I’m rebelling against anything. I did it mainly to advertise the fact that I belong to a given branch of American culture.

My various beliefs and opinions, I think, are fairly well advertised by my appearance. The fact that I have pierced ears, a beard, oftentimes a buzz cut, wear a studded belt, Dr. Martens, and have an inordinate amount of t-shirts from Threadless all advertise things about myself. Namely, that I’m the sort of person who voted for Obama, is in favor of things like gay rights and abortion, has opinions about which version of Blade Runner is best, and is more likely to read Pitchfork than Rolling Stone. I want people to realize this. The idea that people can assessed and judged independent of their appearance in some idealistic or pure way is absolutely ridiculous. Because people will always make discernments about how I look, I want it to be on my terms, mostly in hopes that I can associate with others like myself. It’s not necessarily about “being unique” or “rebelling” at all, even though it is at once adopting a moderately unconventional mode of appearance.

Eventually, after I get back from the Peace Corps, I might get myself tatooed or pierced in a more dramatic fashion. God help me, though, if I ever end up looking like any of these assholes.

EDIT: By popular demand, here’s a picture, though they are not huge, and do not show up especially well in photos.