Thursday, January 28, 2010

Your Zoo Knows If I'm Gay

I quit Facebook once already but the few friends that still speak to me threatened to cut me off completely if I didn’t come back. So once again I am feigning interest in the minutia of their lives. Perhaps it really is important to know which trendy restaurant you favor, or that you are bored in the office (who isn’t?) or that you are now a fan of Macpherson’s Tavern. (I have no idea where it is either.) But I draw the line at being notified that you have a baby Red-bellied Wallaby in your zoo.
Some of my most respected friends have succumbed to playing Facebook games. It seems like a harmless way to waste time. It’s probably an ego boost each time they achieve a higher skill level and the game informs everyone on their friend list how smart they are. Lately the game of choice is something called Zoo. For those of you who, like me, are so fossilized that you don’t know what it is, I did a little research. First I clicked the link to adopt the Wallaby. (The poor thing was cold and lonely.) The page that opened provided this information:
Zoo is a fun game where you can build up your own zoo, collect and breed animals, hunt for treasure, and trade with your friends. Be the best zookeeper in the world and make your zoo #1!
Ok, so it’s another one of those virtual world things like the one where people kept sending me cocktails that I couldn’t actually drink. But there was something else on the page that seemed a little more onerous.
Allowing Zoo World access will let it pull your profile information, photos, your friends' info, and other content that it requires to work
In other words, play this game and kiss your privacy goodbye. Not just your privacy, but everyone on your friends list as well. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, why do you think someone would invest the time and money to develop these games and then give them away for free? Smart people – my friends are all very smart people – should think long and hard before clicking past that warning. Yet several of them have done just that along with 200,000 others.

Article continues after the jump...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Riding the Train

I was thinking about my first visit to New York when I was a young teen. My uncle, who was a New York City cop, took me on my first subway ride. I was both thrilled and alarmed by the loud, fast moving train. We stood at the front door looking out the window (it was round, and partially open) and he pointed out the signals and other technicalities.

Then the walls of the tunnel closed in tighter and a rush of cool, dank air wafted through. My uncle told me were under the East River. Faster and faster the train charged and suddenly a loud bang, some drops of water rained in through the storm door window and I was truly afraid. The river was breaking through into the tunnel! But nobody else seemed concerned. They just kept reading their papers or staring into space. How could they be so unaffected by all these overpowering sensations?

A few years later I lived in Manhattan and rode the Lex-Pelham to work every day. During the summer I liked to ride mid-train right by the open storm door, the wind rushing through the cars, holding onto a grab rail that was actually on the outside of the car. From that vantage point you could look straight down at the roadbed as it rushed underneath to a deafening cacophony of familiar as well as inexplicable sounds.

My car would fly blindly forward, trusting that the car ahead knew where it was going, like elephants in the circus parade, trunk to tail. The headlights and taillights were dark but intimately close. The endplates of the two cars would gyrate in a crazed dance, never quite on the same level, lurching back and forth, up and down. The chains between the cars would swing and jump erratically.

In a car far forward the lights would go out for a moment. Then the next car. The momentary blackout would work its way back through the train and as it passed into my car, I would turn to watch it continue its journey towards the end of the train.

I used to wish that ride would never end. But I left New York in my twenties on a long journey to follow other dreams. The subway trains today are nothing like they were then. The windows and end doors are always closed. Air conditioning replaced the tunnel breezes. The interior lights no longer flash on and off. The operator’s cab now extends all the way across the front of the train so you can no longer stand and watch out the front window.

I’m glad I had a chance to ride the trains as a kid when life’s responsibilities didn’t prevent one from the sheer joy of just going for a ride. Maybe that's why an aging man came back to New York, to that magic city where a boy from the Midwest discovered terrifying but fascinating monsters galloping beneath the streets.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Mine Is Better Than Yours

I’m old enough to remember when people didn’t care what their phone looked like. Wouldn’t have mattered if we did; they all looked the same. As long as we could make and receive calls and hear each other well enough to communicate, we were happy. If someone told you that their phone was better than yours, you’d most likely keep a safe distance from them. They probably also thought they’d seen an alien space ship. Of course, we were very na├»ve. We thought it was just a phone. We didn’t realize that it was technology.

How things have changed. Now 48% of Americans believe UFO’s are real. And if I tell someone my cell phone is better than theirs, then I better keep a safe distance because they may well attack me – verbally for sure and maybe even physically. People seem to take their technology gadgets very seriously.

I used to think that this phenomenon was exclusively the domain of people who buy Apple Computer products. Ever since that woman ran down the aisle and threw a sledgehammer at Big Brother, Apple has represented to its faithful not so much a technology maker as a counter-cultural movement. It alone stands up against the forces of evil (other technology manufacturers) to protect you, the little guy. Apple doesn’t sell products; it sells religion. People seem to forget that the Apple Corporation is a multi-billion dollar organization very interested in that most traditional of business aspirations – making a big profit.

I’m not saying they don’t make great products. I don’t happen to think they make the best products, but I’ll let others decide that. Besides, it’s folly to say what product is the best at the moment because tomorrow everything will be different once again. Apple’s real genius is that it gets its consumers to be it’s most vehement advocates. Other companies have tried this, of course. Saturn wasn’t just a car company, it was… well, who remembers?

So when I finally upgraded my cell phone to a new smart phone I was happy to find a product which was even better than the iPhone and, best of all, it wasn’t made by Apple. I told myself that I am a smart consumer. I am buying a product on it’s actual merits and not out of blind faith in a bogus cult. Little did I know that I was walking right into the front lines of the ultimate Armageddon.

It turns out that the Android Army is every bit as crazy as the Steve Jobs-walks-on-water whackos. The two sides square off against each other and begin attacking and counter attacking. The Droid can multi-task, eat your hearts out Kool-Aid drinkers. So what, the iPhone has multi-touch, you morons. You can’t talk and surf the net at the same time Droidheads; you can’t talk at all on the blue network. We have over one hundred thousand apps; we have the same one hundred apps that any of you have ever actually downloaded. Check it out Apple Assholes, we have a real keyboard; Screw you, Nouveau Tech, our design has 45 more units of cool than yours. iDon’t; I won’t.

Up in the board rooms in Cupertino and Mountain View they must be salivating. You can’t buy this much publicity for any amount of money yet they’re getting it for free. So I say enough already. It’s just a phone. Let’s stop selling our souls to Corporate America. (Although my phone really is better than yours.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I keep forgetting that other people have to go to work. Friends get irritated when I call them up during the week to ask if they want to hang out in the museum with me for the afternoon. They think I’m being disingenuous, just rubbing in the fact that I’m free all day while they are trapped in the office. Like people calling from their vacation in the tropics and asking how’s the weather back home. Each time I’m reminded that most people spend the majority of their waking hours on the job, I feel a twinge of guilt. Why am I sitting around doing nothing when I should be at the office? Then I remember that I’m retired. No, not exactly retired, permanently unemployed. Even without a recession, who is going to hire a 62 year old who hasn’t had a full-time job in ten years?

Don’t get me wrong, I love not working. Of course without a paycheck I have to live a fairly Spartan life but when I listen to my friends talk about their jobs, I don’t envy them. Most of them are so concerned about holding on to their jobs that they do anything to keep their bosses happy. Long hours, take home work, conference calls while on vacation -- if they dare to use their vacation time. They all seem stressed and very tired. None of them get eight hours of sleep. I’m not a great fan of unions – I think they are responsible for driving manufacturing out of the country and for saddling public services such as transit with huge, unnecessary expenses – but if any group of workers ever needed a powerful union, it has to be today’s white collar workers.

Of course it’s not all bad for my working friends; most of them make a lot of money. More than I ever made. Even so, they don’t seem to get proportionally more from their big bucks than I get from my embarrassingly small budget. I stay at home and brew a pot of whatever coffee is on sale at the supermarket; they grab a three dollar cup at Starbucks. I sleep in late and have instant oatmeal for lunch; they have a 30 dollar lunch at one of the over-priced restaurants near the office. I lounge around in sweatpants and a sweatshirt; they pick up their designer suits at the dry cleaners. I’ve learned to be comfortable in my small apartment in unfashionable Queens; they pay three times as much for an even smaller apartment in Manhattan.

Even though I wouldn’t want to trade my life for that of any of my working friends, I still feel like something is missing. I feel it every time I am introduced to somebody new and one of the first things they ask me is “what do you do?” I’ve tried dozens of different answers to that awkward question. What I’d like to say is “What do I do about what?” but that would be taken as a rude rejection. So I’m between jobs, I’m unemployed, I’m retired, I’m an unpublished writer, I’m a trust fund baby… always the same reaction. Oh, you don’t do anything. And if you don’t do anything, they you can’t be anybody.

Oh well. Let me try the next number on my list. There must be somebody who will spend an afternoon in the museum with nobody.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Picking Up Bottles and Cans

I could hear them cackling and shrieking at each other and without looking I knew the Gypsy Sisters were on my street again, picking up bottles and cans. I suspect they aren't really gypsies, they just look like gypsies to me. The funny thing about the Gypsy Sisters, aside from their lack of language, is that they always come down my street the day after the recycling truck comes by. So they almost never find anything.

The tall one seems to be the boss. She orders her partner onto my neighbor’s front porch to check the can. The other obediently climbs up the stairs, removes the lid, and peers in. She straightens up and shrugs. Nothing.

Bigger Sister lets out a howl of derision. Little Sister shrugs again and grunts something. She points hopefully to the storage bin in front of my apartment building. There will certainly be something there.

The Gypsy Sisters wear long woolen (probably synthetic) coats, knit caps, and scarves – even in the summer. I once read that homeless alcoholics wear heavy clothes because they have poor circulation. I don’t think the Gypsy Sisters are alcoholics.

I was surprised to see them in the supermarket one afternoon. I don’t know why this should have surprised me. They had to get food somewhere. They were arguing in their usual grunts, wails, and guttural moans over a package of chicken thighs. I didn’t remain long enough to learn if they bought the chicken thighs or not.

I saw them another time in the same supermarket. They had an enormous clear plastic bag filled with cans which they were feeding into a machine. The machine cluttered and whirred and after digesting all the cans it dispensed several bills and some change. Big sister snatched the money and scrutinized it warily. Apparently it was not as much as she hoped because she let out with a loud squawk just like when little sister failed to produce anything from my neighbor’s recycling can. They disappeared into the aisles to buy whatever they could with the takings.

I only spoke to the Gypsy Sisters once. I told them that the recycling truck comes down our street on Tuesdays. They both spurted some scornful grunts at me and headed for the big recycling bin in front of my building.

I find myself looking forward to the mornings when the Gypsy Sisters work my block. I take comfort from their incoherent cacophony. I almost feel as if I know them. It’s probably a good thing they can’t talk to me. Then they would have names and a history and I would know where they live. They would become ordinary. All the mystery would be gone.

Still, I wish I could convince them that the truck comes on Tuesday.

Race in America

Americans become hysterical whenever the subject of race comes up. Take the current media frenzy over Senator Reid’s so-called racist remarks. I do not believe that Reid was saying that because Obama has light skin he is an acceptable person; I believe he said that because Obama has light skin he was more electable. Reid said pretty much the same thing that hundreds of media analysts were broadcasting during the election. Maybe it isn’t a good reflection on the American voter, but, until recently, it’s probable that the darker a candidate’s skin or the more ethnic his speech, the less likely he was to get elected President. That’s a political observation, not a racist remark.

I am not a fan of Harry Reid. In fact, I think the combination of Reid and Pelosi as the face of the Democratic Party has done more to alienate the public than anything the party has done lately. Having an aversion to one’s personality, however, is not grounds for calling for his resignation. True to their hypocritical nature, the Republicans have done just that. So now we have the comic juxtaposition of white Republicans denouncing a man for alleged racism while black Democrats defend him.