The sound of a young French girl waving an old floppy disc: wubble-wubble-wubble. What is it? Une CD?
Consider the following statements, and see if you can guess what might go in the blanks:
_____a_____ is encouraging people to be rude and selfish.
_____b_____ makes it possible for anonymous people to get away with being mean toward people they've never met.
Before _____c______ people only met each other through family networks and this sort of invasion of privacy didn't happen.
People who _____d______ have no sense of personal dignity and privacy. They let just anyone into their lives.
Or consider these:
People who _____e______ should not be surprised when total strangers bother them. What did they expect?
It is inevitable that if you ____f_____, bad things like are going to happen to you. I know; they happened to me.
It's part of the nature of _____g_____ that things like anonymous attacks, rudeness, harassment, and invasion of privacy happen. People who ______h_______ shouldn't complain; they knew this when they _____i______.
All people who ______j______ shouldn't be surprised when bad things happen; those sort of things are the point of ______k______, aren't they?
Ready for some answers?
I was reading this post at Twisty's - about a new all-pink airline with manicures and trips to Paris - when I was struck by something that came up in a few of the comments:
The inability of most outdoors manufacturers to understand what outdoorsy women might like.
Here's what I want:
Clothes that fit. Clothes that are durable, comfortable, and easy to care for. Clothes that do not show dirt. clothes in colors I like and that flatter me. Gear that meets the same criteria.
Basically - and why is this so hard to understand? - I want the same gear men have, altered to take into account the differences in my body shape and functions.
I do not want jackets without pockets. I do not want clothes in "melon" or "lime" or gear in "rose" or "lavender" or "clear blue". I don't want equipment that's missing an essential function because that would get in the way of it being small and cute and feminine.
I want clothing in colors like the men have: dark green, rich brown, red, navy, sage, olive, terra cotta. The reason so much of my outdoors wardrobe is black is because it seems to be the only non-pastel color (well, maybe khaki, though that may too be a pastel) that manufacturers bother to make for women. I'm trying to blend in with trees and rocks and dirt, not frolic in an air-freshener commercial.
I don't like pastels, or most clear, bright colors. They get dirty easily, and I look like I'm ill when I wear them. I prefer darker, richer colors - but, my god, do I have to fight to find them in the women's sections of outdoor catalogs and stores.
Ditto bikes, canoes, PFDs, sleeping bags, luggage, hats, gloves... wouldn't it be easier and cheaper to offer women's smaller products in the same materials and colors as the men's? The only reason I can think of that makes any sense is this: while it is okay for women to wear clothing designed for men, in men's colors (hell, most of us have been doing it for years), the converse is not true.
The girly clothes are girly-colored so that men won't accidentally buy them.
Does anyone have a better explanation?
One of the responsibilities of my current job is generating topical bibliographies. Right now I'm working on one that's related to Earth Day and aesthetics. As a result, I'm getting a crash course in what has been called, variously, environmental art, natural art, earthworks, reclamation art, ecological art... In other words, a bunch of approaches to the human engagement with the non-human world through aesthetic creation.
It seems that most of the "nature art" I've been researching is, in its essence, about simplification and reductionism. The spiral combining form with raw material. The crack letting in a sliver of changing light, the holes tubular rays of sun. The sticks twisted into fantastic nest-like shapes. The repetitive fields of waste and discards and effluvia.
They do concentrate the attention, isolate elements and refine them to their barest physical essence... but it seems to me that such efforts work against one of the aspects of the world that is hardest for humans to grasp today: interconnectedness. Is there an aesthetic that can train us to see complexity, to feel, to know, the intricacies of cause and effect and relationship that link things, active things, dynamic changing things, together?
Human beings clearly want to see cause and effect, about connection, with their superstitions about karma and knocking on wood and ideas about wishful thinking and obsessions from afar. But though we have these _impulses_ do we combine this urge to know with clarity of vision? Encouraging such clarity is the job of the artist, and yet... it seems that the dominant aesthetics are not engaging with these issues of interrelation, except in obvious ways, as in the links between animals, people, food.
We need an aesthetic that helps us grasp the connections between rock and air, between bodies and toxins, between the small scale and the large. Perhaps it is the character of art to reduce and refine, and it is thus unsuited to the explication of complexity and raw, unfiltered reality.
But wouldn't it be good to try?
The other week, a stay in a fashionably modern-minimalist boutique hotel got me thinking about form and function. It might perhaps surprise anyone who visits my house or sees my desk, but I am a minimalist at heart. Pretty much everything I own tends to be clean in outline and devoid of frou-frou. I like my bowls simple, my tables straightforward, my clothes logo-free. I have a few possessions that deviate from this rule in small details, like a shirt with an embroidered neckline, but even then I'm not fond of fussy objects. I like clean lines and shapes, and things that are what they are.
Why the hotel made me think of this was because the objects in our hotel room were minimalist - but they were the beta version of minimalism. (Japanese design, pared down to its essentials over generations, is the polished final release.) The bathroom, in particular, epitomized the problems when form precedes function. The room was tiled, on the floors, one of the walls, and the entirety of the shower stall, in small black squares with an irridescent purple grain. The toilet was low and black. Lights were small and recessed. There were three circular mirrors, one large, two small. A clear glass wall and door separated the shower from the rest of the bathroom. The counter and sink were made of greenish-black slate; the sink itself was a flat-bottomed square depression. The drain stopper was a flat silver disc that rotated in the drain to permit or impede the flow of water. The knobs and faucets in shower and over sink were brushed metal pipes. There was a single low towel bar about five inches above the back of the toilet, and a single tubular knob projecting from the single plain white wall opposite the mirrors. Everything looked quite cool, but the functionality was haphazard.
I would not want to be the person who cleaned the bathroom. The flat bottom of the sink meant that it didn't drain properly. The glass and the tiles must have been very difficult to keep free of water marks and stains. The black toilet - ditto. (Using it was rather disturbing, like sitting atop a shiny black hole of nothingness.) The nearly unusable towel bar and knob made a mockery of the hotel's plea that guests reuse their towels to save energy and water. The lights were so small and recessed it was hard to get a good close-up view of oneself in the mirror. The knobs in the shower linked water temperature to not only the turn of the top dial, but to the flow of water, governed by a second rotating knob. (You'd turn the top knob all the way to full, which produced a stream of warm-to-hot water, and then you rotated the second one to produce either a soft spray of warm-to-hot water, or a narrow stream of hot.) The room was beautiful on the surface, but it needed another hundred years of people complaining and fiddling and polishing before it worked as well as it looked.
On the other hand, there are other things that are functional, but in which style is lacking - ugly sweaters, NYC taxi cabs, the average computer keyboard. Form can be given direction by function - a cup-holder will tend to be round and recessed, a writing implement tapering and cylindrical - but there are a lot of kludges out there in the world, things that do their job well enough that people tolerate a degree of inelegance and clunkiness. Off the rack clothing, for instance, which fits only a few people perfectly, and most people adequately, or airline or automobile seats, which fit no one well and everyone potentially.
It is in the point where form and function meet that you find perfection. The carved wooden bowl that fits perfectly in a single cupped hand, yet holds enough soup to fill your belly. That one pair of pants that flatters your shape without chafing or pinching or flapping. The pen that works so well that you cease to think about it as you write.
The problem is that this point is only reached through a long process of use and refinement. Design principles get you started, both with form and with function, but eventually the object will have to be put into use. People will use it in unexpected ways, holding their hair up with chopsticks, cleaning their nails with their pocket knives, whacking insects with their shoes, using screwdrivers to chip ice out of blocks. It is the use, the daily engagement of person with object, that eventually hones the form of a functional object. Intelligent design gets you faster off the starting block, but it is the slow process of fitting object to the demands of its environment, its evolution across generations of use, that makes it perfect.
Over the last few days I've been noting a groundswell of blog posts about American apathy, banality and greed.* I don't know if I understand what triggered it (reaction to Katrina? 9/11?) but it is striking to me that the same notes are being sounded again and again.
I ordered an econo-car; I got a Pontiac Gran Prix. Though I know that the name is pronounced Grawn Pree, I’m inclined to go with my friend Doug’s version: Gran Pricks.
This is a car that is meant to be driven by a very focused individual without a lot of friends or other baggage. It is hard to see out the back, making parking an exercise in trusting the mirrors. The door pillars are wide, making it hard to change lanes or navigate tight spaces. It does handle well on the freeways and highways, having power steering and power under the hood.
“Power” may well be the intended theme of this vehicle. The seats are power-adjusted, up, down, tilt. The mirrors are power-adjusted, up, down, tilt. The steering wheel… you get the idea. It took me a solid fifteen minutes of digging through the driver’s manual to comprehend the windshield wipers. Tellingly, “windshield wiper” did not appear in the index. I had to leaf through several chapters about crash tests and airbag safety before I reached the section on the cockpit controls.
In a logical extension of automotive trends, the driver’s seat is evocative of a cup-holder. Black plastic curves around you on all sides. Moving things to and from the passenger seat requires a firm upward motion to clear the low wall between passenger and driver. The only external keyhole is in the driver’s side door. All other doors must be opened – and closed – from within. This is a car for one person, despite the rear seats, or a person whose friends tolerate him sitting grandly in the cup-holder of power, orchestrating the openings and closings around him.
This was a strange car to be driving in the land of the green, be-stickered Subaru, on my way to a workshop on writing and the outdoors. Pressing my Birkenstock-clad foot to the pedal, I eased out of the lot.
There seem to be several stages one goes through in one's life with regards to Christmas and getting presents. When you're a kid, it's all about the excitement and the tree and the presents and trying to stay up to catch Santa in the act, and waking up far too early for your parents' comfort. My brother and I even went so far as to have our toys exchange presents when we woke up at 5am, to stave off the frustration of waiting for the adults to wake up and drink their morning coffee. By the time you're a teenager, the adults are the ones that wait for you to wake up, bleary-eyed and hair standing on end, and you no longer believe in Santa Claus, though you still put out socks and some gifts get labeled "From Santa" in a burst of pure altruism. You know you've hit adulthood when you not only don't mind getting socks for Christmas, you request them. Then eventually you hit the stage of "I don't need anything. Food or books are fine."
I reached that stage this year. I honestly don't want or need anything for Christmas. I have a house that not only has everything I need, it has more than that. Some of it is stuff I've been carting around for years; some of it is stuff that was sent me after my godparents died. The former I've been meaning to winnow down for years; of the latter, only a scant handful of objects has any personal meaning, though much of it is nice (even more of it is not, and was dumped straightaway into donation boxes). The house -- and me -- is burdened with junk and paper and clothes I don't wear and clothes I love but which have worn out. The clutter is tiring and frustrating, instead of comforting. I want things to be simple, to have only what makes me happy and inspired.
I'm feeling that way about the holiday season, too. The holidays have always been somewhat complicated in our family, at least as far as the religious aspects are concerned. There are a lot of small "traditions" in my immediate family -- putting up the tree Christmas eve, putting silly joke gifts in socks and overflow paper bags, laughing at certain odd ornaments as they're unpacked -- but Christmas has always been more about getting together with the family than anything else. (I've been with my parents for every single one of my life.) My mother and I are "lapsed" UUs (meaning, every few years we might attend a church service, but otherwise ignore our purported religious communities), my brother is an atheist, and my father has long been indifferent to organized religion and says little about what he actually believes. We put up a creche or two, but they're more about the wee little animals and the tradition of getting it out each year than anything truly religious. So the spiritual content of December 25th has always been pretty low, as far as we're concerned.
Yet I won't say that I don't feel the pull of the holy during the winter holidays, nor that I am unmoved by the professions of cheer and the twinkling of the lights. Indeed, part of me is deeply moved by the idea of family and friend gathering together to celebrate their bonds, by the rituals of hanging sweet-scented pine and glittering garlands from the eaves and mantelpieces, by candlelight and song, and food and gifts generously exchanged, by the contrast between the cold dark outside and the warmth and light and cheer within.
To me, this transcends the frameworks of established religion, and so I have long been in the habit of wishing people happy holidays rather than merry Christmas. For these are holy days to me, but holy by dint of love and affection, not by creed and sacred texts. When I offer my wishes for cheer and happiness and good fortune, I want all my friends to feel embraced and nourished by them, not alienated and offended. I have friends who are Jewish, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, UU, pagan, and, yes, Christian. Thus far, they have all met my wish for a happy holidays with the spirit with which it is intended: a recognition and celebration of our shared humanity and desire for warmth and friendship during a time of darkness.
So it is with irritation that I hear of people insisting that to offer such a wish is to be insulting or denigrating of their beliefs. They claim that doing so is to reject the spirit of the season, to piss on their spiritual rights. I would argue that this is exactly what they are doing, in demanding that they get special treatment and sectarian attention granted to no one else, in denying the celebration of diverse spiritualities during a time of shared darkness. It is, in a word, selfish. In another, defensive.
To me, a greater attack on our sense of shared humanity than universalism is particularism, selfishness, and greed. In this, I am saying nothing new. People have been complaining about greediness trumping spirituality, about commercialization and secularism and the decline of morals for decades now. Yet I see this as part of a larger pattern. It as if we as a culture were trapped in the greedy years of childhood, when presents loom large and are eagerly anticipated and the family focuses on you, but without the companion joy and wonder and altruism that causes babies to gaze on lights and candles with awe, and small children to write letters to Santa asking for jobs and clothes for their parents, and other children to carefully craft cookies or snowflakes or handprint ornaments for their loved ones.
I will not go so far as to insist that we should all learn to take joy in socks -- even when they are unique and cozy handknitted ones -- nor that we should reject the idea of exchanging gifts outright, but I am troubled by this notion that our holidays -- our holy days -- are most important as excuses for indulging one's greed and selfishness. It is hard enough living through days of darkness; to insist petulantly that it is better to do so proud, huffy and alone than in the company of one's fellow beings is both foolish and mean-spirited. We are all small creatures in the dark, huddling together to keep warm. If we in our pride and arrogance insist on standing alone as special, we will freeze long before winter's end, and it is no one's fault but our own.
I hold up a candle to you, the warm scent of cider wafting from the open door behind me, and I say invitingly, gesturing toward the coziness and laughter inside, "Happy Holidays!"
If you refuse my invitation, and would rather stand crossly outside waiting for a "proper" greeting, well... there's a shovel out there, and my driveway's still rather snowy... You might as well make yourself useful while you're pouting. The cider will be waiting for you if you change your mind. I hope you will.