Monday, April 30, 2012

live más (o menos): on the crowd-sourcing economy

If you’re like me and make the daily mistake of listening to commercial radio, perhaps you’ve heard the Taco Bell commercial for their new Locos Tacos. Believe it or not, I’m not here to question the edibility of a taco made out of Doritos. We all grew up eating those finger-dying orange chips, so filling them with meat (or “meat”) and other “food” isn’t really a big leap. They probably taste pretty decent, in a 49-cents sort of way.

I am a little concerned with the name: We should call them Tacos Locos if we want to stay true to the Spanish language and Mexican culture, which, as we know, Taco Bell is devoted to doing. If we want to acknowledge the inherent and sometimes positive hybridization that happens when two cultures merge (hello, banh mi sandwiches!), we should call them Loco Tacos. In English, the adjective comes first and is never pluralized. Locos Tacos is a fair but awkward linguistic compromise, in my opinion.

Make mine without the inside part. Or the outside part.

But my real problem is with the commercial itself, which quotes Taco Bell’s real-life Twitter followers. Their thoughts on the new Tacos Locos, as performed by sincere, enthusiastic voice over actors:

“Freakin’ delicious!”

“It brought tears to my eyes, yo.”

“It’s like French kissing a unicorn.”

Why would someone follow Taco Bell on Twitter, you ask? To find out when those regularly 49-cent tacos might go on sale? No. The only reason someone would follow Taco Bell on Twitter is because he or she is a huge pothead who enjoys food- or “food”-related irony.

That fact, coupled with the particular diction of the quotes above, suggests that the Taco Bell tweeters are not actually passionate about Tacos Locos. I know, right? No one told the voice actors. The middle comment is spoken by an African-American or maybe “African-American” man, the sort of guy whom pop culture would have us believe regularly says “yo.”

But I can almost guarantee you it was written by a white stoner dude who enjoys using “yo” ironically. I also think it’s unlikely that a unicorn would deign to tongue-kiss anyone who’d ever eaten a Taco Bell taco, loco or sane. So I think that one’s made-up too.

The voice actors aren’t in on the joke, but I think Taco Bell is. I mean, somewhere at their corporate headquarters*, some highly paid ad exec knows that people don’t actually love their product this much. And they don’t give a shit because all publicity is good publicity. So they happily package people’s ironic comments about their barely edible product as actual advertising for said product. The stoners who tweeted the comments either think they pulled a fast one on Taco Bell, or they’re excited to get a free taco, or whatever it is people get paid in today’s crowd-sourcing economy.

And therein lies what bugs me: It’s a whole economic chain based on people who don’t care. The people who tweeted don’t care about the taco. The people who make the taco and the people who advertise it don’t care about the taco. Almost no one who buys and eats the taco cares about the taco. And yet millions are employed by this single, strangely hued item.

When people make, advertise or talk about products with a small fan base, they’re labeled elitist. But if I write a book that only two people read, at least I know that I really, really liked writing it. And if either of my two readers bother to finish it, well, they cared enough to spend more time with my story than it would have taken them to make, buy, eat and tweet about a Loco Taco (is that what you call a singular Locos Tacos?**)

Did I just use a Taco Bell radio commercial*** to make a case for a slow food/art/etc., non-capitalist economy? Yes, yes I did. And on some level, is our stupid fast food economy subsidizing my slow art career? Probably. And am I now kind of craving a taco? Not a Taco Bell taco, but maybe a Poquito Mas taco, which is still not exactly what you could call “artisan”? Yes, yes I am.

Hot robo-unicorn on pegasus action.

*At one of Meehan’s parties, we met a woman who worked at the Taco Bell corporate HQ. Almost everyone else at the party was a lawyer, nonprofit worker, artist or all of the above. The Taco Bell lady quickly became the Most Interesting Woman In The World. We had So. Many. Questions. I only wish I’d been able to ask her about this commercial, but back then Locos Tacos were just an orangey dream in some exec’s eye. Or the eye of a focus group stoner.

**My friend Lizzy works as an ad exec at Lexus. She once informed us that there is no plural of Lexus. Not Lexuses, not Lexi. It’s always just The Lexus.

***So, after further research (i.e. searching for taco images for this post), I learned that Taco Bell is sponsoring something called the Doritos Locos Tacos Hometown Tweet-Off. Meaning that the ironic stoners may actually have cared about something: winning a contest. Which defeats my whole point. Whatev. I dont know what the prize is. Im going to assume it’s a date with a unicorn.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

i survived the gay levittown

I'm sure they're very nice people.
1. the gay 1950s

Today I read this interview with Sarah Schulman (thanks, Raquel, for posting). Executive summary: AIDS killed radical urban queers and left literal vacancies to be occupied by gentrifiers, namely the children of the middle-class whites who hightailed it to the suburbs in the 1950s. She argues that we’re now living in a “Gay 1950s,” wherein gays—no longer forced into radicalization by oppression—just want to get married, own a home and raise 2.5 children, despite the visible failure of capitalism and the family as institutions.

Got all that?

I love me some Sarah Schulman. I have ever since I discovered her book about how Jonathan Larson stole her ideas and made them into Rent. (For the record, I don’t think he did. They were both writing about the East Village in the ‘80s, and there was going to be some overlap, you know? However, I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that a literary novel by an activist lesbian never found the same commercial success as a musical by a straight white man.) She’s a brilliant, ballsy, sometimes bitter lady who says what other people are too dumb or too scared to say.

Now time for a little self-reflection (because what are cultural critiques for, if not to solipsistically examine my own life choices?). So, um, I want two out of three of those things that are allegedly making queers not so much queer as just really gay. And I don’t not want a house. I’m grateful for the conditions that made them possible. I do think that capitalism, in its current incarnation, is largely a failure. I don’t think that family is, though I think we have to move beyond the recent-yet-highly-hegemonic definition of family as a mom, dad and 2.5 children. But small, multi-generational groups of people who care for each other living under the same roof? I’m cool with that.

2. the personal is political

The crazy revelation here is probably not that I’m a non-radical—it’s that I ever thought I was. At best, I dressed the part. I’ve been a pragmatic progressive since college (before that I was a Manhattan Beach moderate conservative, mostly because my favorite history teacher was).

But still, what Sarah Schulman says about the Gay 1950s—it’s a good wake-up call. I spent an unfortunate chunk of the last two years feeling sad. Much of that chunk was about loss and hormones and a genuine desire to love a child, but a not-small chunk of that chunk was about trying to conform to what I thought was expected of me as an over-achieving, privileged, not-so-queer queer. I was trying to fit my gay ass in a straight chair, because I bought into the myth that I needed to. That childbearing would somehow make me real in the eyes of a society that doesn’t particularly value infertile female artists who don’t make a lot of money and publish in venues with names like “GuerrillaReads.”

And because I am white and middle-class and well educated and eager to please, I felt like I was so close to mainstream acceptance that I could taste it. If I’d been a poor black immigrant with AIDS, maybe I wouldn’t have bothered, and maybe I would have been fiercer for it.

I like to think that there’s a middle ground, which is a very un-radical thing to seek out, but it’s who I am. I want my spouse and my baby, but in pursuing open adoption—in welcoming our future baby’s babymama into our lives as well—I like to think we’re saying a big fuck-you to people who find anything beyond the sperm bank option “confusing.” So far the process has been emotional and, on bad days, downright terrifying, and that’s just the part in my head—we haven’t even matched with an expectant mom yet, and it might take a long time. But I hope all these challenges aren’t just indicators that I am neurotic. I hope it might be because we’re doing something kind of new and different and…radical-adjacent?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

sf to dallas

Cowboys, Republicans and prepsters, oh my!
Another whirlwind work trip, this time to San Francisco. I was in a better mood, and it didn’t hurt that I got to see a couple of old friends, the kind who are endowed with magical powers in both the healing and philosophical arts. Jamie and I also saw Kay Ryan read, which worked its own kind of magic.

She’s a quirky lady: charming and sort of adorable in a way you wouldn’t associate with a middle-aged butch woman, but stopping short of schticky. A lot of her poems rhyme—subtly and impressively—and she would stop in the middle and say something like, “Now, did you catch that rhyme?” or “Can you believe I rhymed ‘why we’ with ‘Hawaii’? Isn’t that just terrible?” or “Do you all know what the word ‘greensward’ means?”

(It means “turf that is green with growing grass.” It appeared in a poem about Easter Island and the delicious audacity of artists.)

It takes guts to engage with your audience that way. In my mind, I have a silent agreement with my audience, which is: I will do my best to read well and be moderately entertaining, as long as you at least pretend to listen. But Kay Ryan wasn’t content to just pretend. She checked in with us at every turn, and even though no one was likely to be like, “I did not catch that rhyme and that poem is boring,” she wasn’t letting herself or us off easy.

There’s probably some sort of great life lesson there, about holding people and yourself to high standards and everybody getting more in return for it. Sometimes I think I’m overly critical of people, and other times I’m this pathetic puppy who will take whatever scrap she can get. I feel like those things must be related.

Meanwhile, on the lowbrow end of my hi-lo life, I have become strangely addicted to The A-List Dallas, which is, as Logo so eloquently puts it, “Housewives with balls, y’all.” It’s a terrible trashy show about vapid gays in Dallas, and I’m watching it in the no-man’s-land of the internet, so for all I know it aired three years ago on a cable channel that no one gets. So this post could not be less relevant—this is why I blog instead of maintain a career as an entertainment journalist, y’all.

I came for the drama, but I’ve sort of fallen for the characters and their achingly sweet dysfunctions. Maybe I’ve been borrowing the psychoanalytic* spectacles through which AK now sees the world, but I feel like it’s clear that Philip is such a gossip because he’s scared to move forward with his own love life because it would mean being fully out to his mom.

Chase can convince himself he doesn’t need anything more than sex from Levi because he’s managed to convince himself he doesn’t need love from his parents either (although, as one of the few reasonably intelligent characters on the show, I think he acknowledges this). And hello, could Levi be more avoidant? He kisses Taylor just to make Taylor stop talking about their otherwise nonexistent relationship!

You have no idea who any of these people are, do you? That’s how it should be—you have better things to do with your time. So do I. I’m going to go do them right now. Maybe.

*Yes, AK, I know I am not really using that term correctly. I know it’s a specific school of thought, not just a catch-all for therapy-type stuff. But as fiction writer and blogger, I feel duty-bound to use pop psychology to fit my personal, ridiculous needs.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

desert dogs

Sometimes I love traveling on my own for work. I can be as anal as I want to be about lining my toiletries up next to the hotel sink. There’s time to write, get inspired and watch lots of Khloe and Lamar on cable (I kind of like those two kids). Tucson is a particularly great town, with a wide-open, sun-bleached vibe.

But my heart wasn’t in it this trip, and I just felt kind of lonely and contemplative, but not in a here’s-a-great-idea-for-my-novel kind of way. One night I ate dinner at my hotel. It wasn’t one of those nice hotels that prides itself on having a top-quality restaurant on the ground floor either. More like a sports bar with so-so fish and water that came in a disposable plastic cup. For a few minutes, that sad little cup seemed to symbolize my entire life.

But I more or less dusted myself off, and the great thing about my hotel was that they were having a German Shepherd show there. It was noisy, and when it rained the whole courtyard smelled like wet dog, but it was impossible to blame these guys.

Monday, April 09, 2012

spring things and what i read in march

Well, Easter happened, so I like to think that spring has begun in earnest and I will now be all the things I didn’t get around to being during the past year. If Jesus can be reborn, why not me? Wait, that’s terrible logic. Jesus does all sorts of things I can’t do, like heal the sick and not include passive aggressive footnotes in his blog. But maybe I will at least manage to get ready for bikini season or something.

Here’s what I read in March, which seems like a long time ago now.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard: A lovely extended prose poem on writing in the vein of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, though it actually predates the other book. Bird by Bird offers more practical advice, which either makes it more useful or more audacious, depending on your take (mine is mostly the former). At times Dillard's rustic metaphors almost made me cry--see her description of a sphinx moth fighting fate: "It gained height and lost, gained and lost, and always lost more than it gained, until its heavy body dragged in the water, and it drowned before my eyes without a splash." At other times, her depiction of writing as this torturous act that only the kookiest, most dedicated lunatic would pursue seemed disingenuous (a complaint I have about Lamott too). Writing is fun, a lot of the time. And no matter how spare Dillard's various writing cabins are, she has achieved the kind of success that affords one writing cabins, which is hard to ignore, though she is clearly and wisely trying to do just that.

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork: This YA novel chronicles the friendship between an orphaned teen and a kid dying of cancer. The former, Pancho, is angry and monosyllabic following his sister's mysterious death. The latter, DQ, is wise beyond his years--though Stork wisely complicates DQ's apparent Zen-ness late in the novel. The story is compelling, and Stork does an especially nice job making DQ's mother sympathetic, despite the fact that she abandoned her son only to suddenly take interest again once he became ill. But the writing felt a bit heavy-handed at times, and (once again) I had trouble with the dude who narrated the book on CD (he sounded like the guy who narrated A Million Little Pieces, which caused my brain to make unfortunate and unfair associations).

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: I gave up trying to write down all my favorite quotes from all my favorite books sometime shortly after college, but this book (which is, perhaps not coincidentally, about college) reignited the impulse. I think The Marriage Plot is about applied philosophy—-trying to live the amazing ideas one reads about in important books—-which I devoted a lot of energy to in my youth, and which I still devote a significant amount to in my jaded early middle age. Perhaps like me, Eugenides’ characters are relatively privileged, hopelessly earnest and often tormented by love and duty. They’re also tormented by semiotics, which is a tough subject for earnest types living in an ironic age. They believe the ultimate goal is to approach life with “literary ruthlessness,” which is a depressing thought, and yet budding Victorianist Madeleine is also bolstered by Roland Barthes’ unique look at love’s ability to destroy its practitioners. Fairy tales are the stuff of both lovers and linguists.

Yet while I initially embraced this book as an important aid in my own post-grad school intellectual PTSD healing process, I ultimately loved it for old-fashioned reasons: the precise and clever language, the carefully chosen details (Eugenides can nail decade and class with a single hairbrush) and the beautifully flawed characters. I especially appreciated the manic depressive Leonard, who, during his first slide into depression, perceives the world as so dark that he convinces himself he must be going blind and immerses himself in medical texts accordingly. Exactly! This is what happens when you’re so used to paying attention to your brain that you don’t notice when your emotions stage a coup!

The story ends with something of a whimper, if a well thought out one. And when I posted favorite quotes on Facebook, my lit crit friends—-the ones I thought would relate—-openly mocked. Is it because they’re so post-post-post- ? Whatever. This novel is perfect for an anti-intellectual intellectual like me.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

facebook vs. the elusive woodland creature

People keep getting pregnant. This is not news. It’s probably also not news that one of Facebook’s main functions is to make members feel like pathetic puddles of nothing-much in a sea of award-winning, best-selling mothers of adorable babies who sleep through the night. Nevertheless, yesterday’s ultrasound picture with its witty, self-deprecating caption did its thing to me. It probably didn’t help that this is Squeakies Death Anniversary Week, and the week I turned 35, meaning that if I was pregnant, I would officially be an “older mother.” (Adopting only slightly hushes one’s biological clock. I would still like to not die when my kids are in college, you know?)

But beneath the flurry of outraged texts and emails I sent to people who are tired of getting texts and emails on this particular topic, there was a tiny glimmer of something. I think it was the Option To Not Be Sad And Full Of Hate.

It was hard to see, because it was underneath the woodpile of sadness and hate that I’ve been sifting through for a year. And trust me, if there was a way to get there any faster, I would have. That option was absolutely not available to me a year ago. A year ago, thinking anything remotely like, “Well, that’s nice for her, but that’s not my life, and my life is fine” would have felt like self-delusion, because I knew—KNEW!—that my life was not fine, and the Posters Of Ultrasounds* were WINNERS and I was a LOSER, and the only thing worse than being a Loser was being a LOSER WHO THOUGHT SHE WAS ALLOWED TO HANG OUT ON THIS FANCY WINNERS’ CLUB PATIO.**

My intellectual and spiritual worldview are completely in opposition to this line of thinking: I believe God loves us all, we are all God, we are love, we are not separate, and most of the things we try to take credit for are just the random luck of genetics and neurological pathways created by experiences we had no control over.

In my emotional worldview, though, I was a Loser. I mean, I kind of still think I am. I’m still eying that Winners’ Club Patio. But I’ve been looking for a third group for a long time. It’s possible that I’ve found them online, in the form of a really great adoption support group of people who are like, “Ugh, ultrasound pictures;” who get it but who are (mostly) over it.

But the place where I need to find that elusive third thing is in my mind. It’s a secret garden, it’s Dracula mist, it’s a woodland creature that hops away the minute you look at it head-on. It spells winner and loser in lowercase, and doesn’t really speak in words at all. But it’s undeniably gorgeous. It is not to be confused with Pretending I Don’t Care or Trying To Declare This Woodpile I’m Standing On The New Winners’ Patio. I would tell you more, but I can barely make it out in the fog.

*Dear Posters of Ultrasounds, I don’t mind if you read this. I like some of you very much. If I were you, I’d post my ultrasounds too. It’s just that if you’re allowed to publicly share what’s in your uterus, I get to publicly share what’s on my mind. (And to my other 45 inevitably pregnant friends, I also hate not knowing, so you really can’t win, can you? If you want to let me down easy, just send me an email. If you really don’t give a shit because this is about your joy, not my delicate feelings, good for you. That’s how it should be.)

**My middle school had an actual patio where only eighth graders were allowed to hang out. My high school had a “senior walkway” that ran alongside the everyone-else walkway. Only varsity cheerleaders were allowed to wear fitted sweaters; all other pep squad members had to wear baggy, unflattering sweaters. At cheer camp, varsity girls got to shower first. And we wonder why I am the way I am.

Monday, April 02, 2012

the greatest of ease (is a big lie)

I’ve never understood people who do extreme sports (or other activities that seem to involve a lot of expensive gear) to “conquer their fears.” If I have a fear of sharks, I’ll avoid slitting my wrists and then going for a swim. Fear = conquered. It’s the unavoidable fears that keep me up at night: my uncertain future, various diseases, those creepy commercials that show people dying of lung cancer. If I could defeat my fear of never having children by skydiving, I would skydive.

That said….

AK gave me a flying trapeze lesson on the Santa Monica pier for my 35th birthday. I’ve been taking static trapeze classes, which are hell on the trapezius muscles*, but not so scary, given that the trapeze is about four feet off the ground. Flying trapeze involves climbing a rickety ladder to a platform in the sky, then flinging yourself off of it. I don’t love heights. I took the class because I do love flinging myself in various directions and because I love the circus; AK took the class because she loves me. Conquering any fears would be a meddlesome side effect.

But lo and behold, it was full of all the revelatory moments and important life lessons you might imagine. I can totally see why reality shows and corporations make their people do shit like this.

For example, one of the instructors informed me that I was having trouble hooking my legs over the trapeze because I was anticipating his call rather than waiting for it. In other words, I was trying to do something before I was ready—trying to make something happen on my command rather than wait for forces out of my control—and therefore making life harder for myself. Kind of like EVERYTHING I DO.

The class was canceled due to high winds halfway through. I don’t even want to know what that says about my life. But they still tried to get us to fork over $45 for photos of ourselves crouching on the platform and flying through the air. In most of the photos, I looked terrified but determined. AK looked highly skeptical, like she might give up and go shop for $10 designer knockoff sunglasses elsewhere on the pier at any minute. Again, this sounds about right.

When the wind upended one of the mats beneath the trapeze area, we took pictures of our very best terrified faces. It was nice to feel united against something, even if it was just wind.

As for life lessons, when you’re climbing the rickety ladder, you can’t even think about the ground let alone your genetic predisposition for cancer. I decided my motto for age 35 will be Just Look At The Rung In Front Of Me.

*Wait, is this why they’re called trapezius muscles?!