Economic language and iPod cases

So I went downtown yesterday.

The strength of the American consumer is supposedly what drives this economy. If the crowds at the Apple Store on Powell were any indication, the American consumer remains quite strong. I mean, I totally saw the American consumer bench like 13 MacBooks. It was sweet. And the American consumer looked confident, too. I bet the consumer I saw yesterday would have no doubts about approaching the hottest hottie in the club.

The rhetorical strategy (locution? metaphor?) that politicians and the press have decided to beat to death during the current crisis is the making of comparisons between “Wall Street” and “Main Street.”

Says Pelosi, “We must insulate Main Street from Wall Street and keep people in their homes.”
Says Obama
, “We have to make sure that whatever plan our government comes up with works not just for Wall Street, but for Main Street.” 
Says Ron Paul, “This is Wall Street in big trouble and sucking in Main Street, now, and dumping all the bills on Main Street.”

Hopefully they’ll figure out how to mix up their language a bit before this one gets as grating as “blood and treasure” did during the Surge debate. And is “Main Street” really the appropriate contrast to Wall Street at this point? Aren’t most Americans pretty disconnected from the classical Main Street of soda fountains and general stores? We need something that recognizes the greater influence of the suburbs. Something like, “Wall Street vs. Red Cedar Lane.”

Anyway, I was in the Apple Store because I wanted to acquire a new armband-capable case for my iPod. The one that fell apart last week is the second one to die. And it turned out, that despite two large walls of cases for portable Apple devices, plus a stockroom full of surely a fair number more, they did not have a case that would suit my needs. You see, I have an older iPod. It was purchased all the way back in January of 2007.

So I bought a 1 GB Shuffle, which is only cost about $15 more than a armband-capable case would have anyway. Hopefully it will last longer than my last Shuffle, which quit connecting to the laptop about two months after purchase. I brought it into the Genius Bar and was told that nothing could be done for it, given that the docking plug looked like it had been corroded due to moisture. Apparently taking your Shuffle out in the rain is not recommended.

When I am dictator…

…my first act will be to outlaw the Charlie’s Angels pose.

Sudden intimacy

1. NW flight 354 leaves at 3:54 p.m.

2. Even though I aim to be an unsentimental, future-minded cosmopolitan, I still feel a twinge of a sadness when I consider that the hometown brand, Northwest Airlines, will soon be only a memory.

3. Aisle seat. Pros: Easy exit, not flanked on both sides. Cons: Elbows get bumped when the cart comes by, nothing to lean against, have to get up if the center or window seat needs to use the lavatory. The last con can place limits on the duration of your naps.

4. The game will kill my battery, I don’t feel like writing any more, and the captain says that we’ll soon be descending, so I put away my laptop and start to space out.

I look around. “The loneliness” has waxed and waned in seemingly random fashion over the years. It’s been showing up more regularly these days, and it seems to be spiking in this moment. My eyes are grabbed by anything you might call classically feminine. I catch myself staring at the curve of a hip that is hinted at by the jeans of the woman in the aisle. The suggested form of her torso sets my heart racing. The woman in the center seat, while repositioning herself, bumps me with her elbow. I get a little electric surge from this touch.

Oh, how embarrassing to be set off so easily, to be given a significant jolt by this minor and accidental contact. At least, I think I’m supposed to be ashamed of being like this—that it’s unseemly to have, and even worse to reveal, these aches. But fuck it, it’s real, and it’s a big deal. My perpetually relationshipped acquaintances have told me not to idealize their state, and I’ve thought that some of their reasons for this position are valid, but I think that they should then not idealize the single state in return. It frustrates me when they seem to not grasp what loneliness feels like, or how crazy-making it can be. It’s survivable, but it doesn’t feel very healthy.

It’s late, the lights are dim, and I’m resting my head against the seat in front of me. The woman in the center seat is slouching and has her legs up, so that her shins are pressed against her seat-in-front, and so that her knees are at eye level when I turn my head to the right. Again, my attention is drawn to anything about her that differs from its male counterpart. The leg, much more slender than mine, that is just below eye level. I’ve noticed, lately, that the things women do to themselves in the name of beauty, once seeming just frivolous and bizarre, have become so attractive to me. The painted toenails at the end of these legs.

I sit back again. She turns to me and expresses surprise at the fullness of the flight. I respond that, actually, I’ve taken this flight many times, and it seems just as full as always. Underneath her comment was the assumption that we all live in City A, and are coming back from a visit to City B. I note that I actually live and City B, and am heading for a visit to City A. She notes that at one point, she also lived in City B. We discuss neighborhoods we both know. She asks after, and I answer with, the purpose of my visit to City A.

The conversation fades. She starts it again by saying she’s “bummed.” A friend had emailed her about the latest incident in his decaying marriage. This incident had involved a strange sort of violence, which she described to me. She is bummed because for years she thought that he was entirely the innocent party in this troubled marriage, but today, in the new email, the friend revealed that the violence was his wife’s response upon finding him texting with another woman.

I ask why she moved from City B to City A. She sighs and replies that it was to be near her husband. She elaborates. When she was away this week, she was asking herself if she really missed him. She went to a party and mentioned to someone her surprise that of all the men in City B, she married him. He’s put on a lot of weight in the last two years. He plays video games all the time. If he wants to avoid surgery for a health problem, he needs to do these exercises. He keeps saying he’s going to do the exercises, but then he never does. If she had to do it again, she wouldn’t get married, just stay committed “without the paper.”

When I was your age, we had to transport our TCP packets by hand, uphill, both ways

I’m back in Mpls, surfing the web from my parents’ house for the weekend. “Man, this internet connection is crazy slow,” I think. So I run the Speakeasy speed test to the Chicago server, expecting a result of around 200 kbps. And yet,

1.3 Mb downstream, .7 Mb upstream.

Methinks my frame of reference has changed a bit.

Classic Concentration

Photos by Flickr users (top to bottom): Roadsidepictures, Kevin Steele, 123 look at me

I used to be better at being alone

At first, the title of this post was to be its thesis. Then, after thinking some more, I decided it was a claim I could not support. I did this thinking while walking around the apartment, picking up beer bottles and microwave dinner trays when I was in the living room and setting them back down when in the kitchen. I eventually came up with this revised claim: I used to be better at not realizing I was bad at being alone.

The first version of the thesis came to me while I sat on the couch. The TV was on, as usual. The Olympics, of course. Trampoline! It’s kind of cool. I wish I could do that many flips in midair. Hell, I’d be happy with one midair flip.

But even though Olympic trampolining is pretty cool, I was sad. (Awwwwww.) And I wondered why I was feeling that low mood pit again. It’s Saturday! I don’t have to work! On Thursday and Friday, I was looking forward to Saturday. Like the everybody of yore, I work for the weekend. I was looking forward to the weekend because, unlike last Saturday, I was taking today off. No obligations. And, I thought, a young man in possession of a free Saturday in a great American city should be de-lighted. So why the frowny face?

Well, I thought, it’s probably because you’re alone. The apartment is empty. The fogginess in your neighborhood probably doesn’t help. You don’t have any plans.

I’m sad because I’m alone? How did this happen? I used to be good at being alone. I used to take pride (silly, silly pride, so stupid but we’ve all had dumb thoughts in our youth, no?) in my ability to exist solo. I was proud that I wasn’t scared to go to a movie by myself. I was proud to be brave enough to not give a damn if someone thought me pathetic for being alone in a restaurant during a customary social dining time.

So what’s the deal? Why should I be sad to be alone today, given my abundant experience with the state? This is when I came up with the second version of my thesis: I used to be better at distracting myself while alone. I’m not sure I was ever good at being alone; rather, I think I was just worse at recognizing when I was failing at being alone.

If I go downtown, and go to a movie I don’t really want to see, would that be an instance of successful aloneness? In that I’d feel better, yes. But in that I’d just be passing the time, and not really accomplishing anything I cared about, no. I’d feel better, but only because I’d distracted myself. It’d just be wasted time.

My top priority these days, after my thesis project, is to be better at being together, and to be together more often. But I’d still like to be better at being alone. This might entail, as discussed in my last two posts, learning to turn alone into together. Or this might entail finding more hobbies. If I had more things I passionately wanted to do by myself, I’d feel less like I was failing at being alone. I always feel embarrassed that I have so few hobbies—that my answers to “What do you do with your free time?” are always so weak.

Why don’t I just call someone? I dunno. I do know people here. When I looked out the window a few minutes ago, I saw an acquaintance dropping a letter in the big blue mailbox across the street. I have enough self confidence these days to say that this acquaintance likes me. I have said things in his presence that have resulted in his laughing. Why don’t I attempt to contact him, setting aside the fact that it’s already Saturday afternoon? Or anyone? Well, folks, that’s a long story, and my patience for this is starting to run out, as usually happens when I pass the 600 word mark. I think the story can be summarized thusly: While I have greater confidence in the desirability of my company than I used to, this confidence is still not great enough.

I’m outta here. Don’t worry about me, I’ll find something to do. Perhaps I’ll go “explore the city.”

Coffeehouses, cont’d. Bars, too.

Belle takes note of my previous post, sympathizes with my reluctance to approach strangers in coffee shops, describes her conflicting feelings about being approached, and encourages me to start the conversation next time.

My itchy trigger finger hit “Publish” on that post before I explained my reasons for not moving further forward. CharleyCarp comes up with a defensible one in his comment: Eye contact alone is not necessarily an invitation to converse. I was genuinely uncertain that she wanted me to approach.

I’ve been attempting to acquire an awareness of nonverbal cues over the past couple years. My long-standing mode of operation has been to only become aware of positive evaluations of me if they are put forth in unambiguous words. In the past, I would have considered it a brazen overinflation of my worth as a human being for me to even think that a woman who merely shifted her eyes my way might be interested in talking to me. In the past, if she had wanted to talk to me, she would have had to explicitly repudiate my low self-regard by walking over to me and stating, “I would like to talk to you.”

It should not surprise the reader that this did not, to the best I can recall, ever happen. (This self-doubt is, of course, also very self-centered, as it is experienced without considering the feelings of the other person enough to realize that she may have self-doubts of her own.) It should not surprise the reader that the blogger has not lived a life filled with romantic success. So I’ve tried to start learning how to handle ambiguous positive signals. Hence, my standing in coffee shops coaxing myself to allow for the possibility that, despite my disbelief, that eye contact may actually have meant something.

CC confirmed Conservative Me’s hunch that a shared gaze alone means little, and suggested for the future a gradual escalation via a small smile.

Before I move on, some words on the fear of rejection. Naturally, one response to my hand-wringing would be that I should damn the torpedoes and move straight to an attempt at conversation, despite the ambiguity of the signal. Such advice is often followed by a “Rejection won’t kill you” or perhaps by a “What’s the worst that could happen?” And it’s true, rejection doesn’t kill. And yes, I do admit that part of me probably was afraid that an overture would lead to unpleasant feelings, and that those feelings would knock away the good feelings that my obligation-free morning had brought me. But I’ve also been wondering if that stock take on rejection is flawed because it doesn’t give sufficient weight to the feelings of the rejector.

Specifically, wouldn’t an unwanted advance make her uncomfortable? What about the good feelings that her quiet morning in Starbucks might have been bringing her? I mean, she was probably no wilting flower, and thus could probably have executed one brush-off with aplomb, but what if this happened day after day? Wouldn’t I be helping to create an unpleasant environment for her? CC’s advice seems good, and so next time I’ll just take the intermediate step of smiling a bit. I’ll start looking in the mirror and practicing my non-threatening smiles.

Here’s where I attempt to justify the above silliness by trying to go all Bowling Alone on this shit. My questions are:
1. Assuming there ever was one, is the culture of casual encounters in public places (no, I don’t mean that, but I delight in leading your mind there) falling apart? Did it used to be common knowledge how to approach a stranger in a coffee shop? Or is my ignorance here just a sign of my being an outlier freakazoid, rather than of a larger trend?
2. Where in the past were these skills acquired? I learn about social skills from blogs. Blogging was invented well after humans started breeding. What did I miss growing up that has left me so unprepared? In the thread at her place, Belle mentions getting social instruction from women’s magazines. These have been around longer than blogs, but they were also invented after sexual reproduction. To what extent has explicit instruction always played a role in the acquisition of social skills?

I’ve always assumed that social skills were acquired primarily through implicit learning, and that I somehow lacked sufficient intuition and didn’t have the experiences (with failures of intuition leading to deliberate avoidance of future experiences) necessary to acquire them.

I started to think more about what I’ll call “structural problems,” however, that same night at the bar. I was gchatting with HH before heading out to meet some friends at one of our standard haunts, and she asked how I would react if a “cute girl” talked to me while I was out at the bar. This led me to consider how I’ve never had (and presently lack) a group of dudes with whom I went to bars with the aim of “picking up girls.” Are such groups common? I was out with three guys on Friday, one of them partnered, but talking to strangers was never on the table. There was no consideration of whether or not we were in a “target-rich environment” (cf. Top Gun). There never is. So at the bar, it occurred to me that in lacking such a group, I might be missing out on another traditional source of social instruction. Obviously, I’m a lot of fun at bars.

(I realize this all reads like a parody of someone like me. You are free to laugh. But this is the sort of analysis I find myself going through routinely as I try to fill in the gaps in my social skills as an adult.)