Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Hopeless Romantics

I had the weirdest customer transaction ever last night. I'm going to transcribe it as closely as possible, and you see if you can figure out where things go off the rails. The dramatis personae include "Me", and a dumpy late-middle-aged lady who looks harmless but is buying two romance novels, hereafter referred to as "Lady." Which isn't intended to imply that all readers of romance novels are untrustworthy, but I've determined that regular readers of the genre have a significantly higher rate of crazy than other customers. There's a lot of pent-up frustration in that demographic.

Anyway, I was up at the register backing up a co-worker for a few minutes after she got hit with a last-minute wave of customers. I call for the next customer and lady steps up and hands me her two romance novels.

Me: Did you find everything okay?
Lady: Yes, thanks.
Me: And do you have a Fnorders Rewards card?
Lady (handing me a $20): No.
Me (finishing up the transaction): Would you like a bag?
Lady (snapping): I'll just take my money and go elsewhere!
Me: ...
Me: Wait, what?
Lady: (suddenly staring evil bloody daggers at me)

I closed the till and handed her back her money; she put it in her wallet and stomped off. I looked around, looked at my co-worker, looked deep into my soul, trying to figure out what the fuck just happened. I went to find the supervisor on duty, Meg. The old bat had gone and complained after she left me, and Meg had been as nonplussed as I was.

"She came up to me -- her voice was shaking with anger -- and said, 'I was trying to buy some books, and I was asked if I wanted a bag!' And I stood there waiting for her to continue, but no, that was the whole complaint."

After some discussion, it turned out that the lady was pissed because I'd asked her if she wanted a bag, instead of just assuming that obviously she did and giving her one.

And there are some customers that you want to run down the street after, stop them, shake them, and shout, "do you realize that you're completely fucking insane? Well do you?" The frequency with which this sort of shit happens is shocking. Recently we've been moving a lot of stuff around, re-arranging sections within the small and strangely-shaped space we've got. One afternoon a woman came up to me on the verge of tears asking for help finding her favorite author in the romance section. (See? It's always the fucking romance readers.) I showed her that we'd only moved the section over three feet, and reversed the flow so that the alphabetical arrangement started at the other end. Everything was still there. "I just want to tell you that this is very bad for people who don't deal well with change!" And she dabbed at her eyes and walked off clutching her book.

And I thought to myself, that woman must have an incredibly shitty life. How do you survive getting that upset over insignificant things? How do you drag yourself through your day, and through your miserable existence?

Fun fact: the customers who say things like "I'll just take my money and go elsewhere!" are, in my experience, exactly the customers we're happiest to be rid of.


Sometimes in the evenings at work, the store is dead and there's not much do but stand around. Those are actually the moments when I hate the job the most. But I think to myself, maybe someday things will be so bad -- maybe I'll be sick, or always in pain, something like that -- that I'll wish I could come back to a night like this one instead. And I think that I should try to live one night at work as if it was that night, and I've come back from something much worse just for a while.

Other times I think I should try to do a day at work where I'm really cheerful and enthusiastic. But I think I'd probably overdo it and lapse into sarcasm.

I'm kinda bummed about David Foster Wallace killing himself. I'm waiting to see if anyone explains why he did it -- I mean, we can all guess, we've all been there, but I'm just so disappointed in him, and I'm hoping that there's something more than garden variety despair to justify it. It's the same way I felt when Hunter S. Thompson offed himself -- it's not that I don't get it, it's that you're supposed to be better than that, man. Thompson's life had been an endless frantic party that had finally ended; Wallace was the definition of infant terrible and actually managed to write the Great American Novel, as well as a body of other excellent work, but maybe his best was behind him. So you were in pain, so you were depressed... and? As a young man, Kurt Vonnegut had to clean the charred corpses of the old people, women and children his countrymen had incinerated, out of blackened holes in the ground. And he bore up under that horror for sixty-something years. More than that, he used it to help the rest of us bear up under the endless little horrors that make up our own lives.

When you undertake to write about what it means to be human -- and isn't that, after all, the point of art? -- then to end your creative life through violent self-destruction is to contradict everything you've spent your life creating. Suicide implicitly says, "everything I said before? That was all bullshit, life doesn't mean anything." It's ending your career with an irrevocable failure that degrades every prior accomplishment. It's the disclaimer that will hang over every word you ever wrote forever, saying that none of it really counted.* For David Foster Wallace to have had talent and genius and empathy and grace in the amounts that he did, and then end all that kicking and swinging at the end of a rope makes me ashamed on his behalf.

It's not that I don't get it. I do. It's that he was supposed to be better than that.

*Which would be pretty apropos for Wallace, come to think of it.
3:21 PM ::
Amy :: permalink

Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Why Don't You Take A Flying Fuck At The Moooooooooooon?

So, there's been one unforeseen benefit to the birth of the baby: my roommates aren't cooking right now. And this is a good thing because as lovely a pair of people as they are, they're pretty gross about keeping the kitchen clean. They mess up every dish in the house, and then leave them sitting in the sink for days on end getting crusy and gross. I mean, I'm not so big on housework myself, and lord knows back in my college days my boyfriend and I could leave a disgusting pile of dishes around. But these days, for the most part, if I slop up a pot it's going to be clean within twelve hours at the most.

Anyway, the roomies/new parents have been too tired to cook, so they've been getting take out every night, and so the kitchen stays relatively clean. And that means I get a chance to cook a little bit. Normally I just don't bother; I want to spend as little time in that disgusting kitchen as possible. And while I haven't attempted anything ambitious while I've had it to myself, at least I'm getting a week or so of real food out of the deal. And it's a nice fucking change of pace, because since I moved into this house most of my home-based meals have been non-nutritious junk that just fills the void until my lunch break, when I might be able to get something better downtown.

I'm not saying this is a good arrangement -- in fact, I'm saying the opposite. It sucks. But it's what I'm working with.

My brain, on the other hand, is eating very well. I'm on a full-scale Vonnegut kick now, and even his "bad" stuff is better than 90% of everything else I've ever read. I already said this in a previous comment, but his way of joining his utter despair for mankind's prospects with a kind of silly, joyful optimism makes for some of the most beautiful prose I've ever read. I am amazed and so glad I finally came back around to him.

In a week or so my friend Rick and I are going to the Okkervil River show, since I swore I wouldn't miss another band I love after I missed seeing Beirut play a few months ago. I've spent most of today listening to their new album, and I'm very satisfied. Browsing around this evening I ran across Will Sheff's music writing, and found this essay he wrote about Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea:

It all sounds ridiculous, but it's dead-serious and indescribably moving, because actually Mangum is singing about the horror and beauty in the world, and about transcending that horror by allowing that beauty to annihilate you. He's singing about love, but much bigger than love between a boy and a girl; he's singing about loving the world that surrounds you and even loving those who try, and succeed, to destroy you...

Everyone I know who has this record treasures it. It has helped my friends sunk in depression, I've been to weddings where selections have been used as the first dance, I know people who want it played at their funerals. And I understand why Mangum, emphatically humble and self-effacing, must be terrified by the level of devotion this little collection of songs inspires, but I also understand that devotion. In a world that constantly seems crass and cheap and mean, where cynicism is the dominant philosophy and sarcasm the dominant conduct, where what matters most is showing off what you can buy, where the most popular television programs encourage us to laugh at ordinary people willingly allowing themselves to be publicly frightened and humiliated for money, this record shows you the world trembling with beauty, transparent, enveloping, able to be redeemed or destroyed by how much love you bring to it, and, ultimately, holy.

That's exactly what I hear in that album, and the fact that Sheff can write about it so clearly is obviously connected to the reasons why I like his own songs so much. That his new album is itself about music, or at least about musicians, makes it satisfyingly meta -- is Sheff talking about himself, or just about everyone else? I'm looking forward more than I can say to seeing this stuff performed onstage.

The one conversation I regret never having had with my recent rationality-driven friend is rooted in this: is music rational? There's a definite element of rationality in it, unquestionably -- on some level, music is all mathematics, and it's hard to be much more rational than that. And yet, it affects us so irrationally, and inspires so much raw emotion. My friend loved music, and introduced me to several of my now-favorite artists. But I know for that for myself, it's music's direct, visceral appeal to irrationality, to pure emotion that isn't necessary connected to anything in the real world, and its ability to liberate at least part of my mind from its normal constraints and structures, that makes it so necessary, and drives me to spend so much of my time under its influence.

Music is the one thing in this life I don't think I'll ever understand. It has never made sense to me how simple rhythmic sound inspires ecstasy in the human brain. And not only how, but why -- the evolutionary arguments about social cohesion and the rest make sense, I suppose, but they leave me unconvinced and unsatisfied. Our response to music is so much bigger than any utilitarian function it might perform. Music, which wraps its irrationality in the structures of pure math, rebuffs any attempt to rationalize its existence.

Didn't Vonnegut say something about that? "The only proof he needed of god's existence was music," written on an atheist's gravestone. I don't know if I'd go quite that far, but it's probably the only argument that might give me pause.
1:04 AM ::
Amy :: permalink

Saturday, September 06, 2008
And Here's Where Things Get Interesting

Sigh... I guess it's time. Female roommate has apparently gone into labor, and they're off meeting their midwife to begin the process. It's still two weeks until her due date, but her water has broken (god, that phrase makes me shudder) and she's having contractions, so I think it's pretty much imminent now no matter what they do.

It's funny... just today, before any of this started, male roommate and I were chatting, and he said, "so, are you ready for the baby?" (Side note: this is probably in the top five on my list of questions that will always startle me.) I didn't get the impression he realized at the time that they'd be going into labor tonight, but maybe they guessed more than I could tell. I answered that I didn't know how "ready" a mostly-uninvolved roommate could realistically be, but that I figured I was as ready as I was likely to get and that it would all be cool regardless.

Hell, I've lived six months with constant construction twenty feet outside my window and an incessantly-barking dog on the other side of my door; I can't imagine that a crying newborn is likely to break me at this point. But soon we'll know for sure.

His younger brother, a very nice guy, is here taking care of the dog and looking after the place until they get back. And then this place is probably going to turn into a major thoroughfare for visitors. That'll probably get to me a lot more than the baby will.

Update: Yep, it happened. Grandma is already fussing in the kitchen. To add to the list of things I find intensely annoying: giddy, elderly strangers attacking me with "news" while I try to stagger to the bathroom minutes after waking up.

Update 2: Wow, that baby is small. I don't think I've ever seen one that fresh before, and she's like a tiny pink, cranky wad of chewing gum.

The good news is, while I think she and her parents had a rough first night, I couldn't hear a damn thing and slept oblivious. Granted, she's only been breathing oxygen for 28 hours, and this may change as she develops some lung capacity. But I should be out of here before she gets really opinionated about things.

I brought her books -- some old-school Mother Goose and Richard Scarry. It's sort of a symbolic gesture, since it's obviously a little too soon to use them, but I think I could make a good argument that Richard Scarry gets some credit for my having become the person I am today. Or at least credit for my command of written English. Here, kid, read a damn book.
1:19 AM ::
Amy :: permalink

Thursday, September 04, 2008
Moving On

My mother suggested I do a political post, which isn't a bad idea -- certainly there's plenty to talk about. And yet I find myself stymied. What is there to say that isn't blatantly obvious at this point?

But there is one thing I come back to whenever the subject comes up: we are, almost certainly, about to elect the first black president. Not to count unhatched eggs -- we've got two months to go, and things can always go haywire -- but it's looking like the most likely outcome. And I personally think that Barack Obama is in his own right one of the strongest candidates that I've encountered, so in that regard there's nothing surprising about it. But it's easy, maybe, to overlook how everything had to come together to make it not merely possible, but likely.

The first black president was going to be an exceptional person before all else. You can elect mediocre white dudes for decades on end, but the first black president was going to have to be a phenomenon. That much I think we can assume. The same, of course, will be true for the first woman president -- Hillary is fine and all, I suppose, not great, but not horrible. But she wasn't amazing. And she would've had to have been to win the presidency.

But a phenomenal black politician still would've only been making up for the major issue of his race -- not the fact of his race itself, but the reaction of the electorate to his race. The simple truth: there are way too many ignorant assholes who won't vote for a black guy no matter how exceptional he might be. There's still a lot to be overcome, and an amazing black candidate can still lose to a mediocre white one. It helps, of course, if the mediocre white candidate has been put forward by a party that has been in power for much of one of the most difficult decades in recent history. If there's an unpopular war, the baggage of accumulated ethical scandals, and the demoralization of a general population crushed by a failing economy, that's a big help.

But it would be even better if the mediocre white candidate also screws up a lot. Over the last few weeks I've been watching McCain finally start to join the election in earnest, and in the process doing everything in his power to make himself one of the most ridiculous presidential candidates ever. I've been hoping for something to finally blow in the McCain campaign -- maybe a nice little "Macaca" incident, that foul temper flaring up at the wrong time, the wrong word passing his pursed grey lips with a mic in proximity. I definitely wasn't expecting Sarah Palin to turn up instead, but that'll do fine. I don't have anything to say about her that hasn't been said already; I just sit and watch and smile. This is the best election ever.

So maybe that's what it takes to get the first black president elected: a phenomenal black politician running an exemplary campaign, against and addled old fool and a corrupt small-town mayor who together have been chosen to represent eight years of failure and frustration. The whole thing is just embarrassing -- the McCain campaign is the only thing, it turns out, that could make George W. Bush seem serious and intellectually formidable by comparison. It's like McCain's not even fucking trying. And so we're almost certainly about to get a black president with a last name that's mostly vowels -- almost the polar opposite of what we've had for the last eight years. And I don't know what kind of a president Obama will really turn out to be, or what, if anything, it will mean for us in practical terms. But it will definitely mark an end to everything that's come before, and that's really all I'm asking for.

But what I'm really excited about is the aliens. Everyone knows from the movies that black president = alien landing. 2010 is the year we make contact!

PS: Comments are back to normal.
3:49 PM ::
Amy :: permalink