Why Commutes Are Terrible, Version 2.0

It’s rush hour, and parades of people are dashing to catch their trains or walk to the places they need to be. Those who have the luxury of standing on the escalator stand on the right as a stream of people walk upwards on the left.

That is, until some loser decides to stand on the wrong side. And then suddenly everyone else decides that this is perfectly acceptable. All movement has stopped. You become engulfed in a suffocating sea of humanity and feel no compassion for the rest of humankind. As you are forced to stand on a human conveyor belt, you suddenly grow nostalgic for the death glares that London commuters, those staunch defenders of efficiency, sent towards anyone who even dared fumble in their pocket for their Oyster Cards.

And that’s why it takes you almost ten minutes to exit the train station. Or worse yet, that’s the reason why you miss your train. As you wait for the next one, you rue the day that the idea for a human conveyor belt had ever crossed anyone’s mind.

Today.

On my way to lunch, I’d witnessed the following: a parade of small Asian children, wearing the same green t-shirt and being shepherded across a busy intersection by frazzled adults; a guy do a flip on a pogo stick; a French bulldog that sounded inches away from heat exhaustion; and a flyer saying that scenes for White Collar will be filmed a few blocks from my office sometime over the next few days/week. You can’t say that Midtown isn’t exciting.

Today at the office was the one of those “I’m going to blast music through my headphones so no one bothers me as I write a 5-page paper/complete an entire problem set in one sitting” days, except I didn’t have any music to listen to and the things I do on a daily basis are much less thinking intensive. The entire day still had that isolated, narrowly concentrated feel to it though, and it took me until 3:30 to figure out why.

Normally, there’s a reasonable amount of ambient noise in the office. Someone is either chatting on the phone, asking the person next door about the status of a project, or having a mini-meeting about other important matters. On this particular Friday, the occasional murmurs of conversation were missing. It was quiet in a way that was more noticeable than the noises that the printer makes when it’s producing a 300+ page document. I became preternaturally aware of the clacking keyboards all around me. Everyone seemed to be typing something. I was probably typing something.

The subdued quiet seemed to exaggerate everything. Not only were noises louder, the sun seemed brighter, the room warmer (probably because the air conditioning wasn’t on). A basket for UPS packages on top of the cubicle cabinets appeared out of nowhere after I returned from lunch. (I can’t possibly be that unobservant.) I was also really tired. In keeping with my subconscious refusal to sleep at times that accommodate the normal workday, I fell off the eight hours of sleep every night wagon. This may have been a contributing factor. By the time 3:30 rolled around, I was ready to go home and couldn’t really sit still. I got up twice to get water I didn’t really want to drink and decided to take the mail out twenty minutes earlier than I normally did because all I wanted to do was walk around, jaywalk across busy intersections, and look dreamily at the passing storefronts.

Whether it was because I was tired or there were no ambient noises to distract me, I was also incredibly irritated at the computer today. It runs Windows 7 and has the latest version of Microsoft Office, so in theory, it’s all good to go, but for reasons that I have yet to discover, it runs at the pace of an arthritic dog and gets upset when there’s too many tabs open in Chrome. I’ve been dreadfully spoiled by my trusty MacBook Pro, which is the one item I will refuse to leave behind in the event of an airplane accident, tornado, fire, earthquake, or flood. This morning, when I was waiting for the computer to start up, I thought about how nice it was to simply open my laptop and have things instantly work. I decided that I waste about four minutes of my life waiting for my work email to load, which probably sums into a distressingly large number over the course of the summer. Then, if you add in the precious seconds caused by loading webpages, the loss in productivity is probably astonishing. I seriously considered whether I could bring my own laptop to work for about thirty seconds before realizing that I would have to carry it around. (As much as I love my computer, I hate carrying things more.)

At the end of the day, it seemed silly to get so annoyed at slow computers, but I wanted instant gratification when it comes to the Internet. Although a loading browser doesn’t impact my general day-to-day life in any real way, it feels like a demand for attention when I come face to face to it. Or more accurately, when I glare at it, which may be part of the problem. My tolerance for falling-under-the-standards technology is evidently much lower than I realized. I can wait an extra thirty minutes for a train to take me home, but a few seconds of lag as an image struggles to materialize, forget it.

So far, I’ve been trying to decide whether I might be less adept at dealing with technology than I thought or whether I’m just impatient. The photocopier perplexes me sometimes. The mail machine also requires a bit of thinking in order to get it to spit out the right postage. I had to ask, on two separate occasions, how to turn on a desktop computer. But I also know how to find personal information using a simple Google search. I have a thousand and one keyboard tricks. I own (too) many electronic devices.

I’m going to be self-indulgent and say I’m just impatient. Nothing that a good night’s sleep won’t cure.

Small Talk

I hate small talk. I’m also someone who has a higher than average tendency to choose pajamas over people, but think about it: If you had the choice, would you rather listen to me blather about the weather or watch an episode of Game of Thrones in your most comfortable pair of sweatpants? (Not that I’ve actually seen an episode of Game of Thrones, but I’ve been told it’s good.)

Despite my dislike for meaningless conversation, it’s a necessary skill, and over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten much better at it. I can avoid awkward silence for almost five minutes if I try really hard. My toolkit consists of questions like: “How are you?” “What’s your major?” “Does that mean you get to take this class? How do you like it?” “What year are you?” “Which house do you live?” etc. etc. etc.

Last week, I realized that there was a bit of an issue with my go-to list of questions. They’re great, except if you happend to have graduated college years ago and the memory of dorms now seems like a big blur. Long story short, I don’t think I really know how to talk to people older than me.

Of course, I know how to talk to my parents. I can do a job interview (sometimes really well too!). I’ve had twenty-second conversations with strangers at a bus stop, in line for a cash register, and other places where you usually bump into people. But if you threw me into a dinner party with people who aren’t really my age anymore, I’m not sure what I would do besides start off with a “How are liking this dinner party?” and hope they mention gardening or a tv show or their dog.

I learned recently that this might be a problem with our generation. In their May 30, 2013 issue, Time wrote a feature on the millennial generation. The tagline: “The New Greatest Generation…Why Millennial Will Save Us All.” I finally tracked down the issue with the full article (since only subscribers are allowed to read the whole piece online). The author quotes from Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory, who states, “Never before in history have people been able to grow up and reach age 23 so dominated by peers. To develop intellectually you’ve got to relate to older people, older things.”

Normally, articles that generalize the failings of the generation make me tired. It seems inevitable that older generations criticize the newer ones. I’m sure that people were definitely convinced that society would collapse with hippies running around in the 1960s. But perhaps Bauerlein has a point. Most of what I talk about at least 9 months out of the year revolves around things I know would be relevant to people close to my age.

Maybe by the end of this summer, I’ll figure it out. I’ll also see if I can get started on A Game of Thrones.

Nuclear Orange Soda

If you want to be technical about it, I’m already back in the U.S. My European adventures have ended, but I’m going to talk about them anyway because now I’m home and I truly have no more obligations anymore for the next couple of weeks of my break. I don’t even have to leave the house and that’s partly true because my driver’s license and the other contents of my wallet are lying in a random street in Istanbul.

On my flight back to JFK, I was particularly excited to receive my complimentary cup of soda because I had caught a glimpse of a bottle of Fanta standing happily next to the typical offerrings of Coke, Sprite, and juice. European Fanta is delicious. With 12% orange juice and real sugar, it’s refreshing and sweet enough to let you know that yes, you are still drinking soda, but not sweet enough to make you slightly nauseous. From afar, I could see the sunny orange liquid being poured into plastic cups. One last sip of fantastic soda before I landed in the States. That sounded good to me.

When the flight attendant asked for my order, I asked for no ice. Perhaps I should have because in the guise of doing me a favor, she gave me a refrigerated can and went merrily on her way. I opened the can and poured the contents out into the cup she handed me and the liquid that poured out was the bright, unnatural neon orange that could only mean one thing: American Fanta, which has no juice whatsoever, high-fructose corn syrup as its second ingredient, and scary ingredients like “brominated vegetable oil.” My spell-check has underlined “brominated” in red, so it shouldn’t even be a word! It’s banned in the EU, probably for good reason. And think about it: why would you want vegetable oil in your fruity soft drink?

I drank the soda because I was thirsty, but it was one of the more disappointing soda consumption experiences in my life. In general, I felt a little sad to be leaving grocery stores and supermarkets in Europe, which are smaller in scale and sells excellent produce. Perhaps I need to pick better stores at home, but the produce sections of Franxprix or Monorprix were always my favorite places to browse. They were small, only two displays of produce organized in baskets and boxes, but all the vegetables and fruits were bright greens and reds. The carrots had bright orange skins, and the top green parts had been kept to make them look extra idyllic. My benchmark for determining great produce sections were tomatoes. Tomatoes spoil quickly once they’re ripe. The tomatoes in Paris always look as if they’ve been picked at the peak of perfection. Sometimes, there are squishy ones in the pile. Of course, you don’t buy squishy vegetables to take home, but their existence seemed to reassure me that the tomatoes had been picked when they were more or less ripe and transported quickly to the store and then to my kitchen. It’s probably an idealistic view, seeing as I know nothing about agricultural distribution in France, but in comparison to how tomatoes are sold at my local Shoprite, it was a marked improvement. At home, tomatoes are kept in a giant bin that a small toddler could use as a bathtub. The tomatoes are larger but they’re a pale, anemic red that comes from being ripened after being picked rather than ripened and then picked. Tomatoes in Paris looked like jewels in comparison. And best of all, they tasted like tomatoes! Even in the autumn when they weren’t in season, they were still red with a distinctive tomato taste. Shoprite tomatoes in the winter kind of taste like nothing. You just get the tomato texture with none of the tomato taste, which is vaguely unpleasant if you want to eat it raw.

Because so many artificial ingredients and preservatives are banned in the EU, especially in comparison to the United States, and the only corn product that is popularly available in a European store is corn, everything seems to taste better, even your cheap, store-brand packaged snacks. I’m going to miss food shopping in Paris, not only because they package their eggs in six instead of twelve and sell UHT milk in convenient cartons that do not need to be refrigerated for months if unopened, but also because the stuff you’re eating is not as processed.

Case in point: Fanta. If you tried to sell American Fanta, people in Europe would revolt. In Germany, birthplace of Fanta, the bottle proudly displayed that there was real orange juice. The American product proudly proclaims that it contains only “natural flavors” and no caffeine, as if that’s all you need to have a great product. While on the plane, I stared at the softly glowing orange liquid in my cup that claimed to be Fanta and then took a perfunctory sip to be polite. If only that were true.

Ohmygodwhatthehellwasthat?!?

At home, my parents like to leave the windows open. In the winter, the open windows circulate the stale, heated air, even if the incoming draft is cold enough to overtax the inefficient central heating system. In the summer, we open them in hope of a draft and wait for fresh cooling breezes that wick away heat and sunlight.

Opening a window, like anything else we do in the world, carries its own hazards.  Of course, all of our windows have sturdy, insect-proof screens. Of course, the functionality of those screens is dubious at best. While open windows in the winter just means you should put on a pair of socks, open windows in the summer signifies the onslaught of exoskeleton wielding invertebrates with neatly sectioned bodies.

The bug problem is not severe enough to merit any real intervention.  (For actual insect issues that pose public health violations, see ants or roaches or bed bugs.)  However, it is noticeable to those who do not qualify to be listed as members of the household on federal tax returns. After trying to explain to my friends to relax whenever something zooms across the downstairs living room, I have long realized that I am desensitized to most bugs that are smaller than a toddler’s fingernail, such as moths or crickets. In fact, because I have watched Mulan too many times as a child, I regard crickets with a tolerant affection. They hop and chirp. Their only misfortune is that they are crickets and not canaries. Even centipedes, while horrendous and frightening, do eat other equally horrendous and frightening creatures, so as long as they are far, far away, they can stay too.

However, the really frightening moments occur when I’m reading or sitting in front of my computer when out of the corner of my eye, something scuttles across the floor. For example, just five minutes ago, I saw something that looked suspiciously like a spider sprint across the carpet. I hopped off my bed to investigate, and (here’s the truly frightening part) nothing was there. The spider, which was the size of a dollar coin, had run towards the wall next to my closet. My walls are white, and my carpet is a light lavender. The main point: There is no possible way for a spider to disappear without a trace in such an environment.

Why is this moment “really frightening”? As desensitized as I am to bugs, spiders, etc., they are only innocuous if:
a.) I know exactly where they are.
b.) They are small in size. Really small.
c.) They do not appear to be poisonous or particularly gross looking.
The spider, of course, fulfilled none of these qualifications. Another unsettling thing to consider was that my mind made this whole thing up. The spider could have been a nervous manifestation, a symptom of an eye disorder, something signifying that I should see a health care professional. Thus, I am left terrified that an unidentified, probably large, and possibly venomous spider will attack me in my sleep (or that I should get my eyes checked).

I’ve written this post, and so far, I have not seen any more signs of life in my bedroom. While not a good sign, it is not a bad one either. Tomorrow, I’m going to start closing some windows.

Update: I found the spider. It had spun a web in between a stack of books, across from the wall where it had disappeared. I promptly dispatched my father to extract it from my room, so all is well.

Smile for the Camera

My favorite family photo is an impromptu shot of my mom, my brother, and me at the MoMA while we were waiting for my aunt and cousin to meet us in the lobby.  We had been sitting on ottoman-like chairs when we squished our heads together and took the picture.  I developed it later that month.  Although it was blurry and our faces were unfocused, there was charm in the image.

Whenever my family goes somewhere interesting, my parents have to document it by having everyone pose in front of a breathtaking view or a distinguished statue.  There are albums filled with these outdoor portraits.  I never really smile in those pictures.  There is always something forced about the four of us blocking pedestrian traffic and looking like tourists wherever we are.  The occasional photo is wonderful, but neither my mother or father can get enough of us standing stock still as they try to angle the shot perfectly as to capture everything from person to background, taking multiple shots until they are satisfied with what they see on the tiny LCD screen.  Cheek muscles begin to fatigue and attitudes turn sour as the quick picture becomes a major interruption to the original intention of whatever trip we are taking.  The focus is not really on us or the experience anymore, but on preserving the idea of the experience so that one day we can find the picture twenty years later and have it intravenously feed us memories.

The best pictures are the ones you just decide to take in an instant.  The process takes about two seconds.  Find.  Focus.  Shoot.  Usually, everything comes out perfectly and the photo has more flair, as if the impulsiveness of the moment could be captured on glossy paper.  For all its fuzziness and poor lighting, that picture of the three of us at the museum has a spark of life that the rest of the other pictures lack.  Cameras are great for recording what you want, but they just have to be unobtrusive about it. Then, when you smile, it looks real because it is real.  The photo does not become the representation of a whole experience, but a sliver of it.  It is a trigger for memory, not its substitute.