Friday, December 21, 2001

deconstructing this time of year: the winter solstice

[email composed 21 December 2001]

Greetings everyone,

Please pardon the interruption. I'm sending this to everyone in my address book, which includes friends I see regularly, friends I don't see so regularly anymore, friends I'm related to, friends with whom I work or used to work, friends with whom I dragon boat (or used to), friends I've met through our mutual admiration of the Old 97's (although you may be used to a different e-mail address), or anybody else that is for some reason in there.
By now you've probably had one of three reactions:
- Hey, a message from Doug!
- Oh, not another message from Doug!
- Doug? I don't know a Doug.
And if it was second or third one, you've probably stopped reading and deleted the message. I understand.

Okay, I'm only addressing the people who are still reading now. Thanks for sticking with us. On to the real message...

It's the Winter Solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere). Well, technically, today's when the Winter Solstice occurs (at 11:21 am, Pacific Standard Time, if you wish to catch the exact moment). This is it: the shortest amount of daylight all year; starting tomorrow we see a little bit more sun each day until June 21. A number of religions and cultures of the world (those that started in this hemisphere at least) seem to think that this return of the light is cause for celebration, and thus, this time of year is (in these politically correct days) identified as "the holidays."

Lacking any specific religious allegiance, and being a white guy (therefore not having much in the way of worthwhile culture), I can't claim to really have a "holiday" but here in the U.S. that's not a problem: we all celebrate Christmas whether we believe Jesus was the son of God or not; we all have the day off work, we may as well get together. I applaud this opportunity to gather with loved ones. However (those of you who know me saw this coming), there is part of me that cannot help but feel a little guilty co-opting the observation of the birthday of the Christian savior without holding avowed devotion to said savior. That's why I'm spotlighting the astronomical event of the Winter Solstice and not dwelling on any particular ritual that springs from it: I certainly don't wish to tread on anyone's beliefs (or lack thereof, for my atheist readers).

No, I'm not going to bore you with details about the solstice itself. If you wish to find out more, there's a number of worthwhile sites on the web that can fill you in (I reviewed to verify the exact timing of the solstice, but feel free to do your own search). I want to seem clever but not out-and-out dorky. (I realize I come across out-and-out dorky, of course, but that's not my specific aim.)

By now you've probably had a number of people give you some holiday-related greeting, in person, in greeting cards, on TV shows, in magazine ads, on billboards, and in e-mails--both people you know and strangers--and of course, from every clerk in every store where you've shopped to purchase those gifts that are the truly integral element of acknowledging that we're happy about the more-daylight thing. I have. This started me thinking (although, to be fair, just about anything will do that): Do these greetings influence reality? Does wishing someone a "happy holiday" actually cause that person to, in fact, have a happy holiday? And does that clerk really care whether we have a happy holiday or not? Should he/she?

It seems to me that it's entirely possible that these ostensibly altruistic messages uttered at the end of transactions, to strangers on the street, and so on, may not have genuine intent behind them: they are social intercourse, they are what one is expected to say, lest one be viewed as a Scrooge, a Grinch (before the Jim Carrey movie). But if we don't really mean it, what good is it doing? If the wish is to have any positive effect on the recipient, it seems to me, that it must be heart-felt, and call me overly cynical but I cannot believe that the clerk can mean it to every customer he sees for the entire month of December. Is a hollow greeting really any better than none at all?

Sure. It keeps people off your back. And promotes spending.

I'm not suggesting that the clerk secretly wishes ill upon the customer, that the actual desire is for the person to have a rotten holiday. Unless the customer was really rude, of course. Nobody wants that jerk to be happy. Admit or not, but you know what I'm talking about.

I don't wish bad on anyone--unless they cut me off in traffic or something, and only then when I'm in a bad mood, and even then I don't really mean it. But to be perfectly honest, I don't think everyone is destined to be happy during this period--at any given point in time, some people are happy, some people are unhappy, and the rest are somewhere in between; where someone falls on that spectrum is largely a factor of their own choosing, I think. (Yes, I'm using "their" instead of "his or her": deal with it.)

There's only so much for which I can be responsible. I don't mean to sound selfish, but, well, come on.

By this point, most of you are probably thinking I'm completely incapable of experiencing innocent joy. That's not the point. Don't try to distract me now. I may or may not. What I don't necessarily like is the way there's an insincerity to some of what transpires between people masquerading as good will that is taken at face value because we're all too afraid to puncture the fragile spirit of the season. But hey, I get over it. Besides, it's a free country: if you have "the holiday spirit," that's fabulous. I certainly hope that it would be sufficient to allow you to ignore the insipid ramblings of some idiot you find in your e-mail.

The only reason I'm sending this to you is I think you have some redeeming quality that justifies investing the hope that you choose to make yourself happy. I certainly think you should try to be happy during this period if for no other reason than the sun's coming back, but more important, I think you should try to be happy even after "the holidays" are over. There's a new year coming (thanks to Pope Gregory 417 years ago), and while I won't pretend to care about the happiness of every single person on the planet--that's just spreading myself too thin, I'm sorry; surely that task can be dispersed among the rest of the people, with each covering his or her (yeah, I'm back to that) territory of sorts--I shall pretend to care about the happiness of each of you then.

As long as you reply to this message, that is.

I don't care if you say anything, but I would appreciate everyone who wishes to remain in my address book to acknowledge that they've read this far. Even if you're not inclined to comment, just send me back a blank message. Really. I'm serious. And I'm not as desperate for e-mail as this plea would make me out to be (almost, but not quite). Apologies to those who received this in multiple addresses. Thanks.

The deity of your choice--or lack thereof--bless us, one and all, my friends. Or not, if you're not into that sort of thing...


p.s. I reserve the right to continue to care about you choosing to be happy even if you fail to reply to this message, just for the record. You're just a lot less likely to receive more messages from me--and many of them will be more entertaining than this one was--in 2002. Perhaps you'd prefer that, now that I consider it further...

Saturday, December 01, 2001

rant du jour: beware of darkness

[email composed 1 December 2001]

On the walk from the downtown office to the train, the first street I cross is actually a ramp leading from Hope St. down to Figueroa. While there is no traffic signal at this ramp, there is a crosswalk running across it. In over two years of making this trek I have seen many vehicles turn right from Hope onto the ramp without looking to see if there are pedestrians trying to cross; I expect them to not see me when walking. Along the street leading this corner are trees and parked cars, so admittedly it is difficult for drivers to spot individuals on the sidewalk much before they are almost at the curve. The corner could be better lit at night, but is not that dark.

I approach the crosswalk from a side exit of the building, hitting the crosswalk second line at a slight angle. After I've already stepped on the asphalt, I notice a car--one of the new BMW's, silver--on Hope St. clearly slowing for the turn. I continue, knowing that since I'm on the far side of the crosswalk from the car, and by the time it makes the turn I'll already be several steps out, well in the middle and clearly in view. I have dealt with this more times than I can remember; I know how to gage the situation (I have no desire to be struck even if I technically had the right-of-way). As absolutely no surprise to me, the car doesn't slow after beginning the turn, so I jog the last two steps to get out of its way, not the least bit panicked; I know I'll be clear either way, but I prefer to show I'm making an effort to get along with dalliance. As I'm doing this, the car's break squeal for a split second as the driver slows--not stops, but slows--suddenly. By this point I'm already out of the car's path, so even without this tiny skid there was no danger of it hitting me. I hop on to the curb at the other side of the ramp and continue walking. After I'm several steps further, from behind me I hear, "Kind of hard to see you, dude." I turn to see the BMW has stopped, and the driver--a Caucasian male ostensibly in his late 30s--has rolled down his window to give me this message.

I have many times in my travels witnessed cars turn right in front of me as I was about to cross this ramp and wished I could point out their dangerous ignorance to them. However, at this moment no clever retort springs immediately to mind. Sizing up the scenario very quickly, I conclude that the driver would be unreceptive to an explication of what transpired, and I have a train to catch, so I simply shake my head with slight exasperation for a second, then turn and continue walking. I may have considered walking back to point out that I was never in any danger, and that I was in the crosswalk well before he made the turn, and, in spite of the darkness, it was only because he clearly wasn't paying attention that when he did finally notice me he felt compelled to kind of brake hard, were it not for one overriding element to the whole moment.

He called me "dude".

Frankly, had he simply proceeded on his way down the ramp without saying anything--like every other car has--I would have dismissed him as just another downtown driver in a car that just screams, I'm a pretentious weenie with money--like I do with every other car. Since he knows on some unconscious level that he did not look before turning and panicked slightly when there was a pedestrian in the road (not one that he was about to hit, of course), he tries to mitigate his own feeling of guilt by dragging me into his little web with this "helpful" observation of his. He is the epitome of upscale American evil; I recognize this instinctively, and know that further interaction would be a waste of time--no one on foot could possibly convince him of anything (that he would ever admit).

And as I said, he used the term "dude". Apparently his vocabulary never progressed past junior high. This has not impeded his ability to scale the corporate ladder, of course.

I'm not envious in the slightest. You couldn't give me a BMW. I'm sure they're fine cars and all, and I know some of you like them, but it's just that I've never seen someone driving one who didn't drive it with this disdainful arrogance for the rest of us, an arrogance that they mistakenly believe financial success affords them. They may as well all come with license plates that just read ASSHOLE.

This driver, the representative of them in so many way, veils his arrogance with this veneer of concern, still ignorant of the fact I was the only one in any level of control of the situation between us, and I see through him like cheap curtains. He is a lost cause, and no matter what ever happens for the rest of my life, I shall sleep well knowing I'm not one of them, not him.

The pithy comeback that comes to me about 5 minutes later is this: "I'm pretty easy to spot if you pay attention." I'm sure next time, should one occur, my mind will be similarly dim witted. But I remain hopeful for myself nonetheless.

These are moments that move me closer to being convinced we need to step back and allow some other species on the planet to become the dominant one before it's absolutely too late. It won't be hard to find one that is more observant than us, and even amoeba are smart enough not to drive BMWs.

Watch out for yourselves, kids. There's not that many worthwhile souls around, and we can't afford to lose you. Especially to BMW drivers. 


"So glad you came here, won't be the same now, I'm telling you"
- "Old Brown Shoe", The Beatles (George Harrison), 1969