Sunday, September 17, 2006

Seasonal Affective Dialing

The other evening I used my stuck-in-traffic time to call a kinky-haired actor I used to go out with in New York. My call was completely out of the blue, and there was no time elapsed between inkling and execution (I handle a lot of decisions this way—dubious). The conversation could have gone any which way—we haven’t seen each other since our last date was pervaded by an icky sense of doom sometime around last December. But it was really, unexpectedly, warm and gratifying.

One night last winter, he and I had met up in Union Square, from where we would walk to dinner on Avenue C. The red-and-white-striped booths that comprise Union Square’s annual holiday shopping bazaar were set up and twinkling with white lights. He took my hand (which for me was a paradise since New York winters were tough for me and I always fantasized about having a bigger hand into which to deposit my cold and gloved littler hand, but most winter days this was just a fantasy). Not more than a few paces from there we’d run into the kinky-haired actor’s father. His family was from New Jersey, and still lived there, except for his brother who was a lawyer in Midtown. And here was the dad, planning to go to the movies alone after work (since the mom was in Europe on book publishing business, if I recall), offering instead to take us to dinner (which we—or he—appropriately declined).

The kinky-haired actor lived in a city where he had these roots and this potential to run into a parent—and I had nothing more than a few years’ worth of roots in town. No family and only one friend who knew I existed before I turned 25 and went off to grad school. (And only I knew that I’d had a lot of more confident, more carefree times before I materialized in New York).

I think I was incredibly jealous.

So flash forward to our phone conversation on Thursday night and he’s asking me about L.A. and I’m saying it’s great and I’ve got so much history here, and all of my old friends who knew every detail and nuance (and who knew all about the happier times, and who where there as they were happening)—and my parents too. And I told him how I thought it was really enviable that he ran into his father that time, and how now I live in a place where I can just go get a carton of milk with my mom if I need milk, and that I’d just done that today. He said he’d just done that with his mom too.

I wonder if he knows I wouldn’t have left New York when I’d had the opportunity if we’d stayed together a little longer.

Then my phone beeps low battery, and I’ve got to go anyway, so I tell him that even though I meet lots of people, I don’t easily forget the people with whom I spent the kind of time that I spent with him. He echoed that sentiment emphatically. And he said he hoped it was reasonable to think we might get a drink or a coffee when I’m in New York in November—right around the time of year when we’d met last year, and had our marathon first date, during which we’d sat in Tompkins Square Park and talked about being Jewish and falling in love while leaves fell on our curly heads and we brushed them away.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Oh my God! The Most Amazing! Sensational! Traumatic! Heart Rending! Exciting! Thrilling! Finish in the History of College Football!

That's the way announcer Joe Starkey called the end of the 1982 Cal vs. Stanford Big Game, when Cal used an unreasonable number of questionable laterals and ran back the kick with no time on the clock--when the Stanford band was already on the field in premature celebration of victory--finally knocking out the tuba player in the endzone to win the game.

"The Bears have won! The Bears have won! The Bears have won! Oh my god! The most amazing, sensational, traumatic, heart rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football! California has won...the Big Game...over Stanford. Oh excuse me for my [hoarse] voice, but I have never, never seen anything like it in the history...if I have ever seen any game in my life! The Bears have won it!"

It's an oh-the-humanity broadcast moment. And I swear it saturates me with emotion and makes me cry every time I hear it (which will be more often now that some commercial that runs during NFL games has appropriated that clip).

I want to make a point about college football here. There's nothing like it. Particularly when you go to a school like Berkeley, which, even when it sucks at football (say, during all of the years when I was a student and had season tickets), it's still number one at man-to-man combat. When you can't count on a victory, you can at least count on a good old-fashioned, rush-the-field riot, with felt from the opposing team's ridiculous mascot flying through the air, alongside aloft ballcaps and cascades of smuggled-in beer. A mad we-love-this-place frenzy.

And Cal's Memorial Stadium is such an amazing place to be, all snuggled in the hills, with its 75,000 fans, its view of the campanile, and the canon on the hill. And there's that Berkeley-in-the-fall weather that will always, always remind me of taking a walk with a certain fiery Mexican architect (then an architecture student) and an optimistic, pregnant lawyer (then a psychology and political science student, not in the least pregnant at the time, but definitely as optimistic)--the same girls who accused me of having a you-get-the-gist attitude, and who were right about that--down College Avuene, crunching leaves underfoot, to pick out our Halloween costumes from the crowded racks of second-hand stores. And of the thrill of college football season. And of being young and of being hopeful and of being happy.

Now that college football season is back, it brings with it reminders of that optimism. Reminders of youth and happiness and hope. Hope that even an outcome as absurd as the 1982 Big Game--as unimaginably improbable as it is--could actually happen. And that the most amazing! sensational! exciting! thrilling! victory could be yours if you believe, and if you never, ever give up.

Friday, September 08, 2006

You're Blessed With a Purpose, Supa Star

I’m a little obsessed with the e-newsletter Daily Candy. Even if I don’t love all the products those gals write about, I love their fun turns of phrase—and that great formula they’ve got: open with a naughty or kitschy pop culture reference from mid-80’s to mid-90’s, discuss greatness of some product/resto/Web site in two paragraphs, close with fun one-line kicker alluding to first pop culture reference. Oh, and to the left is that darling illustration of a hip girl with big sunglasses balancing her purse on her knee while she digs for something in there, or sitting on a bar stool, or drinking milk from the carton in pink slippers. And all this comes irresistibly packaged with a punny subject line like, “Supa Star” (about a label called Supayana), or “Clip Art” (about a new nail salon) or “Chic Happens” (about a personal shopping service). Gets me every time.

But basically, Daily Candy is all just about stuff you can buy, stuff to fill your closet, stuff to make you look sexy, stuff to drink, that kind of thing. And I guess I just felt like I needed more inbox stimulation than that.

That’s when, maybe three years ago, I started subscribing to DailyOm, which as far as I can tell, is a Daily Candy ripoff that uses the same basic formula to discuss spiritual things. Hippie stuff like meditation and connecting with the earth through rocks and things. Positivity. Self and community empowerment. Self love. And instead of the cute girl balancing her handbag, there’s always the same drawing of leafy bamboo. And the typical subject lines are more like, “Alive in Joy,” “Sacred Sentinels,” and “Finding Your Pinnacle.” Since I started getting these emails, I’ve forced myself to read them every day. (I figure it’s only fair to make myself moderate my Daily Candy- and New York Best Bets-reading time with time spent reading about something I can’t buy. Why can't I buy it?! Dang!)

DailyOm emails are always written in that fortune cookie or horoscope style that is easy to interpret and that you find totally resonant if you’re going through something in your life. If I was thinking about my ‘Tross, I’d get a DailyOm about breaking away and I would gulp down a tear or two and feel really touched. Or if I was trying to decide whether or not to move across country, I’d get a DailyOm about making positive change or dealing with tough decisions. I like to forward these emails around to my friends who are also dealing with stuff. Truth is, DailyOm isn’t very well written. And it’s really much, much too long (usually around 400 words compared to Daily Candy’s 200). So I get kind of bored (like I’m reading about staying focused, and I have to stop halfway through to read other emails). And often there are errant exclamation marks in the middle of words. But still, I think a few minutes of reflection every morning never hurt anyone.

I recently got an Om about purpose:

Blessed With A Purpose
Your Life's Work

Many people are committed to professions and personal endeavors they never consciously planned to pursue. They attribute the shape of their lives to circumstance, taking on roles they feel are tolerable. Each of us, however, has been blessed with a purpose. Your life's work is the assemblage of activities that allows you to express your intelligence and creativity, live in accordance with your values, and experience the profound joy of simply being yourself. Unlike traditional work, which may demand more of you than you are willing to give, life's work demands nothing but your intent and passion for that work. Yet no one is born with an understanding of the scope of their purpose. If you have drifted through life, you may feel directionless. Striving to discover your life's work can help you realize your true potential and live a more authentic, driven life.

To make this discovery, you must consider your interests in the present and the passions that moved you in the past. You may have felt attracted to a certain discipline or profession throughout your young life only to have steered away from your aspirations upon reaching adulthood. Or you may be harboring an interest as of yet unexplored. Consider what calls to you and then narrow it down. If you want to work with your hands, ask yourself what work will allow you to do so. You may be able to refine your life's work within the context of your current occupations. If you want to change the world, consider whether your skills and talents lend themselves to philanthropic work. Taking stock of your strengths, passions, beliefs, and values can help you refine your search for purpose if you don't know where to begin. Additionally, in your daily meditation, ask the universe to clarify your life's work by providing signs and be sure to pay attention.

Since life's journey is one of evolution, you may need to redefine your direction on multiple occasions throughout your lifetime. For instance, being an amazing parent can be your life's work strongly for 18 years, then perhaps you have different work to do. Your life's work may not be something you are recognized or financially compensated for, such as parenting, a beloved hobby, or a variety of other activities typically deemed inconsequential. Your love for a pursuit, however, gives it meaning. You'll know you have discovered your life's work when you wake eager to face each day and you feel good about not only what you do but also who you are.

It’s no Supa Star, but it’s fun to think about. Now if only I could buy it.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Everyone Comes to New York for the Jam, but Nobody Buys It

On a beach towel in Santa Monica yesterday, I was reminded how glad I am that I’ve left New York. But it wasn’t just the Pacific sand that reminded me; it was the article I finally got around to reading in New York magazine there—“Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness,” by Jennifer Senior, about the scientific study of happiness and what sort of people attain it. In short, it’s not New Yorkers.

"From the point of view of the happiness literature, New Yorkers seem to have been mysteriously seduced into a way of life that conspires, in almost every way, against the basic level of contentment. The large points first: Most happiness researchers aggree that being surrounded by friends and family is one of the most crucial determinants of our well-being. Yet in New York, as surprisingly neighborly a city as it is, is still predicated on a certain principle of atomization. Being married would help in this instance, obviously. But New York City’s percentage of unmarried adults is nine points higher than the national average, at 52 points.

Then there’s the questions of the hedonic treadmill [the undending hunger for the next acquisition], such a demonic little term, so apt. Isn’t that what New York, the city of the 24-hour gym is? More charitably put, one could say that New York is a city of aspirants, the destination people come to to realize dreams. And of course we should feel indebted to the world's dreamers (and I thank each and every one for creating jet travel, indoor plumbing, and The Simpsons) but there’s a line between heartfelt aspiration and a mindless state of yearning.

Economists have a term for those who seek out the best options in life. They call them maximizers. And maximizers, in practically every study one can find, are far more miserable than people who are willing to make do (economists call these people satisficers)… New York doesn’t just attract ambitious neurotics; it creates them. It also creates a desire for things we don’t need—which not coincidentally is the business of Madison Avenue—and, as a corollary, pointless regrets, turning us all into a city of counterfactual historians, men and women who obsessively imagine different and better outocomes for ourselves.”

And the most resonant point the author made discussed a study in which a Columbia researcher went to a high-end gourmet store and set out samples of six different kinds of jam. She promised a substantial discount to shoppers who wanted to buy a jar of their preferred jam after sampling. The following week, she set up the same sampling station, only with 24 kinds of jam instead of six. The weekend there were six jams, 30 percent of samplers decided to buy one; the weekend there had been 24 jams, only 3 percent of shoppers bought. Essentially, too many options mess with people. This is what New York does to people’s minds. And to their dating habits.

"Everyone comes here for the jam, but no one buys it."

That all the men I was dating in New York knew exactly how many choices they had for women (and that they always seemed to be looking over my shoulder at the next one coming down the block who might have something on me) and that those choices were basically infinite, was a particularly cruel punishment for me because I had already punished myself earlier in life by sticking with a very long relationship with my ‘Tross who knew—because of his easy charm and the fact of his rock stardom—he had a million options, and could consequently never commit to a single one. One of his dearest friends once told me, “I wish [your ‘Tross] would spend more time with you. It’s bad for a man to have too many choices. He’s standing at a buffet table and sampling so much he’s making himself sick.” Always a sampler, never a buyer.

My ‘Tross in Oakland of course proves that it’s not just New York men who are crippled by their glut of opportunities. But back in L.A., I’ve already met men who aren’t. And this is encouraging.

If everyone comes to New York for the jam, but no one buys it, maybe here I’ll find the right buyer for my jam. That is, if anyone’s ready for this jelly.