Friday, December 31, 2010
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild mature content.
Every year I write a Holiday Newsletter and send it with my holiday cards. As newsletters go, mine isn’t very useful; it doesn’t, for example, describe the highlights of the year. It’s actually more likely to focus on a single low point of my year, just to counter-balance all the highlights you’ll read about in other people’s newsletters. Or it’s simply random—the “secret Santa” of holiday newsletters, you might say.
In keeping with the tradition I started last year, I’ve decided to extend my Holiday Newsletter to my extended blog “family.” Enjoy.
Note: please do NOT read this newsletter aloud to your kids!
Before I get to the standard good tidings, I’d like to make a humble request of all my friends and family: please don’t tell your kids that Santa doesn’t exist! This is the time of year when I get really nervous that somebody’s going to spill the beans. I was at the library with my kids recently and saw a book was on display titled The Truth About Santa Claus. Seeing this, I felt the same kind of panic as a teenager whose mom has walked into his room before he can hide his “Playboy” magazines. What if my kid saw that book? The title alone suggests treachery.
Why, you might ask, should we perpetuate this Santa myth? Well, for one thing, it is charming to watch our benighted children participate in it. I’ve loved reading Alexa’s letters to Santa over the years, asking for mundane or impossible things (a “new live rabbit” and “more aquafresh” one year; aquafresh and “miny piano” the next).
A couple of years ago on Christmas eve, right after her goodnight hug, Alexa suddenly assumed a panicked expression, like someone who just realized she left her purse in the train station, and said, “Wait! We have to put out some cookies for Santa!” Last year she left him meticulous instructions: “To tell the stockings apart, look at the license plates with our names on them in the loop on the top of our stocking.”
The myth is good for adults, too. It keeps us on our toes. For example, Alexa and Lindsay have somehow arranged with Erin and me that every year they get to sleep under the Christmas tree for the last three nights before Christmas. This makes it a bit tricky when it’s time to fill the stockings and deposit the presents. It’s fun going around like a cat burglar, stuffing a stocking right above their sleeping heads.
The whole Santa mythology also opens the door for useful discussions with our kids. I appreciate the chance to dispel my daughters’ natural skepticism even while encourage critical thinking. For example, they asked how a bunch of little elves could make enough toys for all the children in the world. “Oh, believe me, they don’t,” I replied. “How could they? Santa outsources most of his production, just like most corporations. I mean, think about it—would elves really make Aquafresh?”
When the kids asked about the whole “he knows when you’ve been bad or good” bit, I became indignant. “That’s just a myth that parents came up with to try to trick their kids into behaving. I won’t lie to you: Santa doesn’t know what you do and he doesn’t care. Every kid gets presents, even the ones who are little monsters all year. But you should be good for its own sake.” With this lecture I hoped to instill the impulse to question authority—but within bounds.
Another reason I’m opposed to exposing the Santa myth is that, even if your kid is ready for the truth, his younger sibling probably isn’t, and there’s no chance of the older one keeping a secret. Decades ago when my older brothers learned the truth, they wasted no time in breaking the news to me. They couldn’t wait to watch me cry, and they weren’t disappointed. Meanwhile, once a younger sibling learns the awful truth, he tells everyone in his class. Some of those kids will tell their even younger siblings, and now you’ve just trashed the whole holiday. Meanwhile, we can’t really expose the Santa myth without giving up the Tooth Fairy too. After all, once our kids realize we’re capable of lying to them consistently and repeatedly, their skepticism will naturally increase.
Ah, now you want me to defend the Tooth Fairy myth! Fair enough. Frankly, the Santa legend is fun and all, but the Tooth Fairy is something we need. Why? Imagine the alternative, which is presenting the losing-teeth business straight: “Here’s the deal, kid. One by one your teeth will get loose. Your tongue will get tired as it pushes that tooth around, until the tooth is hanging on by one little strand, at which point you’ll taste blood. Eventually you’ll yank the tooth out, which will hurt, and then you’ll have this funny-looking gap in your mouth. The next tooth that comes in will be oversized and as this process repeats you’ll get uglier and uglier until you get braces, which are truly hideous, and which will hurt all the time. Sorry, but that’s just the way it goes. Life’s a bitch.”
Compared to that, giving up a few coins or bills each time to create goodwill is a great bargain. For trivial amounts of money these kids will actually look forward to all this unpleasantness. Almost four months before she lost her first tooth, Alexa said something so interesting I wrote it down: “I wish my teeth would fall out so I would get money from the tooth fairy and I wouldn’t have to earn it.” I asked her what she would buy with the money. She replied, “A gallon of milk for Lindsay.” That’s not even a real expenditure, since we’d buy milk anyway. It’s a zero-sum game that makes it fun to lose teeth!
Here is Alexa with her first lost tooth (July ’07):
Here is Lindsay with her first lost tooth (November ’09):
Awhile back we had a close call with the Tooth Fairy myth. I was loading groceries into the back of the car when Alexa suddenly asked me straight out if the Tooth Fairy really exists. It seems one of Alexa’s classmates was spreading the evil truth about this myth. “Don’t listen to kids, they make stuff up,” I told her. She said the kid’s mother had told it to him. Man. I’d love to get an audience with that mother and excoriate her for turning her kid into a merciless little killjoy, running around the playground sharing the bad news. I’d give that woman a taste of her own medicine: “Ah, so Truth is that important to you, eh? Well then you’ll be happy to know I just told the whole PTA how you paid for your Prius—that is, with a stock portfolio comprising equal parts Monsanto, Phillip-Morris, Halliburton, and bundled credit default swap instruments!”
We had another close call with Lindsay’s last lost tooth: I simply forgot to swap the tooth for the money during the night. I sneaked into the kids’ bedroom in the morning with a $5 bill (the smallest thing I could find), and climbed into Lindsay’s bed as if to snuggle. I reached under pillow, extracted the tooth from the special Tooth Fairy purse she’d put it in, palmed the tooth with two fingers while using other two to insert the bill in the purse, and pulled my arm out just as she woke up. She immediately checked the purse and found the money. It was unbelievably close, like the action movie cliché of people running and diving for cover mere seconds before something explodes. Which, in fact, Alexa did when she saw the five-spot. She found it totally unfair that she had never gotten that much. She was in tears. I had to scramble and explain that the Tooth Fairy pays a flat rate, based on the prime lending rate set by the government. I acknowledged that there are regional variances, of course; that in the Bay Area the tooth rate would be a bit higher than, say, a third world country. During the ensuing discussion Alexa seemed to forget all about the $5. These kinds of trial-under-fire give me some of my finest parenting moments.
So you may be wondering, when is it time to reveal the truth about Santa and the Tooth Fairy? The answer is: never. Let the kids find out on their own, or—and this is the best case scenario—let the truth dawn on them so gradually that they go from believing the myth to helping to perpetuate it without even realizing it. This will prepare them for adulthood, when they go along with the greatest mass-delusion of all: money.
Well, I was hoping to give you all kinds of updates about the Albert family, but I see I’m out of room. Have a great holiday!
dana albert blog
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
I spend little time in malls. The exception of course is when I’m doing my Christmas shopping. Recently I went to the San Francisco Centre on
First, I thought about how I used to be annoyed at the layout of these escalators: instead of lining them all up, so you could make an uninterrupted trip to the floor of your choice, the up- and down-escalators are staggered, so when you reach a new floor and want to go up another, you have to walk 180 degrees around to the next up escalator. The idea, of course, is to take you past as many shops as possible. I used to be put off by the sneakiness of this, but with so many modern technologies making our lives more sedentary, I now applaud the mall designers for forcing us to get more exercise.
Second, I made up my mind that this time I would keep a close eye out for the lotion sniper, and would make damn sure he didn’t get me again. What, you haven’t encountered the lotion sniper? Well then, read on!
Lotion snipers only seem active during the holiday shopping rush. They seem to rely on their prey—shoppers—being dazed by the Christmas music playing in the stores. This music is particularly disorienting when three different stores are playing three different versions of the same song in a ten-minute period. I found myself catching lyrics of “Sleigh Ride” that I’d somehow missed as a kid, like “Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up it’s grand/ Just holding your hand.” As a somewhat romantic teenager, wouldn’t I have found this line compelling? How did I miss it? Meanwhile, the song seemed longer than ever before, with one version having a stanza I was sure was new: “Your thighs are nice and loamy/ The egg nog’s foamy tonight/ Let’s ditch those fuzzy knickers/ Amidst my snickers and sighs!” (Okay, I made that up. I don’t remember what the new stanza actually was.)
So while we shoppers are all dazed with music and the whole holiday shopping frenzy, the sniper expertly scans the crowd for an easy mark, which I guess would be anybody who’s not talking on a cell phone or gossiping with pals. In other words, somebody like me who’s minding his own business.
Once the sniper has you on the hook, he or she commandeers your wrist and begins an elaborate demo of three different skin products. Of course you won’t know in advance how long and complicated this demo will take, which is how you let yourself get roped into it in the first place. The sniper keeps up a constant patter laced with fancy words like “antioxidant,” “exfoliate,” “toner,” “embrocation,” and possibly even something utterly nonsensical like “Naugahyde.” (That last one isn’t a real example; I haven't paid close enough attention to remember them all.)
The skin care demo goes completely against my modus operandi when shopping, especially during the holidays. My goal is to be surgical: enter a men’s clothing store, go straight to the sale section, see if anything decent is heavily discounted, buy three of four of whatever I like and think my brothers and father will like, and get the hell out. I’ve never understood how people can go shopping for pleasure. But the skin product sales pitch is hard to endure even when I’m not in a hurry. It’s just a tragic waste of time all around. There is zero chance of me buying any product from these people. Whatever human failings I possess that make me such a natural victim for lotion snipers, these failings are overshadowed by my essential cheapness. All that chatter about tight skin and oily skin and dirty skin and dead skin makes it hard for me to think as I try to prepare the statement that will quickly snuff out his hope that I’ll buy anything. It gets awkward.
Perhaps it’s how I was brought up. I’ve lived more than half my life in
I’ll never forget something that happened at The Cosmopolitan, a restaurant near my office where I once had lunch with my colleagues. The waitress was describing the special in typically overblown frou-frou foodie terms (“suffused with a parsnip emulsion and dressed with a cranberry truffle salsify” or some such) when she caught my colleague smirking. To our astonishment, she got so flustered she started to cry. “I’m just trying to do my job!” she sobbed before storming off, without having taken our orders. You’d think a waitress would have thick skin, but you never know. Could it be the same with lotion salesmen?
So I give such hucksters their audience, unable to refuse their demo. Once on the hook, I’ll writhe uncomfortably until the guy has said his piece, and then I’ll bicker politely with him over his rejoinders to my objections. Really, the only graceful way out for me is to never engage in the first place.
Despite my resolution to avoid the sniper this time, I somehow managed to fall victim once again. What happened was, I saw a woman standing in the aisle with a giant tray of juice samples. I’m a sucker for free juice. Naturally, I reached for my free sample, but just as I did, a guy appeared from behind her. “Hi, how are you?” he said with a big smile. Dammit! It was a trap! I’d been set up! This was a new tactic this year: two lotion snipers working together, like hyenas.
Unwavering in my resolve, I said, “You’re just giving juice samples, right? I’m not trying out any lotion!” He said, as if taken aback, “Lotion? No, of course not! Have some juice. This juice is from the acai berry, which—did you know?—is the richest source of antioxidants there is.” Relieved that he was just hawking juice, I let down my guard a little. Big mistake.
“Where are you from—what kind of accent is it you have?” he went on. He himself had some vague, non-specific European accent, probably fake. (For some reason lots of rip-off artists I’ve encountered have these odd accents, like the quasi-Euro guy in Chinatown who sold me a $25 Casio watch for like $60 back in ’91. As I talked him down on price he kept saying, “Hey, don't do me no favors!”) The sniper’s question about my supposed accent appealed to my curiosity because I’ve actually had a number of good honest people, over the years, ask where my accent is from. It’s a real mystery to me why I should be thought to have one. Some think I have a slight British accent, which is of course false, and one or two say Dutch, which is probably a guess based on visuals. Of course, I should have recognized right off that I’d spoken only a dozen words to this guy—on what basis could he hear an accent to begin with?
But this guy was smooth. Somehow, when he said, “Hey, I wanna show you something,” I failed to say “Oh no you don’t!” Perhaps I had the unhealthy curiosity of a rubbernecker at a car wreck, or maybe on some level I thought I could learn something from this guy about the craft of selling. Most likely I felt, on a subconscious level, as though I were already involved in a dialogue it would be rude to cut short. (Of course it’s not really a dialogue; he might ask a question, but it’s only an input into his script, to be parroted back to me later to perpetuate the illusion of conversation.) Before I knew what was happening, I was rubbing some damn salt scrub into my hands over a bowl, while the sniper waited patiently with a spray bottle to rinse them.
What did this guy look like? I’m having trouble remembering. My overall impression was that he reminded me of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, so any memory of his actual appearance is supplanted by a stock photo of The Artist. He had an exceptionally friendly demeanor, so that he could make insulting insinuations without making me angry. “Did you shower this morning?” he asked. I said I had. “You can’t just shower once a week—you have to shower every day!” he said. “And that rash on your throat? That’s from shaving. This product is second to none in making the skin relax. It will totally rejuvenate you. And blackheads?” He gestured along his nose and below his eyes. “It will completely get rid of your blackheads!” He wasn’t a big guy; how did he know I wasn’t going to say, “Who are you saying has a rash and blackheads? Why, I oughtta…”?
Meanwhile, he had flat-out lied to me. He said he wasn’t hawking lotion! So what was this? Oh yeah: a three-part total skin care regimen. I suppose neither the exfoliant nor the revitalizer nor the moisturizer was technically a lotion. But he’d moved completely beyond that part of our interaction. “Your hands get so dry, working all day for” [here there was a tiny delay as his mental machinery recalled a data point it had extracted from me earlier] “…Blascorp.” I wanted to say, “Oh, yes, Blascorp is notorious for drying out its employees’ hands.” But instead I listened politely. He was so enthusiastic about how much dirt would be removed from my hands, I was expecting to see something like the wastewater from a Rug Doctor.
What I could have said
It’s hard to think when a well-polished shtick is flooding your brain with information and you’re carrying out this weird operation with three different substances on your hands. It would be understandable not to be able to think of anything to say, but this wasn’t really the case this time. I thought of plenty of elegant ways to short-circuit the sales cycle—but I couldn’t bring myself to use them. This guy is just trying to make a living, after all, and is probably paid entirely on commission; he hadn’t really done anything to give me license to be a jerk to him. So when we got to the end and he asked which product I liked best, I wordlessly pointed to the last one, which had made the inside of my right wrist as smooth and shiny as plastic.
“Look, I’m not asking you to buy all three,” he said. “That tub there, it’s such a highly concentrated product, it’ll last you a whole year!” I thought of saying, “What are you saying, pal, I can only afford one? I thought you said this was a three-part regimen! You think I’m cheap or something? Am I not worth it?” But this would have given him a fresh opening and I was really trying to wrap up. I could have said, “It’s actually rather unsettling how smooth the skin on my wrist is now. And it’s even more unsettling that you’re the first person who has ever rubbed lotion into my wrist. My mom never even did that. I need to go somewhere quiet and collect myself.”
When he said, “Imagine your wife rubbing this into your feet!” I could have said, “I’d rather not. My wife hates my feet. She says my toes are too long. I try not to even let her see me barefoot.”
At the end I said, “I’ll think about it.” He hated that, of course. “Why come back later, after our promotion is over, and pay more? Fifty dollars is just not that much money; why not do something nice for yourself?” To which I thought to reply, “Hey, you said yourself, this isn’t just oil and lanolin here. This is a sophisticated product. Before I buy a year’s supply I need to wait a day and see if my sample gives me a rash or something!” Or I could have gotten dark and said, “Do something nice for myself, huh? Well as a matter of fact, I have a deep-seated self-hatred that makes it impossible for me to spend any money on myself. I’m actually not worth it. I really believe that. And it’s a sore subject, I wish you wouldn’t bring it up.”
Perhaps my most honest reply would be, “Who says I want smooth, healthy skin? Smooth, healthy skin is an affront to my masculine dignity! Do I look like the kind of guy who exfoliates and gets manicures? It’s bad enough my hands have become so slender and girlish from office work. I used to be a bike mechanic! I used to have big, meaty hands, grease-stained, with a smashed thumbnail, and I was proud of them!” But I just couldn’t. What if this guy does get manicures? What if he’s miserable enough as it is, stuck in a mall all day listening to Christmas songs, trying to get people excited about $50 skin creams? What if he’s supporting his poor sick mother?
“I’ll think about it,” I repeated, taking up my shopping bags and shuffling off, head down as if a chopper were overhead. I made it to the down escalator and didn’t look back.
dana albert blog
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
NOTE: This post, though referencing an actual psychology study, is a work of fiction. I use the actual study as a jumping-off point for something entirely fanciful.
“Rejection triggers responses in the body that can increase a person’s risk for maladies such as asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and depression, a new study says. Scientists at UCLA recruited 124 healthy young adults to participate in a lab-based test aimed at determining whether social stress such as rejection causes inflammation, which can have detrimental effects on mental and physical health. Participants were put through stressful tests that were designed to make them feel rejected. Measurements of inflammatory markers were performed on samples of oral fluids taken before and after the tests…. Not surprisingly, the inflammatory biological markers in oral fluids increased dramatically after the stressful tests.”
—“Rejection Affects Health,” WebMD Health Newsletter, 10 Aug 2010
Our recent study was a big success. One of the conclusions we arrived at is that further study is warranted, with a widened scope. In our initial study we had recruited healthy young adults; what more light could be shed, we wondered, if we studied all ages?
Our first follow-up study was with seniors. The results are not documented because the sessions did not go smoothly. Several of the participants could not hear—and others could not understand—most of what our test administrators were saying. Moreover, several of the male participants had poorly shaved chins, with little white hairs like Shredded Wheat stuck to their skin, and other subjects drooled, which distracted the administrators.
Much better success was found with other age categories, and those results are documented here.
Test #1 — Six-year-old test subject
Several six-year-old study administrators were recruited and trained in how to make the study subject feel rejected. These administrators very quickly caught on to the study methodology and did an excellent job carrying out the test.
On a school playground, a test subject was selected: an especially cute six-year-old girl who we felt would be unaccustomed to rejection. She was not made aware that she was participating in a test. The administrators, who were also her classmates, set about teasing her mercilessly. The first said, “I’m not friends with you anymore!” The second joined in, “Yeah, you’re like a baby, always carrying your ‘Roo Bear’ around!” The third administrator yelled, “We hate Roo Bear—he smells like dog farts!” Then they all laughed.
The impact on the subject was immediate. Subject bawled loudly for some time. We had trouble getting a good oral fluid sample with our swab, as subject thrashed around and her saliva was diluted by nasal mucous, which was flowing freely from both nostrils, and by tears streaming down into her mouth. Subject would not stop yelling. It took us a long time to figure out what she was trying to say: “It’s not ‘Roo Bear,’ it’s ‘Woo Bear,’ and she’s a girl bear!”
Not surprisingly, and despite the trouble with the oral fluid sample, this social trauma resulted in significant increases in markers of inflammatory activity, with abnormally high levels of tumor necrosis factor-α (sTNFαRII) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). We recommend further testing with this age group, though it has become obvious that it would be wise, going forward, to notify the subject’s parents in advance.
Test #2 — Fifteen-year-old test subject
Subject was a fifteen-year-old bike racer. Administrator was a fellow racer, who was given specific instructions in carrying out the test. Following a difficult hill climb bike race, a group of racers was comparing results and talking about the race. Subject, who did not finish in the top twenty, looked ideally awkward from the outset. Administrator said to the group at large, “Hey, I don’t need this energy bar … does anybody want it?” Others had been instructed to say nothing, and eventually subject replied, “Yeaahh!” Administrator stared at him in disgust and did not hand him the energy bar, behaving as though subject were uniquely exempt from the energy bar offer due to some obvious defect.
While this test initially looked promising, the professor made us feel like idiots by refusing to analyze the oral fluid sample. Apparently the test setup was rendered invalid by the elevated inflammation markers that would inevitably accompany athletic challenges like bike races, and we should have known this. We have thought about trying again with this age group but are feeling a bit demoralized.
Test #3 — Twenty-year-old test subject
A pretty brunette college student was recruited as administrator and instructed to be conspicuously friendly toward a prospective subject in her foreign language class. After some delay, subject eventually asked her out on a date. From the outset of the date (a casual lunch at a café), per our instructions, administrator was oddly cold, refusing to smile or engage subject in conversation. Eventually subject asked her to explain herself, to which she responded, “I talked to my old high-school boyfriend for a long time on the phone last night—he’s at BYU—and we’ve decided to get back together.”
To our great surprise, the oral fluid sample showed no significant increase in either sTNFαRII or IL-6. We interviewed the subject later; here is the most salient excerpt from his statement:
“She was straight-up fly, so I made sure not to get my hopes up. Sure, I was disappointed, but mostly I was trying not to laugh. I was tempted to say, ‘BYU? In
“Anyhow, it’s no biggie. My roommate and I like to compare notes about girls rejecting us. It’s like a running joke. We even have an expression for it—‘me dio calabazas’, which means ‘she gave me pumpkins.’ We love recalling these rejections … it’s almost like keeping a scrapbook.”
Test #4 — Forty-something test subject
It occurred to us that our study should include subjects having the classic risk factors of mid-life crisis. Those in their forties, burdened with mortgages and living in fear of losing their corporate jobs, were deemed ideal. We selected our subject on the basis of his age (forty-one), life commitments (family, Bay Area mortgage), and the fact of his maintaining a non-commercial blog (apparently as a hobby). We recruited a woman of the same age to serve as the administrator, accosting subject at a barbecue. Administrator’s friend began the dialog by asking subject’s wife if she blogged; she took the bait, replying, “No, but my husband does.” Administrator promptly asked subject, acidly, with evident bewilderment and even revulsion, “Why do you blog?”
Subject was speechless for at least ten seconds, before stammering, “It’s because I’m stupid and I don’t have any friends, why do you think?” We immediately swabbed him and found unprecedented high levels of both sTNFαRII and IL-6. A quick scan of our records showed this was in fact the strongest data set of rejection-inflicted inflammation on record. Subject agreed to a brief discussion about his experience. Why, we asked him, was his reaction so strong?
“Well, first of all,” he replied, “she asked the question with such disgust, as if she were asking, ‘Why would you sniff a cat’s butt?’ I mean, ‘Why blog?’ Why do anything? Why do a crossword puzzle? Why knit? It’s like she couldn’t imagine that a person would write just to express himself, maybe improve his writing, and post his stuff to a blog in case somebody might want to read it. Her question seemed like either a rejection of the idea that I could ever offer anything of value to the literary world, or a rejection of the very existence of literary world, like the world has forgotten that there are modes of written expression that go deeper than Twitter or Facebook.”
We asked if that was all. (Subject became even more agitated and we even considered re-swabbing him.) “Isn’t that enough?” he said. Finally, after some reflection, he said, “I guess I’ll admit that, since nobody questioned the idea of my wife blogging, this woman’s incredulity was like a rejection of my masculinity. Like, why would a guy blog, you know?”
Further study is clearly warranted.
Test #5 — Forty-something test subject #2
Based on the success of the last administrator/subject pairing, we again selected a forty-something woman as the administrator and a forty-something white collar husband/father amateur blogger as the subject. This time, the venue was a high school reunion, which we felt would be a perfect setting. (We deny the assertion that this test was an attempt at getting the “high score on inflammatory activity markers”; we are simply trying to isolate acute cases for further study.) Administrator was a friend of the subject’s wife. Subject, again, was unaware that a test was being performed on him.
Administrator, behaving in a friendly manner, casually asked subject if he was on Facebook. He said he was not. She asked if he Tweeted. Again, he replied no. She asked if he did anything social online at all, and he said he had a blog. “A blog?” she said, with unmasked repugnance. “Why do you blog?”
Subject, to our surprise, was placid, even sanguine. “You mean you really don’t know why bloggers blog?” he replied. “I thought everybody knew that. It’s so that they can make fun of people to a wide audience. For example, by tomorrow everybody on the Internet will know that you went around this reunion with your bleach-blonde hair and boob job thinking you were all hot, when really you looked ridiculous because your teeth were stained purple by red wine.”
Thinking quickly, we swabbed the administrator and found sTNFαRII and IL-6 levels that were completely off the charts. Clearly, further study is warranted.
dana albert blog