Sunday, April 4, 2010

"lovemaking on the go"

This girl is complaining in the New York Times about how gross it is that she has to constantly watch people making out in public in New York City. More than anything, I'm surprised.

I'm surprised because I personally have noticed a great decline in the amount of PDA I see. Before about 2001, yeah, it was all over the place. But nowadays when I see a couple making out in public, it makes me feel sort of nostalgic for when you used to see it all the time, and sort of proud of the couple in question for their bravery.

I think what's happened is that it's no longer trendy to make out in public. This prudish piece in the Times reads like a throwback to 1994, when the culture at large thought PDA was sexy and edgy and "uninhibited." There's a paragraph in the essay about how, when she glares at the makers-out, they smirk at her, all "Jealous?" I feel like the last time anyone was jealous of someone who made out in public was 10 years ago. Nowadays they strike me as more "not caring what anyone thinks" in an actual, genuine way, not in a "Look at me! I Don't Care What People Think! I'm a Rebel!" way.

When onlookers can see your tongue going into another person's mouth, when you're all heated and flushed and passionate, you've pretty much lost any claim to insouciant sangfroid that you might have had. You might as well be the "lovahs" on Saturday Night Live, that embarrassing aging academic hippie couple played by Rachel Dratch and Will Ferrell who assault unsuspecting acquaintances with icky TMI about their sex life. Perhaps this has to do with another annoying '00s trope: The policing of PDA based on how conventionally good-looking you are, and the problem with "the lovahs" is that they're not. (Note that the Times piece is also devoid of references to that; the writer is skeeved out by your smooching whether you're a supermodel or a schlub.) I might not be able to go as far as saying that love is out of style, but "passion" sure is. To grope your partner with wild abandon while the two of you are on the subway is an act of terrible self-exposing earnestness, and earnestness invites ridicule, not jealousy.

I haven't been single since 1997, but it's also my understanding that in this day and age, it's no longer a marker of high social status merely to have someone to make out with, so people aren't that eager to shove that status in strangers' faces. Isn't it all hookups and threesomes and "friends with benefits" now? If you're making out with a new person for the first time, that I can see, but established couples are much more modest than they used to be, and I think modesty conveys status now in a way it didn't in the past: You aren't cool enough to witness us groping each other; it's by invitation only.

For the record: I don't really consider bars and clubs "public places," so much. I mean, they are public places, but they're specially designated for, you know, carousing. So if you're not there for an unhinged, probably sexualized atmosphere, I don't know why you're there. And since being drunk lowers your emotional connection to whatever you happen to be doing, drunk people making out don't seem as achingly earnest as sober people making out, so they're not risking as much by doing it in public. Same goes for drunk people making out on the subway at night. That's the only subway PDA I ever see anymore. The bar/club atmosphere makes PDA seem much less noteworthy and more just part of the overall scenery.

But what about the disgustingly cutesy-poo brunching couples? you may ask. Surely they're an argument that it's still a status symbol to be part of a couple. And yes, it is, but what's different is there's no PDA. Maybe some hand-holding or the stroking of hair while waiting for a table to be properly festooned with gingham napkins, but nothing that's in-your-face sexual. It's more about being good-looking, about how each member of the couple is sort of a fashion accessory to the other, in a very controlled and self-possessed manner. Which is the antithesis of abandon.

Monday, March 22, 2010

a modest proposal

Can we please just de-stigmatize the word "hipster"? It's so pointless how it has to be an insult. I hate it that there's no other word to describe (in a neutral fashion) any of the zillions of decent, non-offensive people who nonetheless are culturally oriented that way. You know: who like things that are "indie" and "organic," who are oriented toward "design" and living/hanging out in thoooose parts of Brooklyn and doing yoga, who go to rock shows and art shows, who are versed in "Target yay, Wal-Mart nay" and ideas about what it means to be "ironic." I am one of those people, and if you're reading this, you probably are too. And there needs to be a name for it that isn't a pejorative.

It's just annoying how you can't go, "I hated working on Wall Street because I was the only hipster," or "Let's have brunch in Park Slope; there are lots of good hipster places." I'm fond of talking about the period of my life "before I was a hipster," i.e. when my favorite foods were full of high fructose corn syrup and I went to every Meg Ryan romantic comedy and my idea of alternative music was stuff like No Doubt and the Smashing Pumpkins. But referring to yourself as a hipster is tantamount to writing a novel and calling it "chick lit." I say, it doesn't have to be.

There are hipsters and there are non-hipsters. Like the people who ask me what kind of music I like and when I utter the word "indie" they don't know what it means and think it has to do with India or Indianapolis. I would even go so far as to say that if you ever use the word "hipster," you are a hipster.

Shut up. It isn't a bad thing. People who aren't hipsters don't think about or talk about hipsters, and most of them wouldn't even know a hipster if they came mustache-to-ironic-mustache with one. They can't tell the difference between those mustaches and the ones sported by insurance salesmen.

Gawker is having people vote on a new word to replace "hipster." I think they're mainly doing it because the word is overused, and not because of the complaint I'm raising, but I'll take it. I voted for "doucheoisie," and was pleased to see it was the most popular choice (although now they're having a runoff vote and the rather less ideal "fauxhemians" is in the lead). I like "doucheoisie" because it does not have to be explained. Anyone familiar with the lore of "hipster" and the notion that it's an insult will get it. I also like it because it's so obviously negative. So now anyone who uses "hipster" to mean "pretentious, superficial snob" can use "doucheoisie" to mean that instead, and the rest of us innocent, unpretentious hipsters can have our word back and use it in totally unloaded ways that simply describe the cultural milieu that we gravitate to. That cultural milieu is a real thing, and it needs a name. "Bohemian" sounds like it's from another era. ("Fauxhemian" sounds like someone who's trying and failing to be a hippie.) Ditto "counterculture." "Artsy" sounds self-aggrandizing and self-denigrating at the same time. "Alternative" and "underground" make it sound like a fringe movement, or something that's defined by its opposition to the mainstream, which it isn't quite.

Also witness the battle between Salon and Slate over the article on Salon about "hipsters on food stamps," in which young, artistically-inclined, unemployed or underemployed urbanites whose tastes in food hew more to the organic chicken side of things than the Little Debbie Snack Cakes side have found they're poor enough for food stamps and are using them in ways socially incongruous with the stereotypes of food stamps. There was a "puh-leaze" overtone to the piece, a chiding oh you're just so precious, with all your highfalutin food "tastes" even when you're broke and an implication that these people must not really be broke enough to need food stamps, despite being officially eligible for them.

Slate (rightly) objected, pointing out that just because someone is steeped in the trappings of cultural privilege doesn't mean they're also financially privileged. And isn't that, at its root, what the insult-ization of "hipster" is really about? The idea that anyone with cultural privilege is obnoxious for having it? (Despite that people who use the insult also have the privilege and thus can recognize it when they see it?) I know we're all fond of talking in the shorthand of "trust fund," but you don't have to be remotely that rich to end up, as an adult, culturally oriented that way. And if your parents don't have enough money to support you, and you want to pursue a career in the arts or publishing, then yeah, especially now, you're going to be poor. It sucks. Should you instead pursue a career in some less precious, more lucrative sector, like, say, insurance sales? See if your colleagues there know the word "indie."

Do you know a better word for the concept? I'd like to hear it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

artificial flavors

I went to Starbucks on the way home from work the other night and got a piece of coffee cake as a snack. But I felt like it didn't taste that good. I had a feeling that a homemade piece of cake would taste better, and that the Starbucks version was a consolation prize because I didn't have time to bake one at home.

But I'm not sure these feelings are authentic. I'm not sure whether the cake really tasted bad or I just thought it did because I have new ideas about Starbucks that suggest their food tastes bad. I used to have pretty much the opposite ideas about Starbucks, and during that time I always thought their baked goods tasted great.

To put this in context, let's look back at the evolution of Starbucks. The first time I ever went to Starbucks was in the summer of '94, in Mount Kisco, NY. At that time the Mount Kisco Starbucks was one of the only Starbuckses in all of Westchester County. Maybe THE only one. I was 21 years old and not really a coffee drinker. I got a Mochaccino because I didn't really know anything about coffee and thought a drink that combined chocolate and coffee was probably good. It was the summer, so most likely it was an iced mocha. The idea of "coffeehouses" still had to do with Seattle and open mike poetry readings. I had never been to Seattle or to an open mike, and not being a coffee drinker, the entire idea seemed mostly abstract and exotic, a symbol of something cool and progressive like Nirvana and Juliana Hatfield.

In 1996-97 I had graduated from college and was working in New York City. By this time there were a lot of Starbuckses, both in the city and in Westchester, and I was a coffee drinker, having become one at my first office job because drinking the free coffee in the office kitchen was one way to avoid working. I "graduated" from mochaccinos to hazelnut lattes and then regular lattes.
There started to be a lot of other, Starbucks-esque coffee places around the city, like Timothy's World Coffee (does that still exist?). The whole idea of a "coffee shop" now evoked these Starbuckses and imitators, while in the past it meant more of a diner. Starbucks was considered an "upscale" establishment, a place where wealthy, rarefied, highly educated people went instead of, I guess, Dunkin' Donuts or a diner.

From 1998-2000 I really, really enjoyed going to Starbucks. I liked their drinks and food, yes, but I also just liked being there. It made me feel more like the kind of girl who was always perfectly groomed, whose possessions were always shiny and new, who sailed down the street in her immaculately clean car with the windows open on a bright sunny day. It made me feel like my edges were all smoothed out. It made me feel like I was less weird and less misfortune-prone. I was just a beautiful, breezy suburban girl relaxing amid the green, brown and orange modern decor of Starbucks, with that ubiquitous emblem of privilege, the green and black Starbucks logo with the mermaid, stamped on the cup I carried down the street on my way out, as I sashayed down the street in my Banana Republic brushed cotton twill capri pants. In 2000 the Christopher Guest comedy "Best in Show" came out, in which a yuppie couple say they met at Starbucks, "but not the same Starbucks." She was in one Starbucks, and spotted him in the one across the street: Yuppie love. Basically that was it: Going to Starbucks made me feel like a yuppie.

Then sometime in the last decade it went downhill. The idea of two Starbuckses across the street from each other ceased to be a joke. Starbucks was everywhere. There was absolutely nothing rarefied about it anymore, even in that suburban yuppie way. It was just THERE, a banal fact of life. You went to Starbucks because you wanted coffee and it was there. It became hard to find a place to get coffee that wasn't Starbucks. If you felt like getting a snack, Starbucks was the default place to get it, not because their snacks were the best but because they were good enough and available. And of course if you were in Barnes & Noble, if you ate anything in the cafe there it was Starbucks.

And the backlash happened. First it was, Dunkin' Donuts coffee is better because it's cheaper and not as corporate-obnoxious. Then it was, Dunkin' Donuts coffee is better because it's cold-pressed. And that's when everything started to change.

I was still as aware as I ever was of popular ideas of what made someone elite and sophisticated. As advertising-driven as those ideas might be, I think it's bullshit to dismiss them just because of that, even though I know it's part of appearing elite and sophisticated to act as though you are impervious to advertising. And maybe in 1999 Starbucks was associated with status, but now we've reached a saturation point with the Locavore thing, to the point where those ideas are the ones that inform my social feelings about stuff like Starbucks.

The Locavore thing dictates that homemade food is more luxurious than store-bought food. Anything with additives, anything "processed," is the domain of the uneducated masses, the underclass, and if you want to maintain your elevated status, you have to avoid all that stuff. Even the supermarket is considered a bit of a déclassé place to shop, now that everyone's read the Omnivore's Dilemma and knows that chemically altered corn and disgustingly maltreated cows are the source of almost everything in the ordinary supermarket. You have to be like Jack in "Into the Woods," whose best friend was a cow, and if you eat a cow or any of its milk, it should be a cow who was your best friend, as sad as that might be. Prepared foods from chain establishments, especially if it's a huge corporate chain like Starbucks, are assumed to be full of contemptible material. As "bad for you" as these chemicals might be, the underlying message that, to me, gets communicated most loudly is the message that if you want to fit into an elite social category, you cannot pollute your persona with the additives found in a piece of Starbucks coffee cake. If you must eat baked goods, you should bake them yourself, without using white flour or sugar. And this is chiefly for social reasons, not for physical/health/moral reasons. You have to have that moral code mainly because it's required for membership in the group you want to belong to, and you obey those rules because it makes you feel good to feel as if you're part of that group. Just like it made me feel good in 1999 to buy something at Starbucks, to take my money out of my cute little wallet and overpay for coffee. The overpaying felt good, like a smaller-scale version of jumping on the bed in a Vegas hotel and throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars in gambling winnings in the air.

Also, there's been a gradual social trend away from viewing "upscale" corporate chains as at all elite. A book, Trading Up, came out a couple years ago, not too long before the real estate industry imploded, about how "luxury" versions of mass-produced things are now the standard to which the masses aspire. That is, it's no longer good enough for the average Middle American person to go out to dinner at Applebee's; now they have to go to the Cheesecake Factory, with its "international" menu and closer adherence to the idea of decor. With this shift, of course, came the need to have a McMansion and an SUV, not just a regular car and a regular house. Those people, the ones who love the Cheesecake Factory and SUVs, are the most disdained kind of "masses": the masses who think they are elite. Therefore, the elite had to do something else to distinguish themselves. This still remains true even now that all the people who bought McMansions and couldn't afford them are out on their asses. Maybe another backlash is in the works but it hasn't happened yet. The word on the street is, it's now passé to view money as the ultimate luxury. More luxurious still are the commodities of time and inconvenience.

So the other night when I ate my Starbucks coffee cake, it tasted sort of chemical to me. I had had this same coffee cake countless times, and it never tasted chemical before. I have been gradually altering my diet to include more wholesome, less processed food, so maybe my tastes have legitimately changed, but I don't completely buy it. I suspect that I've tricked myself into believing that the Starbucks coffee cake tastes chemical because I'll be socially rewarded if I think so. It's been tainted with the whiff of social undesirability, and that might account for that metallic, artificial flavor it seems to have.

And I resent it. In one way, it's my own fault, for "Caring What People Think," which is something that no one with High Self-Esteem (TM) is ever supposed to admit they do. You are supposed to hold fast to your claim that you're avoiding processed foods because it's Better For You, because you care about the health of your body and it doesn't have anything to do with what other people are doing, ohhh no. But in another way, I don't believe the people who claim it has nothing to do with social forces, and I think the social forces affect everyone in a way that's taboo to admit. It's annoying that it's taboo to admit it, and it's annoying that it's happening at all. I don't want the way foods taste to be governed by ideas about which opinions about food I have to have in order to belong to a certain social class.

But weirdly, I wasn't annoyed by it during the years that I loved Starbucks. I didn't complain about "pressure" to like Starbucks. The idea that there was ever pressure to like it seems laughable. It never seemed to come from a place of pressure. It seemed like more of a guilty pleasure than anything else, a way to flaunt your privilege and elitism without admitting you were doing it. But isn't that also what the anti-chain-snobbery is? Isn't sniffing, "Ew, Starbucks is so gross and chemical, that stuff is so bad for you" just code for "I'm better than the people who buy food at Starbucks"? It is, it's exactly the same. So I think I'm annoyed by this because it forbids, rather than promotes, something. When I loved Starbucks, the thing to do was eat it; now, the thing to do is not eat it. And I always prefer a directive TO do something than a directive to abstain from it. Because it's not as though I ever felt I had to go to Starbucks a certain number of times per week to meet a quota. It was more of a bonus, a little extra sparkle. Now not only do we not get to have extra sparkle, but the thing that used to provide the sparkle now provides a demerit. Something good was replaced by something bad.

But now what's good is to buy grass-fed meat at the Farmer's Market and use it to make a flavorful stew in your crock-pot. And I do this. And I greatly relish doing it, and it feels good in some of the same ways as going to Starbucks used to feel. And in other ways. It feels nourishing and comforting and homey. But the parallel is that overall sense of "Life is good." In 1999 you watch yourself prancing out of Starbucks with that cup with the green straw in your hand, and put on your sunglasses and flip your hair and feel, Life is good. And today you inhale the herbs and spices of your lamb stew with lentils and whole grains, you are aware of the cuddliness as you cuddle up in front of the fire with a handknit blanket around your shoulders, a one-of-a-kind handknit blanket that makes you feel special because it's one-of-a-kind, and you feel, Life is good. And you get these ideas of what a good life is from social images and advertising and all that stuff that's not supposed to affect you.

And I just wonder, is it possible to have ideas about what a Good Life is without watching myself, without these social barometers? Is it ever possible for me not to see them, to choose a path without awareness of what group it makes me fit into, to defy those rules without being aware that I'm defying them? That seems like the best life of all, and also the most elusive.