Drive-Thru Confessional

As busy people with self-imposed hectic schedules, we love a good drive-thru. Using the drive-thru allows us the necessity of ordering, consuming, and cleaning up without ever having to park or exit the car. We don’t even have to dress for the occasion. Get it and go; it’s the American way. Thank you, McDonalds.

But during that brief moment of respite in which we allow ourselves some measure of nourishment (be it ever greasy, fried, or otherwise harmful to our overall health), I can’t help wondering what kind of consideration we give to those whose voices float out to us garbled and mostly incoherent from the screen reading “Order Here.”

Sure, we don’t mind telling them which value meal or combo pack we’re going to have for dinner. We don’t mind telling them we want no onions or that we want to supersize it. But what happens after they take our order? What happens when we think they’ve gone? What kind of information are those disembodied voices privy to?

We always assume that as soon as they take our order they are gone, and we don’t necessarily consciously make the connection between the voice in the box and the person at the window. Do they hear us berating other drive-thru patrons for ordering too much? Do they hear us venting about bad bosses, failed friendships, luke-warm marriages? Do they hear us discussing health problems or politics? Religion and the weather?

Do they ever hear things that make them want to spit in our order?

We take for granted that the drive-thru affords us some element of privacy. Our cars are safety zones, impenetrable despite our daily grind. We think our cars preclude us from interaction with what’s outside them (maybe this is why people so diligently pick their noses while they drive, but that is a whole other blog). What we fail to think about is the implicit contract of communication that we enter into as soon as we respond to the question of whether we want fries with that. By inviting that voice into the vehicle, we are, whether we intend to or not, allowing that drive-thru worker into that particular moment of our lives. No wonder so many of them seem so disgruntled.


Anything I Can Do You Can Do Weirder

Privacy is not something guaranteed to us, but it once was a general consideration we liked to make for each other. The world was once a place in which we didn’t know everything about everyone, and we didn’t need to know everything about everyone. At what point this changed I couldn’t begin to guess, but now it seems that the opposite is true: we don’t just need to know everything about everyone, we feel entitled to know. And a big thanks to the various social networks, as well as reality tv networks like Bravo, for allowing us these all-too-familiar glimpses into each other’s lives.

Don’t get me wrong: I love reality shows (inasmuch as they are reality) and Facebook just as much as the next person. However, I am also one of those (few it seems) people who believe in censoring myself. My life is not what I would call fascinating enough to chronicle every bit of it for perusal via hourly status updates, and Facebook will never encapsulate who I really am. But I do indulge in the connectivity, and I have been known to watch a Real Housewives show or two. How could I help myself? Everyone else was doing it.

And although many reality television shows are innocuous (hardly bringing more than bad role models and media-driven substantiation of stereotypes to the table), it’s shows like Hoarders and My Strange Addiction that seem to warrant a closer look at why we want to know what we want to know. What is the attraction? Why do we get sucked into these shows that chronicle people with psychological problems? Certainly there are people suffering from these afflictions who never make it onto tv. Do we care about those people? Do we even notice them in real life?

I can’t help wondering if we aren’t mesmerized by these shows because they make us feel better about ourselves. We see these people grappling with issues like eating couch cushions or collecting hair from shower drains, and it makes us feel a little bit better about our own idiosyncrasies. We see the hoarders or the messiest house in America, and it makes us not feel so guilty that the supper dishes are still soaking in the sink or that the dusting has been neglected for another week.

It’s been suggested that in order to captivate an audience with the attention span of 140 characters, the action has to be extreme. There is no room for middle ground. We don’t want to see shows about average people. We want to see the extreme versions of ourselves, what we would turn into if we just let go. Is this why we feel justified as spectators? Are we just trying to keep ourselves in check, or have we in our quest for never-ending connectivity convinced ourselves that this is entertainment?

Re-runs and Re-reads

Growing up my family used to watch the same movies over and over until we were so well versed that we no longer needed the actual film to enjoy the experience of watching it. We didn’t branch out very frequently (to quote from our repertoire: “We don’t normally go where we ain’t already been.”), but occasionally we would adopt something new. Sometimes we chose well; other times we’d revert to the standards. They made us laugh. They made us cringe. They were comfortable.

Books affect me the same way. Branching out is always fun, and trying new authors feels like living dangerously sometimes. But there are certain standards, certain stories, certain authors that remain constant. These books I’ve read over and over again, some of them so many times I can quote whole sections. The characters have become a part of my reality, so real to me that it’s difficult to conceive of them the same way every time I open the pages. At some point, I reason, they should have learned from these mistakes. They should know as well as I what is going to happen in the next chapter because we’ve all been there before. Except we haven’t. The characters never age, although my perception of their actions and my ability to relate to them does. I love them for who they are to me and what I feel like they could be if they were only given a few more pages. The possibilities are endless.

The scenery in these books and the action feels a bit like watching a familiar film. I know the cracks in the sidewalks and how the paint peels from the porch railing. I know on what side of the castle the moss grows because I’ve seen it in my mind so many times. It’s just as real to me as anything I see on screen.

I look to the characters for consistency. People, real people, are slippery, and it’s very easy to put trust in the wrong place. We don’t want to think that we are the only ones who have our best interests at heart, but so often that seems to be the case. But the people in the books remain the same through every read. They don’t stab the reader in the back. They don’t modify their behavior to save themselves at the reader’s expense. I always know where I stand with them, even if it’s not where I want to be. I respect them for this. I always will. They have become a comfort zone, a place to land when I’m looking for something predictable, something with order, a welcome distraction when I feel like I’m losing control.

A Prompt Writing

It was a strange engagement. But she had her own reasons for wanting to go through with it. And so did he.

She waited for him at that bar on Third Street. A friend of a friend had referred him. She had been assured that he could get the job done. They’d never met before, but somehow she knew she’d know him when she saw him. The bar smelled of smoke and rain and made her feel claustrophobic, and if the flourescent light above the bar kept flickering, she’d lose her nerve.

“Another?” asked the ever-attentive bartender. He wasn’t used to seeing women in his bar; he couldn’t even remember the last time he’d served one. She was a newcomer to the place and as such was worthy of suspicion. Her appearance did nothing to bolster his confidence in her. Her wet hair was matted to her forehead, and her mascara had run just enough to make the dark circles under her eyes noticeable.

“No thanks,” she said. “I’m drivin’.” Eventually I will be anyway, she thought.

She took a long drag on a bummed cigarette. She’d picked a poor day to quit. She could quit tomorrow. All this would be over tomorrow. Today was a day for a smoke. She finished sipping the gin and tonic she’d ordered over an hour ago. She shouldn’t even be here. She should have left half an hour ago. Where the hell was he? She didn’t have all evening to wait. She did have a schedule to keep, places to be, things to do…

She was seething by the time the bell atop the door jingled.

Funny, she thought. Seems kinda outta place in a joint like this.

“Did someone call a tow truck?”

“It’s about time you showed up,” she sighed. “I’ve been waiting forever. My car won’t start, and I have an engagement at a gallery in ten minutes. You know I’ll never make it in time to give my opening speech, and even if I did I couldn’t give it looking like this. Do you know what kind of important clients…”

“Will you be payin’ with cash or credit?” he interuppted. “If it’s credit, I’m gonna need to see some ID.”

*This story is based on a prompt (at the top in bold) provided by the Writers Digest website circa January 28, 2011. I can’t be serious all the time. : )

If the Cliché Fits…

I’m no advocate for stereotypes in general. Among other reasons, I find them to be suspicious and unreliable. But sometimes I can’t help indulging, if only briefly, in some admission that there are some that are based in truth. Some, mind you, not all and not many.

Take, for example, Hal. Hal is travelling from Ohio. He is a middle-aged businessman who enjoys a good game of golf, particularly if the company is paying for it. He is tall, but he allows himself to hunch over, evidence of what might long ago have been some vague insecurity about his height. No signs of that insecurity now. Hal has made something of himself. He needs to prove himself to no one. The clubs in his bag are proof enough.

Today is the perfect day to head to the course. It’s sunny, and there doesn’t seem to be much wind. To hell with the golf shoes: Hal is on vacation. Flip-flops will suffice. He practices his swing a few times, all the while calling it a futile exercise; Hal’s swing is top-notch. He wheels the golf cart to the first tee and lights his stogy. Oh yes, it’s going to be a good game.

We managed to somehow make it to the first tee at the same time and were thus paired with Hal for the eighteen-hole duration. Throughout the game, we learn nothing of Hal’s personal life. Is he married? Does he have children? Grandchildren? What kind of business is he in? All we know is what we see.

Somehow my mind wanders to every image I’ve ever conjured of the traveling businessman making the most of his time on the golf course, but all I can see is Hal. I’ve seen him on television sitcoms all my life. He’s in movies and books. He’s in commercials. Hal is that guy. In my mind’s eye, Hal has a modest home in the suburbs. He has modest cars and a modest wife. Occasionally he knocks back one too many beers at the July 4 barbecue, but since that’s only once a year, it’s no big thing. Hal has a 401K with his company, and he’s hoping to hold onto the job for just a few more years when he can (finally) retire. He has children who should be finished with college by now and almost are. When they’re finished, he and the missus will look further into buying that vacation home. Whether Hal has any of these things is irrelevant. This is what my media experience has taught me about guys like Hal.

If I thought this stereotype was dangerous, I would never have allotted the situation so much attention. But Hal’s situation has me thinking: where do the stereotypes come from? Would Hal be offended if he knew I thought of him this way? Would he be amused? Does his life follow this outline at all? Without really realizing what I was doing, I created a tidy life story for Hal, and in reality I know nothing about him. Why do I do this? Is it wrong? How do I stop?

*Disclaimer: I don’t manufacture life stories for everyone I meet. I think poor Hal was simply typecast based on a fleeting moment of boredom. Forgive me if this was wrong.

Life Notes

Growing up I never liked the idea of PE in school. Don’t get me wrong; I see nothing wrong with being healthy and active. But something about being forced to change clothes with other people and then being made to sweat with them hit a sour note with me. Forced merriment has never been my thing. Which is why, so often, I would have my mother write notes excusing me from PE.

At the time I thought it was clever. I knew for certain that my mother genuinely thought I didn’t need to do PE because of a headache, a cough, a hurt ankle, you name it. If all the things that got me out of PE had actually happened to me, I would say it was a near miracle I made it out of grade school. I realize now that she knew the whole time. Kudos to mom for writing the notes anyway.

The impulse to “sit out” doesn’t seem to leave us just because we get older. Sure, there is no longer someone making us change clothes in front of other people in rooms where only a fool would walk around barefoot. But we still get the urge to cry injury every now and then just for the sake of catching our breath. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get a parent’s note for a day of life?

I imagine it would say something like, “Dear , Please excuse from life today. She has a headache. Signed, A Parent.” At this point we now have free license to sit back and watch as everyone else continues to run laps. Round and round the gym they go while we sit back and cool it on the bleachers. It would be a temporary reprieve, as almost all gym notes were. But it would allow us to sit and gain perspective on things so that when we do rejoin our peers the next day we will realize that what we are doing (in most cases) is in fact running around in circles.

The problem here is that all good things will come to an end, and while most of us would use the privilege of the life note responsibly, there would be those that would take advantage and ruin it for everyone else. At some point life itself would start limiting excuses to doctors’ notes. At that point (I don’t know about you), I would rather run the laps.

Is Nothing Sacred?

They say there’s nothing new under the sun. But they say a lot of things, some true and some not so true. (What do they know? Who are they anyway?) Perhaps, though, they’re onto something.

In a world in which we have so many avenues to communicate with each other in order to generate new ideas, where have all the original thoughts gone?

Several decades ago American muscle cars prowled the streets as guys of all ages panted after them. But all good things must come to an end, and so the muscle car slipped into our collective memory, a rusting piece of nostalgia. Until recently, that’s where it stayed. Apparently now is the time for resurgence of these particular cultural relics, albeit remodeled shadows of what they were before. Never mind their sounds, emissions, or the fact that they’ve now morphed into semi-family-friendly cars; we have managed to clumsily resurrect that which was probably best left untouched and untarnished. Where are they with a good cliche when you need them?

We do this with movies (Footloose), cartoons (Scooby Doo), and songs (for an example, select any newer pop song containing a remix of an early 90s hit in the background). We also do it with written ideas.

Writers are inspired by other writers, and we begin to generate what we perceive to be original thought. That’s until we consult the original only to find that we have, in fact, produced a copy, a retelling of another author’s thoughts. And who knows: maybe that author copied another author ad infinitum. As writers we walk a thin line between original thought and cheap imitation. We create fascinating dialogue via social networking and coffee house conversations, yet somehow we don’t conceive anything new independently. Just when we think we’re onto something, we find that someone else has beat us to the punch. Am I saying there is no original thought going on? No. Do I believe that there are original people generating original ideas? Of course. But I also believe that somewhere along the way we get lazy, and it becomes easier to “create” that which has already been created.

Is nothing sacred anymore? Can we not seek inspiration from others in art, music, writing, design, and entertainment without churning out mediocre counterfeits of our own? They also say history repeats itself. A dangerous thought, this. Creativity beware.