Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: The New Yorker

The End of Facebook

Max Mosher is no longer a fan of facebook.

Max Mosher ‘dislikes’ facebook.

Max Mosher has removed facebook from his interests.

The facebook era is over.

My last post was going to be about the clever profile of facebook-creator Mark Zuckerberg in The New Yorker. Jose Antonio Vargas begins his article on the elusive billionaire with what he extrapolates about him from his profile page. He likes Andy Samburg, Green Day and ‘The West Wing’, listed ‘Minimalism’ and ‘Eliminating Desire’ as interests, and has his parents as friends (it’s hard enough for the rest of us to dissuade our parents from joining; imagine the difficulty in keeping your profile secret from your mom if you invented the damn thing!).

While witty, it also serves to underline a paradox: that the man who enabled us to upload every aspect of our lives onto the internet, and who philosophically believes that we having less secrets and being more open would make a better world, is himself a reclusive figure who doesn’t much like giving talks, granting interviews and dreaded being the subject of the film ‘The Social Network’, which opened this weekend.  

Getting the tragic news about my friend two days ago (incidentally, on facebook) only served to crystallize how I was already feeling about the online world.

Simply put, I’m tired.

I’m tired of having around a hundred people regularly read this blog, and four times that amount as ‘friends’ on facebook, but feeling lonely a lot of the time. I’m tired of getting so many mass invites, to events in cities in which I no longer live, that I miss invitations to my friend’s house down the block. I’m tired of unanswered messages, of plans broken at the last minute, of our generation’s perpetual RSVP of ‘maybe attending’. I’m tired.

In Adam Gopnik’s book Through the Children’s Gate he has a story about his toddler daughter and her imaginary friend, who is too busy to play with her. Using a wooden block as a cell phone, his daughter gets exasperated as he tells her he doesn’t have time to meet up this week, maybe later. Gopnik and his wife were very concerned, wondering what kind of child invents an imaginary friend who is too busy to play. Then Gopnik realizes that she, like all children, is mimicking her parents, especially her mother on the telephone, where she is constantly telling  her friends that she is too busy to do lunch, maybe next week. Gopnik theorizes that, because so many forms of technology intrude into our lives all the time, that we have to say we’re perpetually busy so as to feel in control of our own lives.

I’m busy. You’re busy. We’re all busy, it’s true. But I refuse to believe we’re too busy for friends if we make them a priority. We all have that person who we know is on facebook all the time, commenting on pictures and posting funny videos from epicfail.com, but who never gets their act together enough to respond to emails or attend parties with real people.

The dream of facebook, that it would bring us closer together and make the World Wide Web feel like a village, has not come true. It may have done this in its undergraduate heyday, when it was primarily for posting embarrassing drunken pictures from the weekend. When you lived across the hall from your friends you were in no danger of replacing human interaction with emails and ‘pokes’. I owe some really good friendships to the fact that we found each other online soon after meeting, and it’s still the best way to keep in touch with people in other cities and overseas.

But now everybody’s on it, and I do mean everyone. It’s not so much individual users who are the problem (it’s estimated that at least 1 in 14 people in the world have a facebook profile) but groups and corporations who are killing it. When every cause, from a small-scale environmentalist group to Starbucks, Farmville and the White House, are bombarding users with ads and requests for information, it makes you want to express yourself less, not more. I have a friend who removed his ‘interest in men’ because he was sick to death of getting ads for gay cruises (did they really think enough facebook users could afford cruises, gay or not?).  Whereas facebook once felt like a secret club, now it’s a sensory-overloading mall.  

To be clear, I’m not going to delete my account or stop using my profile to share my blog. I am going to go see ‘The Social Network’ and will probably write a review of it.

But something needs to be done. I want real friends, not facebook ‘friends’. I admit, I’m no better than anyone else: I have flaked off from going to events or seeing people, all the while whining about the old friends who did the same to me.

It stops now. I’m going to change.

Here’s my Declaration of Co-Dependence

  • I promise to reply to emails. If someone took the time to write me, I respect them enough to answer.
  • I promise to make time to actually see people. Three-sentence emails, which only summarize a friend’s current life in the briefest of all ways, cannot compare with hearing their voice and seeing their face over a cup of coffee.
  • I promise to try my best to attend events, especially if they are important to a friend and especially if they’ve asked me directly. (Mass emails receive lazy responses, or none at all.)
  • I promise to not flake out on friends and to not cancel at the last minute, unless having a very good reason.  The universal owning of cell phones is not an excuse to be late.
  • Most importantly, I promise to remind myself daily that there is a whole big world out there, things I have yet to do and people I have yet to meet, and that the best way to experience this is to turn off the computer, call up a friend and walk out of the house, into the sunshine.

That’s where I’ll be. Hope to see you there.

Signed Max Mosher, October 1st 2010

Feel free to co-sign this Declaration and join the crusade.

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Duplicable Me

I finally went to see Despicable Me last night, arriving just late enough to miss most of the trailer for Disney’s Rapunzel movie (now titled Tangled) which I have become interested in mostly due to the involvement of Miss Kristin Chenoweth and, as a member of the Little Mermaid-generation, a nostalgically emotional investment in the return of Disney’s princess movies.

Despicable Me is a witty, visually splendid escape from the worries of your day. We were chuckling out loud from the very beginning at a surprisingly-politically incorrect intro in which a group of American tourists (fat, t-shirted and camera ready, their bus blaring ‘Sweet Home, Alabama’ into the Egyptian desert) discover one of the great pyramids has been stolen, replaced with a deflating tarp. An over-caffeinated news report about the extent other countries are taking to protect their landmarks follows: the Wall of China is shown surrounded by tanks, which all aim and fire at a passing dove.

The plot concerns the rivalry between high-tech super-villains (who hold countries to ransom but, importantly never appear to kill anyone). Gru, voiced by Steve Carell, is a vaguely-Russian mastermind who works with apparent immunity from his neighbourhood, figuring out grand things to steal with the inventions built by his army of little, yellow, pip-squeak minions. He adopts three little girls from an orphanage who sell cookies in order to break into the lair of his rival Vector (an over-the-top nerd stereotype voiced by Jason Segel). Of course, the girls, through their cuteness and sass, begin to soften Gru’s rough edges and we all know where the story’s going.

The movie is a continuation of the subgenre of computer-animated super hero/villain films, with its high-tech inventions and family values evoking The Incredibles most directly. But Despicable Me borrows a number of motifs from a range of cartoons, television and film of the last fifty years. 

First, there’s the look of Gru himself: with his oval head, deep-set eyes and total absence of neck, he’s a dead-ringer for The Addams Family Uncle Fester, both Christopher Llyod’s movie version and the original New Yorker drawings of Charles Addams. Gomez and Morticia would also feel at home at his house, a hilariously renovated gothic version of the suburban townhouses that surround it.  When the three little girls are picked up by Gru and cautiously step into their child-unfriendly new home, I was reminded of the identical scene in the almost-forgotten Jim Carrey vehicle Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I couldn’t even find a picture of the little girls online to illustrate this point, which shows you how much they were pushed out of the previews in favour of the more action-packed shenanigans of the two super-villains.

Both in animation and tone, the film resembles Warner Brother’s cartoons, especially those frustrating crusades of Wile E. Coyote. One half expects to see the name ‘Acme’ on Gru’s rickety tools of destruction. Gru’s machines, all metal and bolts and occasionally-exploding, are clearly IBM to his rival Vector’s Mac, whose look is all sleek white plastic. This was the same visual dichotomy of the star-crossed robots Walle and Eve in their post-apocalyptic romance.

Finally, the concept of having an army of cute little workers hidden under one’s house is indebted to Willy Wonka and his Oompa Loompas (while I complained that the appearance of the minions, who are essentially yellow ovals, should have been developed more realistically, I am certainly glad that they don’t look like little people in orange make-up!), but they kept reminding me of the industrious Doozers from Fraggle Rock, continuingly rebuilding their crystal towers which the Fraggles ate casually and compulsively.

All of which is fine. Most movies draw on a myriad of inspirations and, by putting them together, create something new. Nothing despicable about that.

 

Parkdale Bazaar

Being there at least once a week for my shift at WORN, Roncesvales and Parkdale have become my new hood. It’s an oddly mixed neighbourhood, to phrase it politely. It’s always surprising, when you’re making your way to the WORN house in your cute little outfit, to pass a shirtless man muttering to himself or a woman on her porch screeching into her cell phone “I KNOW HE’S NOT YOUR FUCKING KID OKAY!” But, as they said in the bizarre BBC teleplay Abigail’s Party, another word for mixed is ‘cosmopolitan’ and it’s from the tossing of people together like a salad that a city’s dynamism derives from.

With some coaxing, I agreed to work the WORN table at the Parkdale Bazaar, a craft, vintage, jewellery, and ‘zine fair on Saturday. Through a complex set of circumstances which, from fear of getting in trouble with the Toronto police I will not recount here, I ended up alone at the table for most of the morning. I had a stack of fresh magazines, a box of pins (WORN loves its pins) and my collection of past issues to read during down time, because I theorized that it wouldn’t look very good me reading anything else at the WORN table.

I was directly in the glare of the morning sun and I felt like an amateur when I noticed that the woman beside me, selling hand-sewn baby bibs and such, had brought a giant black umbrella. (She also had an adorable baby who wore black and yellow-striped leggings and became obsessed with trying to wedge open a suitcase with its key). I just had a bottle of water to stave off the dehydration and sunstroke, but I also didn’t want to drink too fast because then I would have to pee and I had no one to watch the table.

Having no one to sub in also prevented me from visiting the other tables as early as I would have liked. My table was on a stretch I called ‘paper alley’ because beside me were two guys who were selling news-print ‘zines (and had Alice Cooper-ish props, like animal skulls, black candles and incense) and across from me was another ‘zine seller, an artist with abstract prints and an illustrator with his posters hanging on string on the brick wall. His work had the bold yet lyrical quality of classic covers of The New Yorker, an aesthetic which has a dear place in my heart. But, for the time being, I was stuck at my table.

Luckily, I had good friends. Dervla visited with her visiting Australian friend, and Jess Bartram, an honourary WORNETTE by this point, brought me a lemonata and sat with me for more than an hour. She is very excited about her upcoming show at the Freedom Clothing Collective. But I also made new connections: Nicole Varney, who makes feathered headdresses, gushed over WORN and I described our upcoming article about vintage eyeglass frames to cat-eye-wearing Samantha Cutrara, who makes kitschy accessories and postcards. Both said that buying a copy from me would depend on how much money they made, and Samantha joked about the products at these fairs often just end up traded between the participants.

Just like with the parents involved in kids’ sports leagues or toddler beauty pageants, craft fairs are as much for the sellers as the buyers.

The only annoying incident was when a guy in a Hawaiian shirt engaged me in a very lengthy discussion about fashion, the magazine and Norah Jones in a polka-dot dress he may or may not have imagined, until he walked over and talked to the abstract artist for twice as long.

When the fabulous Chelsea showed up in the afternoon, I had a chance to pee, buy samosas and pagoras from an Indian convenience store (three dollars for five pieces!) and finally got a chance to walk around. I approached the illustrator across the ‘paper alley’ from me.

“I really like your stuff,” I told him, picking out a scene of a Victorian tower freckled with snow to buy. “It reminds me of New Yorker covers.”

“They’re my main inspiration, man,” he said. “For both my art and my writing.”

His name is Jack Dylan (Jack Dylan—Famous Artist, his hilariously deadpan business card states) and he’s done illustrations for publications like The Globe and Mail, The Walrus and Toronto Life, as well as doing advertisements for the Pop Montreal Festival and a clothing line in Japan. What really won me over was him explaining that he’d start works sometimes without having a client in mind, having even sent one to The New Yorker with a card that said something like “a humble submission”. It’s like us writers who feel like we have to keep blogging, even if we don’t know what we’ll end up using it for or if anyone’s even reading it, just to keep writing.

“You’re packing up already?” I asked Chelsea.

“Max, it’s five o’clock and spitting rain,” she answered. “Everyone’s leaving. You’ve been here since ten!”

“I guess…” I said.

When I got home, before changing my sweaty clothes, having a shower or drinking three large glasses of water, I looked up my new friends’ websites.

Mike Huckabee

I find Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, an amiable fellow. He seems like a nice man and is undeniably funny. Along with both being governor, he shares the same home town with Bill Clinton (Hope, Arkansas) which led to his famous line, “Give Hope a second chance.” On a trip to Isarel, he joked that he should move there, as the yarmulke covered his bald spot perfectly. All sorts of observers, including Ariel Levy in the current issue of The New Yorker, find him charming and I would probably be no different. We wouldn’t become friends though, as he believes that my life threatens Western civilization and that, after the Rapture, I will burn in hell.

Levy’s portrait of the man, current star of a hit Fox News show and potential candidate for the Republican nomination in 2012, is a Cubist masterpiece of conflicting contradictions. Although his political sympathies are apparent, Levy attempts a balanced evaluation of the pastor-turned-politician, although he can’t help catch Huckabee in some of his more obvious hypocrisies. Without plagiarizing the whole article, and replacing my photo with a doctored one of Eustace Tilley with silver brow-line glasses and hipster bangs, I’m going to highlight some of Huckabee’s more problematic quotations.

Huckabee believes that the rules of the Bible should be followed as one would follow a recipe (he uses the analogy of his toddler son baking a cake with salt instead of sugar) and if we come up with our own ideas about what’s right and wrong the world will turn into an unappetizing, salty mess.

“Consider homosexuality,” he says. “Until recently, who would have dared t suggest that the practice should be accepted on equal footing with heterosexuality, to be thought of as a personal decision and nothing more?” His use of the word “decision”, along with the troupe “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”, makes him appear like he’s battling gay rights in 1995.

As governor, Huckabee successfully passed laws preventing gays and lesbians from becoming foster parents or adopting. He told a student journalist last April, “Children are not puppies—this is not a time to see if we can experiment and find out how does this work.” He then went on compare gay adoption to legalizing drugs or incest.

When Levy presses him to justify his position without mentioning the Bible or the “ick-factor” (Huckabee’s lovely term), he refers to studies that show that children with a mother and father are more well-adjusted than those without, the oft-misused conventional ‘wisdom’ about single-parent households that willingly ignores economics and education-levels.

“No culture in the history of mankind has ever tried to redefine marriage.” Where to begin with this whopper? Perhaps Huckabee has not been reading his Bible as closely as he pretends, for, as Levy points out, in the Old Testament polygamy was commonplace and the early Christians believed marriage was only for those without the pious self-disciple of Jesus. Marriage has even been redefined in America’s not-too-distant past: before 1967, it was defined in much of the country as a bond between a man and a woman of the same race, a definition that would annul the marriage of the current president’s parents.

I don’t know if I care for Huckabees’s opinions on even his own marriage. He’s been with his wife Janet for 36 years, having tied the knot as teenagers. “I think we both went into it understanding it was for life. I’ve always said, I f you believe divorce is an option, you’ll take it.” Poor Janet. She seems like a cool, down to earth lady (who skydives!) but her husband admits that if divorce was part of his worldview, that if he didn’t think it was fundamentally wrong, he’d leave her. Although, that makes me more proud of my parents’ marriage, as they haven’t needed God’s threatening vengeance to keep them together.

Despite believing that homosexuality is “sinful and unnatural”, he doesn’t like being thought of as a homophobe. “I’ve had people who worked for me who are homosexuals, and I don’t walk around thinking, Oh, I pity them so much. I accept them as who they are! It’s not like somehow their sin is so much worse than mine.”

This use of the traditional ‘we’re all sinners’ Christian refrain is interesting as it positions him as humble and non-judgemental while simultaneously casting others as ‘sinners’. And he is not actively working to restrict his unnamed sins, only those of homosexuals, in this case, the sin of existing as who they are.

Like many Evangelicals, Huckabee is a strong supporter of Israel, a support which binds conservative Christians and neo-conservatives (including Jewish ones) in the Republican party. The latter don’t like to look too much at this tenuous bond, though, as some Evangelicals mainly support the Zionist state because Jewish control over the Holy Land is supposed to bring on the apocalypse. Then, watch out!

Huckabee doesn’t want to dwell on the gory details with The New Yorker or Ariel Levy, and tries to paint himself as a moderate, almost a relativist. “If somebody asked me, How do I get to Heaven, I would tell them that the only way I personally am aware of is faith in Christ, because I believe the New Testament. That’s the only map I got. Somebody says, Well, I got a different map. O.K.! You know what? If it works, I’m not going to argue with you.”

“If it works”? What the heck does that mean?

The most charitable way to interpret this is that Huckabee is accepting that no one belief system is inherently better than any other, and that they may even potentially “work” and get you into Heaven. The less charitable interpretation is that, while your spirituality may help you get through life’s difficulties now, when the End of Days comes along all bets are off. It is the ultimate politician statement: nice sounding, but decidedly ambiguous.

I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone who could talk with me, get to know me, and all the while sincerely believe that I’ll end up in Hell. I read the article because I want to understand how a politician could be pragmatic in some ways, idealistic in others (Huckabee thinks being ‘pro-life’ means you shouldn’t stop caring for babies after they’re born, and supported elements of healthcare reform), and then claim that “Everything you do and believe in is directed by your answer to the ultimate question: Is there a God?”

The problems of this new century are going to require that we attempt to understand each other and work together, but I don’t know how we’ll do it.

One of the most incredible quotes from the piece is not from Huckabee but from his former chief of staff, Brenda Turner, and is unremarked upon by Levy (so I’m going to remark upon it here).

Huckabee has been disliked and dismissed by the Republican establishment and is considered (his words) “a complete, uneducated, unprepared hick”.

“This man didn’t come from a law background,” Turner says. “He was a pastor, and that was somehow mysterious. My personal feeling is what we don’t understand we fear. And what we fear we seek to destroy.”

My personal feeling as well.

Sunday Reflections, Cottage Edition: “Uncategorized”

I am writing this beside the lake on Snake Island. I even brought down my computer cord in the vain hope that the electrical outlet hidden by the truck of a tree down here (traditionally used by Dad to listen to opera) would power my computer and turn my screen from a near-mirror reflective surface into something viewable, but it was not to be.

It is my second morning up here and my body and mind have slowed down. Before we ate dinner on our first night, I declared I would go swimming, and I bravely marched right in (although the water had to reach my nipples before I plunged my head under). I finished my Edith Wharton book for WORN and wrote a not-very-good draft for my column class. The boys (my brother and his friends) arrived with much fanfare last night, and since my parents don’t know when next they’ll have three strong, young men up here (four, if you count me) we’ve been coerced into putting in the dock today.

Now, our dock used to be normal. When we first started coming to the island, the marina had boats (big, deep, fabulous out-door-motor boats, one which I vividly remember as golden pine) which you had to, with effort, clamper down into and then, with more effort, climb out. Then they switched to long flat pontoon boats, essentially mobile decks on water. While these made it easier to get in and out, without falling in between the boat and dock and getting mushed to death, docks began getting larger, higher and stronger, so as to not fall apart when bumped by the pontoon.

We are surrounded by South African neighbours on either side who are under the impression that Snake is some WASPY watering resort like Nantucket or Cape Cod or the setting of countless weepy teen shows in which white thirty-year old actors, pretending to be 16, look at lakes wistfully. Both of our neighbours’ docks are modern and metallic and intimidating, although when we were let off on one, I noted that it still rattled and shook. But since we can’t take advantage of their neighbourliness all summer, we had to put in our dock, a simple straight line, often at an angle, which is ten feet shorter than the South Africans’. We suffer from dock envy.

Along with flipping through The New Yorker’s fiction issue, and back issues of Vanity Fair and Vogue, I indulged in my tradition by starting to read The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne, the sole mystery by the creator of Winnie the Pooh and the enchanted Hundred Acre Wood. In the witty introduction, Milne laments the prevalence of weak writing in the genre:

“I remember reading one in which a peculiarly fascinating murder had been committed, and there was much speculation as to how the criminal had broken into the murdered man’s library. The detective, however (said the author), ‘was more concerned to discover how the murderer had effected an egress.’ It is, to me, a distressing thought that in nine-tenths of the detective stories of the world murderers are continually effecting egresses when they might just as easily go out. The sleuth, the hero, the many suspected all use this same strange tongue, and we may be forgiven for feeling that neither the natural excitement of killing the right man, nor the strain of suspecting the wrong one, is sufficient excuse for so steady a flow of bad language.”

Later, while explaining how a writer most famous for stories about a pudgy philosophical bear came to write a mystery, he writes that “the only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything is that I want to write it.” I have recently been thinking of this very thing. One of the things I hated about academia was the process of never-ending narrowing and the fear that, by the end of a PhD, you would be an expert on one specific topic while knowing nothing of anything else. I got onto a queer history stream and then could not escape it, even though I have many other interests and find arguing with Foucaultists exhausting.

So now I’m pursuing journalism, which I thought would better reward someone with my eclectic interests and knowledge, but during my first column-writing class, my teacher told us about the importance of finding your ‘bailiwick’, your beat, the area that you cover. Bloggers, despite not having to get their ideas approved by an editor, are also advised to focus on a specific subject, in order to nurture a readership and keep them coming back.

Good advice, but, yeah, I’m not going to do that.

I could write about politics, but then I would post about once a week. Entertainment and pop culture? Same thing, maybe twice a week. While I’ve reignited by love of fashion, I would be hard pressed to find five topics about style to post every week (and anything I do come up with should be run by WORN first anyways).

So, instead, I’m going to write about anything and everything I want to. I noticed that, unless otherwise specified, wordpress labelled your posts “uncategorized” and I kind of love that, so I’m sticking with it. One day Jane Lynch and Glee, the next Elijah Harper and Meech Lake, all “uncategorized”. I’m trusting that if I find something interesting, someone else hopefully will. 

Writing is about gut instinct, even when it’s writing a blog.