Friday, June 15, 2007

The Phone Nazi

I thought I would be a little less polemic today and share something that happened to me five or six years ago.

During my junior year at University, one of the clubs that I belonged to decided that it would hold a dance with an international theme. They eventually settled on calling the event “Springtime in Paris.” As the theme for the dance was to be Parisian in nature, it was decided amongst a group of my friends that prior to going to the dance, we would patronize a local French restaurant, renowned for its expensive food and debonair clientele. I was working as a concierge at the Palliser Hotel, one of the most upscale hotels in the city and had one of my co-workers call in the reservation, so that it would appear to the French restaurant that my friends and I were clients of some import. As the time drew near, it appeared as though the evening would go off without a hitch.

I picked up my date in the northwest part of the city and we proceeded to go to the Uptown district of town, where the restaurant was located. Even though it was nearing the end of March, it was still about -15ยบ Celcius and the coldest spring that I could ever remember. Luckily for my date and I, there was plenty of free parking available right behind the restaurant and within mere seconds of leaving the car, we were able to be inside of the warm, though somewhat austere, eating establishment.
We had arranged to meet at the restaurant at 8:00 PM, so it came as no surprise that we were the first people there, arriving at 8:05 PM. We removed our jackets and proceeded to our table, which had been prepared for eight people. The waiter took our drink order and we became the wait for the others, which at first did not seem so long, but as the minutes dragged by, seemed to be of epic proportions. Around 8:30 PM, wondering about the wisdom of dining with friends, my date and I proceeded to discuss what we should do. Was it possible that the others had gone to a different restaurant? Had some kind of accident occurred in which one of our friends was seriously injured and at the hospital? These unknowns caused us greater and greater discomfort, as well as the waiter who seemed insistent that we order. As the minutes ticked by, it seemed as though the only course to pursue would be to call Fraser, whose cell phone number both I and my date knew. I had neglected to bring my cell phone with me and my date did not even own a cell phone (or so she would have had me believe at least). Since the restaurant was not only fancy, it was also quite small and I felt a little embarrassed about asking the staff if I could borrow the phone to call my tardy friends. What would the other patrons of the restaurant think? Instead of asking to use the phone, my date and I decided that I would go to a nearby gas station and use the pay phone. As I expected this to only take a few minutes, I felt that I did not need my jacket. Jingling the 35 cents needed for my call, I embarked into the dark, cold night.

At every gas station in the whole world, there is a pay phone. I believe it is akin to some kind of physical law, like gravity or inertia. You can imagine my chagrin when I realized that the nearby gas station, unlike every other gas station in the world, had no pay phone. The night air was cold and I could see no other pay phone nearby. My options were severely limited as I felt the coldness creeping in around me, slowly draining my body of its precious heat.

A couple of doors down from the restaurant, I noticed a used bookstore that was still open. The Uptown area has a reputation for being somewhat hip, so I figured that the person working in the store would be either a) be a left-wing tree-hugger who would help me in my struggle against the Establishment and show it I didn't need to pay to use the phone and that it should be a service available to all at no cost, or b) be stoned out of their mind and biddable to any request I might have. A lack of alternatives prompted me to quickly enter the store.

Behind the counter stood a woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties or so. She was the quintessential used-bookstore clerk, dressed in drab clothing, with even drabber hair and eyes to match.

"Excuse me," I said. "I was looking for a pay phone, but I can't seem to find one. Would it be okay if I used your phone? I'll let you dial the number so you know I'm not calling long distance or anything."

She didn't hesitate to give this reply, as though people made similar requests all the time. "There's a pay phone across the street and down about a half block."

"Well," I said, using my most polite voice possible. Was this lady for real? Human skin would freeze in as little as thirty seconds outside in the cold weather. "It's a little cold outside and I'm not wearing my jacket. I don't think I could make it that far without getting really cold. It will only take a few seconds and I will be out of your hair."

"Okay," she said grudgingly, "What's the phone number?"

I gave her the phone number and after she had dialed it, she handed me the receiver. "Hey Fray," I said. "Where are you guys?" He told me the situation and promised me that he and the others would soon be at the restaurant. I finished by telling him that my date and I would be waiting for him at the restaurant.

As I hung up, the bookstore clerk asked, "Why didn't you just use the phone at the restaurant? I'm sure a fancy restaurant like that would let you use the phone."
"I know they would let me use the phone," I replied, "but I didn't want to look like an idiot in front of all the people there."

"That's really strange," she said. "I'm sure that the other people wouldn't really care."

"Look," I said, trying to extricate myself from the situation. "It's not important. I just needed to make a phone call and now I'm done."

The woman would not give it up. "So why didn't you just use their phone. You're spending a lot of money on their food. I'm sure they would have let you use the phone."

"Look lady," I said, finally losing patience, "I just needed to make a phone call and I did. I don't care what you think I could have done or what I should have done. I made my phone call and now I am going back to the restaurant." With that, I walked out of the bookstore, vowing never to return.

It was not until afterwards that it struck me that I felt like I had been a character in a Seinfeld episode. Up to that point I hadn't learned a lot in life, but I have since learned that trying to save face in front of one group of people may not be all that good, especially if it makes you look like an idiot.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On Punditry and Culturalism

For whatever reason, I can never seem to find a radio station that suits me. Whenever I drive to or from work, I am continually flipping through the various stations. Since my taste in music is diverse, sometimes I forego listening to the music stations and I listen to talk show radio. I'm not sure why I subject myself to this as I find most of the talk show pundits to be obnoxious blowhards who pander to the lowest common denominator. You would think that always being right would wear off after a while, but with these guys, it doesn't. The worst offender has got to be Michael Savage of the Savage Nation. It goes beyond simple disagreement with what he says; I worry about the negative impact that his ideas have on the general public. His rantings can only be described as political pornography. I feel physically ill after listening to him.

I understand that ratings and the all-powerful dollar drive a lot of radio commentators' rhetoric, but do we really need such odious polemics every day? The sole purpose of these shows is to engender hate, not debate. I would not, however, classify these people as racist, sexist, or homophobic. Those labels have been so overused as to be completely meaningless today. These people are what I define as 'culturalists.' They have a disdain for any culture that is not a 'traditional' American culture and are antipathetic to any culture (i.e. European, Islamic, Hispanic, etc. and I use these terms very loosely) that does not fit to that mold. Dogmatism is born of provincialism and talk show radio commentators are provincials at their absolute worst. If you only look at the American experience and deem it the best, you are excluding a lot of good ideas and values that America does not currently possess.

Culturalism is bad for two reason. First, it is absolutely fallacious to argue that America is worse now (and getting worser by the day) then it was twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago. Just because it's different, doesn't mean it's worse. Who wants to go back to the crime and poverty of the 1930s, even if it means more bodies go to church on Sunday? Second, it ignores the great learning opportunities that are attendant to it. I don't believe in 'tolerance.' I believe that it is a morally-bankrupt word. It can (and has been) twisted to mean anything. However, I believe that divergent beliefs should be shared, not so much that people can arrogate themselves to how accepting they are, but because you can learn from what people do differently. I have lived in the United States for the past four years and I can see what is good and what is bad. I don't think that it is all good or all bad, but I think there are many things that should stay the same, yet at the same time be changed. Tolerance would imply that I could make no value judgments as to the differences between American culture and my own culture, but that I had to accept it as it was. We shouldn't be neutral to what we encounter, we should engage it, critically examine it and discard that which is of no value.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Meaninglessness Defined

This blog is dedicated to all those who have come to the realization that everything that they hold dear in life is, when they really think about it, is devoid of meaning in and of itself. In the grand scheme of things (and I use this phrase liberally…there is no grand scheme after all), everything that we believe is important is not so. For humankind, however, we attach the most significance to the most insignificant of things. Take the current immigration debate in the United States. Does it really matter whether we use the word "amnesty" or not in determining the future status of twelve million of our fellow human beings? Instead of talking about real people and their feelings and emotions, some would waste precious time and energy on debating what punishment is appropriate for 'illegals'. And the crime for which no amnesty should be granted? Working on the wrong side of an imaginary line. If only I had the power to punish my sisters when they crossed the imaginary line into my bedroom when I was a child. No mention is ever made of the fact that current worldwide immigration policy is nothing more than neofeudalism. No mention is ever made that all immigration laws are malum prohibitum and not malum in se. Assuming that there were no political states, could anyone rationally argue that moving from one part of the globe to another to work is somehow morally wrong?

But to strip away meaning, to look at the real issue and come to a decision takes courage. Although I disagree with many things that Sam Harris writes in his book "The End of Reason", I think that he was correct in his argument that no idea and no belief should be consider sacrosanct. With that idea in mind, I intend to examine the issues facing us today.

The title of this post is a misnomer. There is no definition of meaninglessness.