Saturday, November 06, 2010

The Month That Was - October 2010

The Month That Was - October 2010: Spent the month getting more and more frustrated with Misspent Youth. Seems like no matter how many time I pick through it I continue to find errors. Has to stop eventually, doesn't it? Still hoping to have it out by the end of the year, but getting a little worried.

On the upside, this month featured a visit to Miraval, the heavenly resort in the desert outside Tucson. I'll spare you a full write-up because I've done that before, but the place remains an astounding combination of play hard, rest easy, and eat well. I think I may have been one of three men there. The place is overload with groups of middle-aged, well-healed, health conscious women celebrating this event or that. The men who are here often get dragged against their will. Men mostly stay away because they think all you do at such a place is sit around in robes and get pedicures. Not exactly. This visit involved climbing a 45-foot pole to a zip line platform one day, and a (mere) 35-foot climb only to have to pull oneself to stand on top of another pole, and jump off, the next day. It was my third trip -- previous ones involved extended hiking and mountain biking. Anyway, if my brothers-in-testosterone want to stay away, that's fine with me. I get the men's steam room and whirlpool all to myself after a hard day's exertion in the desert.

Still no word on my house offer, so I am in a holding pattern. Nothing new and interesting has come on the market to tempt me away, either. So I'm sitting here with my feet growing slowly colder.

[TV] Got Your Back, Don
[Rant] Shiny Happy Addicts
[Cars] Autodestruct
[Health and Fitness] The Dork Factor

[TV] Got Your Back, Don

Got Your Back, Don: From the majority of what I read about the Mad Men finale, and the conversations I've had about it, it seems that conventional wisdom says that Don made a bad decision. Faye was the one who could save him; the mature woman who could help him face down his demons. Instead he chose the one who would provide the path of least resistance.

Well, sorry, but no. Or rather, yes and no. You see, there are just so many assumptions and biases built into that conclusion that it becomes suspicious.

The ideal future for Don is presumed to be something like: Don locks in with Faye. Under her guidance he faces his hidden past and deals with whatever consequences that entails, he learns that drinking and womanizing is empty and comes to appreciate fidelity and responsibility toward her, at some point in the future he will sit back in serenity and satisfaction, happy in the rewards of emotional maturity. Maybe he will even publish a memoir on becoming spiritually whole (in contrast to Sterling's Gold). In short, he should become the new man every new woman believes he should be.

The problem I have here is the planted assumption is that this road to self-realization is what's best for Don. On what basis, exactly, is that determination made? Here's an alternative. He weds Megan, his has an affair which stresses their marriage, but Megan eventually forgives him. Don settles down, but only as a natural result of aging. Meanwhile, he benefits day in and day out from Megan's feminine, matronly, warmth and love. Something he has never had in his life. Is there any reason to believe that Faye's plan for self-improvement will make him happier than Megan's emotional shelter? I can't see any.

Also, can anyone rationally argue that Faye is better for the kids than Megan? They already have a cold and hostile mother. A cold and therapeutic step-mother is a step up I suppose, but a tiny one. Megan can give both Don and his children something they desperately need but have never had: a loving home and the security of a mother. What is self-realization compared to that?

(And just so you know, I do comprehend that these people aren't real and whatever should or will happen to them is solely because Matt Weiner says so. But this is, after all, the point of art - to illuminate the world in interesting ways. The fact that such a complex discussion is happening about a popular piece of art, as opposed to some obscure niche product -- like a novel -- is very awesome.)

[Rant] Shiny Happy Addicts

Shiny Happy Addicts: For non-addictive people, addiction can be a struggle to understand. "If you're so miserable, why don't you just stop?" is the na‹ve, unanswerable question. The fact is that the addictive activity brings tremendous pleasure. Heroin addicts describe the sensation of getting a fix as better than any sex you could imagine. I am not a broadly addictive person but I have certainly done my share of drinking -- especially when writing -- and I've used alcohol as more than a social lubricant. The consolation and bliss from surrendering to the careless ease that comes from anesthetizing your nervous system is very enticing. I have never passed the point of no return, but I can see why people do, especially if they are to blame for their own misery.

I do allow myself the twee addiction of caffeine. Even if it's just a little, I need it every day. I used to periodically wrench myself out of its clutches on principle, but I don't even bother anymore. I don't have that much -- I bet average the equivalent of two or three cups of coffee per day and would certainly have no trouble with say, a cup of tea in the AM and slug of Diet Pepsi in the afternoon. In fact, it's entirely possible it's only psychological at this point. Still I don't quit because the benefits outweigh the costs to me. I didn't really feel that much better when I was off caffeine and do love that nice hit of energy.

That's kind of the thing that falls out of much of the talk about addiction. Looking beyond the physiology of it, there is a real risk that breaking your addiction doesn't make you any happier. It would be interesting to find out what percentage of reformed alcoholics are truly happier now that they are sober. Let's say you've already destroyed your relationships with your family and friends; you used to spend all day at a dive bar sailing in semi-conscious euphoria with a bunch of other friendly drunks, now you have a dreary paper pushing job in some cubicle farm. You didn't used to worry about anything -- except where your next drink was coming from and that wasn't a big problem -- now everything is stern and serious and stressful and you can never let your guard down. For the sober, the world is a hard place, no? Are you happier now? You are certainly healthier, and probably wealthier (addiction can get expensive), and will likely live longer, but are you really happier?

I suppose that opens the can of worms of defining happiness. But in terms balancing pleasure against pain, I'm not so sure it's clear addition is the short end of the stick. Cognitively, you probably better off unaddicted. But is that really much of an argument against addiction? It would go something like, "Overall, the world will be a more painful place to you, but in most normal functional circumstances you will be vastly better off so, on balance, you should sober up." That's a tough sell.

All this came to mind when I read this astoundingly well written piece about what it's like to be a gambling addict. I have never gambled enough to cause me any distress, but I have won and I have lost and resulting feelings from those are quite different. Winning is instant gratification, then nothing. Losing sticks with you. You'll rethink your losses quite possibly for the rest of your life. But it's the kind of hurt that is has a comforting value to it. It's proof of life. My stories can't compare to the ones in the article, but I have had horrendous weekends in Vegas where I couldn't win. Just couldn't. Where everything I played and every move I made cost me. I would lie in bed those nights and replay everything in my mind to figure out if I did anything wrong. (If I didn't, it just made it more frustrating.)

On the other hand, I would end up those evenings sitting in the lobby bar at Bellagio or Parasol Down at Wynn, muttering to myself and rehashing my problems with a world weary bartender and watching the hum of activity from a storied vantage point. I may be down some cash, but I'm a walking, talking, Frank Sinatra-noir tragedy. What are you, sitting on your living room couch watching a CSI rerun in your underwear? I'm feeling the suffering of the living. It's addictive. Are you happier than me?

[Cars] Autodestruct

Autodestruct: Via the very best auto website in the world, The Truth About Cars, this quote from the Honda CEO nails it: "During the 10 or so years (until the collapse of General Motors), the automobile industry was in a sort of bubble. In that period, carmakers could enjoy sales growth even if they only kept doing the same old things unthinkingly."

It's an oblique way of saying that year-to-year improvements are so small that, when coupled with broadly superior quality and reduced free capital, there is a severely reduced compulsion to buy a new car. When I bought my Camry nine years ago, I bitched about a couple of rattles (which were barely perceptible to others) and how it really wasn't any more fantastic than my previous nine year old Camry. Yet now, nine years on, it has exactly the same two rattles and no others. In fact, apart from the wear and tear on the driver's side foot well, a missing coin cup, and new wheel bearings (ouchie in the wallet), it is exactly the car I bought new, 130,000 miles on. It is still quiet, to the point that I notice it when I have spent a week in a rental. It always starts and stops and heats and cools, with aplomb. Zero electrical issues. Key fob still works. I don't think I have ever opened the hood (not that I'd know what to do if I did). What exactly would I get at this point by buying a new Camry? 15 extra horsepower that I wouldn't notice? Perhaps a bit more quiet, but not that much. For this I should pony up 25 large?

The Honda guy has it right. Cars are now durable goods not consumables, at least with respect to Toyota, Honda, Ford, GM, and maybe a couple of others. Those firms need to rethink everything from market positioning to customer support to revenue models.

As dispassionate and mildly disappointed I was with my Camry when I bought it, it has come to grow on me. I fully expect to keep it another five years, and I'm happy with that. Any longer and it may turn out to be the last car I ever buy, which is a sobering thought.

[Health and Fitness] The Dork Factor

The Dork Factor: I rarely wear a bike helmet when riding on the road (always on the trail) except when riding with my friend Darcy, the bike helmet Nazi. She vocally maintains that I must have some special bias in favor of brain damage. I maintain that I rode my three speed spider bike all around the neighborhood at age ten and never had an issue, plus it makes me look like a dork.

Well, now we have a study:

[Legislating a] new helmet law reduces bicycle deaths among [children] by about 19%. It doesn't affect older riders. Since serious bicycle accidents are rare, however, the absolute numbers are still small, about eight fewer deaths a year among kids 5 to 15 than would otherwise occur in the states with helmet laws. "It's not a ton of lives when you compare it to something like wearing your seat belt," says Prof. Stehr.

One reason for the drop is, of course, that more kids [are wearing] helmets when they get into accidents. But another is that many give up cycling altogether. Using surveys of parents, the professors find that about 650,000 fewer children ride bikes each year after helmet laws go into effect. That's about 81,000 fewer riders for every life saved. Helmets may save lives, but the dork factor also takes its toll."
I have to say, I feel vindicated. Statistically, the helmet won't make me less likely to die, yet it will make me look like a dork. I gotta continue to go with the bare head (except when Darcy is looking).

Note 1: This battle is being waged full tilt over in the Netherlands, where helmet advocates are pulling out all the stops to get kids to strap them on. It doesn't seem to be working as helmeted cyclists are getting odd looks and are getting accused of being friggin' Germans.

Note 2: As we all know, for every problem there is a technological solution: The invisible bicycle airbag. With a video.