Sunday, January 31, 2010

Minisnark: Your daily wad of culture

For those of you who were worried about the decline of cultural standards in Europe, I bring you hope, direct from a Paris music store:

Yes: it's two SpongeBob guitars and a ukelele. Collectively, they made my day for approximately the next three years.

Yet a short walk to the theatre down the street proved there is still darkness on the cultural horizon:

Ultimately, I fear for our world.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Déjà Vu

You heard it here first. The key cultural difference between France and the United States, the element that separates them at their very cores without hope that ever the twain shall meet, is: yogurt. Now I don’t know about you, but I’m relieved. It so happens that, before I came here, I spent a lot of time reading a great wad of academic material on the cultural disparities between Us and Them, so that I came here prepared to be staggered by the difference on levels behavioral, sociological, political, religious, etc. Instead it turns out my Cultural Epiphany might well have been summed up in the following words: “Hey! These people do yogurt WAY better than Americans do!” 

Not that I mean to sell France short. Because I hear what you are saying, you know. You are saying, “Surely, little miss cultural-pants, you don’t mean to tell us you figured out the country in two weeks.” To which I say, in all seriousness: of course not. It only took ten days. And obviously France offers plenty of other cultural diversity, too, chiefly in the form of:

- Comical-looking cars the size of the standard American dental filling
- Guys named “Yannick”
- Opera **

And that’s not even getting into the matter of literature. You can’t spit here without hitting a thriving independent bookstore, perhaps featuring books dating back to the Cro-Magnon era.*** Also, you know how everywhere in the United States, you see magazines like “Us Weekly,” which aim to keep the American public “up-to-the-minute” with the latest Breaking News, such as that someone called Jessica Simpson fat? Well, the equivalent here is: the literary magazine. I am dead serious. These are sold openly everywhere, as though they were peanut M&Ms or something. You would NEVER see this in the United States, unless some basketball player had written a book.

Heh-heh, I am only joking, of course! Obviously that basketball player would be deported. But quite apart from all cultural differences, what I find most interesting is the distinct feeling that I’ve been here, in Paris, before. This happened once, years ago, when I took a trip to London and somehow knew (without a map) how to get everywhere, despite the fact that I had never been there. My grandfather, who experienced the same phenomenon, attributed it to events in a past life. Me, I have trouble with this idea; on the other hand, if it is true, I’d like to know, inasmuch as it raises the following questions:

1. So, if I’m on my second life here, do I really still have to pay taxes?
2. Also, if I’ve really been around that long, can I take a senior discount onto my student one at the movies?
3. Whaddayou MEAN respectively yes and no?!!

Whatever the reasons, when you feel you’ve been in a place before, it's all the easier to explore, because you never feel lost. Of course you ARE lost; you could be in Reykjavik for all you know, stupid. But the point is, you’re confident! When you’re traveling in an unfamiliar country, confidence counts for everything, except of course food, transportation, language skills, money and safety!

And yet – you can never really be certain, can you? Naturally, the gods in charge of reincarnation don’t want you to know about your past lives, because that could lead to ruinous results, such as your knowing where to find a bathroom.**** So the gods (Julian, Alexis, Snippy, and Dr. Throbnubbin, on leave this semester) guard against any such calamity by repeatedly throwing you off just when you think you’ve figured everything out. Here’s how it works. Say one day you are standing on a corner of the Rue de la Confiture, where there’s a newsstand, a “Monoprix” grocery store, and a VW dealer. Then, the very next day – I swear this is what happens – you go back to the very same corner of the very same street and: NONE OF THOSE THINGS ARE THERE. Now there’s only one explanation for this, and it’s very simple. That’s right: Paris gets moved. Periodically. Just to keep you on your toes, the gods take the city (presumably while you’re distracted by a vending machine), heave ho, and deposit it elsewhere. You could wake up tomorrow morning and find that Paris had been moved all the way over to, say, Grenoble, leaving nothing in its wake but a few free-floating cigarette butts, Monoprix receipts, and a lone “Smart” car. Meanwhile the unfortunate people of Grenoble – little knowing what was going on – would be busy being crushed under displaced Metro trains.

Yet I’m not ready to rule out the idea that I have had past lives. Maybe you have had one too. How can you know? Well, for starters, you can consult this handy chart:

1. You are dead.
2. Okay, maybe you’re not actually dead, but maybe you show tendencies toward it, such as you watch “American Idol” without questioning it.
3. Even now.
4. Now doesn’t count.
5. You find yourself inexplicably able to speak a foreign language.
6. Granted, this language doesn’t actually exist.
7. But your accent is excellent.

At any rate, I’m becoming very interested in the idea that we go through multiple incarnations, and I look forward to the day when we have a scientific method of testing for it. For my part, I’ve already figured out my previous existence – I was a writer for the TV show Night Court, until my premature death from choking on an errant bubble-tea bubble – so tell you what: I’ll help you figure out your past life, for a special discount fee of only 50 “euros.” Tell you what – I’ll make it 45, just for you. Besides, I feel it only fair to tell you: you owed it to me in a past life.

* Also: “Gimme more yogurt!”
** Opening this week: Bizet’s little-known gem, “Yannick and the Comical-Looking Car the Size of the Standard American Dental Filling.”
*** “Your Windows 95 Owner’s Manual”
**** HINT: France doesn’t have them.

©2010 Nicola McEldowney

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thighs Does Matter

Here at the Bureau of Thigh Grievances, we like to stand by the old adage that goes, "Just when you think all is right with the world, a thigh grievance will come along and rock the very foundation on which you stand." I know this to be true because it happened to me just yesterday, when I was reading the news. This was in itself an unsettling affair because, here in my current country of residence (France), the news tends to be in the local language (French). I don't know about you, but I think this is a national trick designed to deter everyone else from reading the local news, so that deep dark national secrets can be spilled entre eux,* on the inner pages foreigners never get to, like this:



So my usual method for reading the local news goes something like this: I pick a French article at random, usually something semi-intellectual, such as the one about the local politician who recently - and I hope you won't think I'm flaunting my knowledge of national affairs here - did something. Then I will remark, in cultured tones, "Huh."** Then I will look around, realize no one is actually listening, and let out a big old ugly rude massive phlegm-filled American yawn before I switch to articles in English about thigh issues.

Which brings me to the article from way back at the beginning of this thought.*** The headline, which I reprint verbatim, is:


When I saw this my heart pretty much sank to the plafond, which is French for "floor" or possibly "ceiling" if you want to get all academic about it. Because here's the thing. There is a certain group of gendered persons - to protect their identity, we'll call them "omen-way" - who are bound, on seeing such a headline, to experience great anguish. I speak in particular for those of us who are especially young and vapid, who devote the greater part of our very existences to the maintenance of non-thick thighs, who care about world thigh issues far more than, say, the economy.**** Now, all of a sudden, we find ourselves faced with the choice between - correct me if I'm wrong here - fat thighs and death.

The article goes on to destroy our lives further by explaining that - and I stress again that I have changed nothing here - "Carrying fat on the hips, thighs, and bum ... has a range of health benefits and actively protects against diabetes and heart disease. ... [Whereas] belly fat ... releases molecules called cytokines which trigger inflammation - raising the risk of diabetes and heart disease ... fat carried on the thighs traps these harmful fatty acids and stops them from latching on the liver and causing a range of problems, including insulin resistance."

You hear what they're telling you? Do you? Your body, even as you read this, crawls with evil little critters, Scrubbing Bubbles gremlin-style, who will INVADE YOUR PERSONAL LIVER unless you eat enough fatty things that OHHH NOOOOO THE THIGH TRAP OF DOOM will hold them at bay. In other words, it's high time we all hit the Double-Stuf Oreos or else MEET OUR MAKER. Yes! Seriously! And what's worse, the purveyor of this news is none other than the Discovery Channel. Yes. There is no room for doubt. This is, after all, the same Discovery Channel that shows MythBusters, the highly educational television program wherein scientific-minded individuals seek to communicate seminal technological principles by means of blowing stuff up and laughing at it a lot; the same Discovery Channel that was responsible for manufacturing my sister's mechanical tyrannosaurus -- "Noonan" -- who serves the educational purpose of lumbering around mechanically and growling. So naturally their information is above doubt.

Me, it makes me feel old. I can remember a time (3:30) when carrying around excess fat on any part of your body came with certain health risks itself. Now I learn it really works like this: eat fatty stuff, and you die. Don't eat fatty stuff, and - are you still with me? - you die.

And yet, and yet, there is a certain glimmer of hope, in that the next article on the same website is entitled "Parasitic Wasps' Genome May Yield New Drugs." This would appear to be highly suspicious, n'est-ce pas?***** Again, I can't speak for YOU, but I personally would no more take parasitic wasp pills than I would drink out of the toilet. So maybe, just maybe, the whole thigh thing is rot, too. But there's only one way to find out. We have to confront the Discovery Channel people, to assail them with our questions, to make them give us answers. Because we at the Bureau of Thigh Grievances mean business. We don't want suggestions. We want facts. Cold, hard, facts.

And if all else fails, I'm bringing out the Big Guns. That's right. I'm going to sic Noonan on them.

* This is French. It means "between eux."
** Like this: "Huh."
*** You remember it.
**** Which is handled here in France by: a guy.
***** This is French. It means "between eux."

©2010 Nicola McEldowney

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Brain, Brain, Go Away

I got to thinking about human intelligence when, the other day, I ate something called a "Portland Sunrise." The two are connected inasmuch as, the instant I bit into this item, my own personal intelligence became halved. That was what led to the second bite. And so on. Suffice it to say, this item did not deliver what it promised. What it promised was - I trust you are with me so far - something having to do with Portland, or sunrises. What it DELIVERED was two halves of soft, papery, flaccid bagellike substance, between them a floppy neon-yellow oval object that I guess was supposed to be an egg, but was clearly actually a key internal organ of SpongeBob SquarePants.

Naturally this was at the airport. An airport is the only place in the world where not only would you EAT such a thing; you would pay $4.79 for it, and you would be glad that you did. This is the result of something I vaguely recall from psychology class, called "cognitive dissonance," which is fancy psychology-jargon for "something I vaguely recall from psychology class." It works like this: say you're about to make a major life decision, but heading into it you feel upset, because you know you don't really like it. Yet, once you've gone ahead with it, you miraculously feel good, because, in the words of Sigmund Freud, "you start thinking you actually like nasty-ass SpongeBob entrail sandwiches." This serves to underscore the seminal psychological principle that you are, in Freud's words, "a doofus." This was what I was thinking about as I sat at the airport munching my sandwich, which was really quite good.

Generally I try not to think about human intelligence too much, because it can really bother me, especially since the day I witnessed a human being voluntarily watch an episode of The Secret Life of the American Teenager. However, it's not something I can put out of my mind entirely, especially not since my sister found the picture of the cat on the toilet. This was on Wikipedia, the site which offers, in the words of its founder, "free access to the sum of all human knowledge, including pictures of cats on toilets." This particular photograph was designed to illustrate the concept of - wait for it wait for it - intelligence.

Now don't get me wrong; I'm sure any cat who knows how to use a toilet is far above average. God knows they are more than qualified for admission to today's elite colleges. It's the intelligence of the owner I would question, inasmuch as in my world, the only recourse, after letting your cat use your toilet, is to set it on fire. (ATTENTION ANIMAL PEOPLE: I am talking about the toilet. Not the cat. I do not advocate the burning of cats. I appreciate your concern and compassion. Now please put down your rifles. Thank you.)

(Side note: My sister added that perhaps somewhere on a little-known cat Wikipedia, under "Intelligence," is a picture of a human using a toilet. This is the kind of thing she tells me with the understanding that I will not, then, reprint it publicly and reap all the credit for it. It's a trust we have.)

Adding to my grievances on the state of our species' intelligence was the youth seated next to me at the airport, who was having the following cell phone conversation. Naturally, I could only hear one side, but what I reprint is verbatim:

"Dude, it seriously sucks. Dude, no, I'm telling you. Dude, we should TOTALLY do that. Dude, we are going to have a ballin' time. Dude, are you serious? Dude, no. Dude, wait. Dude..."

I like to think this was because the person on the other end had a rare disorder in which he couldn't understand anything unless it began with the word "dude." I think this is a great variation on the English language, which would be fantastic applied elsewhere, for example in the works of Shakespeare:

Dude, O for a muse of fire, that would ascend
Dude, the brightest heaven of invention ...

It really screws up iambic pentameter, but it adds a certain oomph. I hope the Royal Shakespeare Company is listening.

But I'm not complaining. Let people talk how they want to talk; let them admit onto their toilets whatever species they will. It doesn't mean I have to listen; it doesn't mean I have to visit their homes. That's the thing about musing on human intelligence, or, indeed, much of anything. It always leads me to the same conclusion: in order to coexist peacefully, we must, one and all, at the end of the day and when the chips are down and from stem to stern (WARNING WARNING YOUR COMPUTER HAS EXCEEDED ITS PLATITUDE BANDWIDTH. RESTART IMMEDIATELY TO AVOID SYSTEM ERRORS AND INSTANT DEATH), mind our own damn business. Wouldn't the world be a better place? Not that it's any slouch the way it is. For example, that bagel was really really good.

©2010 Nicola McEldowney
The Snark Ascending

P.S. I'm now in Paris, from where I will do my best to blog more regularly, recording comical American cultural observations such as the fact that the dollars here are designated by a funny "E."

P.P.S. Write and correct me, punk. Oh, yeah. I dare you.