Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sweet and Sour: Soft Drinks and Taxes

It's tax time again here in America—people say to beware the Ides of March, but I think you're better off bewaring the Ides of April, because that's when the government officially sticks it to you. In other words, Uncle Sam-bam-thank-you-ma'am is here, and you better give him some sugar.

Even more insidious than annual income tax filing, but very much on topic, the powers that be wish to levy a tax on beverages containing sugar, as explained in this article. This tax would cost us New Yorkers 1 penny per ounce of beverage purchased, which means next time you buy an 11.5 ounce can of Jolt Cola, you'll need an extra dime, a penny, and a hay-penny.

This new tariff might be just the financial squeeze that starts me brewing my own root beer in the bathtub. (And that might be just the push I need to break out the "Scrubbing Bubbles" and tackle that weeks-old halo of soap scum.) But even more taxing than the proposed soda levy is this pro-beverage ad that's on every ten minutes.

Notice how when you put the "orange drink" on the checkout immediately following the fresh vegetables it looks almost wholesome? Kind of like how Froot Loops on a table covered with three day's worth of fruit, wheat toast, yogurt and juice is "part of" a complete breakfast?

At last, poor New Yorkers finally have a champion in the person of David Corona, local store-owner and proponent of the idea that, like sliced bread and fresh produce, Kool Aid is a basic necessity. He also appears to stock every kind of ridiculous fruit-themed soda known to the five boroughs.

I like to think that I too provide a modicum of public service, so here's a savvy financial tip for all of those cash-strapped New Yorkers, living paycheck to paycheck and tallying their grocery purchases with a calculator: your obese little children do not need to drink Sunny Delight. What they do need is something that I like to call "actual food," which is sometimes found in the very same establishments. Additionally, if the shoppers Mr. Corona is so ardently advocating for were as sharp as he suggests, they should have realized that if they stop wasting their money on liquid candy, they will have more to spend on cigarettes and lottery tickets.

But getting to the bigger picture: as with any controversy, there is always more to it than what's implied by any one person's oversimplified summary, including my own. I'm not actually advocating for any one side—I find it easier and more satisfying to take things at face value and point out only what seems ridiculous. (I say this not so much to present myself as rational and distanced, but to absolve myself of any responsibility to delve far enough into a subject to really understand what it's about.)

Having glanced over that Reuter's article, I see that there could be a number of issues wrapped up in this tax proposal, including finance, politics, and personal liberties. One person cited who seems to be pretty sure of the facts is American Beverage Association head Larry Young.

"We really don't need people telling us what we eat and drink," said Young, adding that the tax is not meant to battle obesity. "It's for the budget deficits."

Young brings up the plausible claim that the tax isn't about sugar, but about revenue, plain and simple. However I find it amusing that he also couches his argument in ersatz-libertarian rhetoric to give it that obligatory tone of defiance necessary for taking sides on any political issue.

It's become standard that whenever a new tax or regulation is proposed, someone will start braying about how we should be allowed to buy/eat/sleep with/smoke whatever we want, with relevant facts no longer a prerequisite for making alarmist proclamations. As if you won't be "allowed" to walk into a corner store and exchange currency for a plastic bottle of Tropical Fantasy once the price goes up by 12 cents. And as if everything you buy doesn't have a variety of taxes levied on it somewhere along the line of production and shipping and wholesaling and retailing.

And FURTHERMORE (this is where I start waving a finger in the air, slamming my hand on the desk, and generally getting my bow tie all ruffled), people who send their first grade children off to school with a bottle of blue-raspberry "juice" and a bag of Doritos for their breakfast maybe do need to be told what to eat and drink. Or at least, they should have somebody suggest some better choices, you know, in a sympathetic and non-threatening manner, preferably in a city government office with a small couch with comforting throw pillows and some inspirational, positivity-themed posters on the walls.

Obviously we don't want a government that can mandate us to purchase and consume only a select list of products that it deems perfectly healthy (a world without Circus Peanuts is a world I don't want to live in); but I can't take seriously people clucking about our rights to make (stupid) decisions to buy (stupid) products at affordable prices when those clucking people are getting rich by selling shit to poor people. Mmm, such concern for the little people when it comes to taking their money, but what about concern for the fact that you're enabling them to become obese and develop diabetes and heart disease? Mmm indeed. (Sorry, I was eating a Mars Bar.)

Here's my side of an imaginary conversation between me and Larry Young of the American Beverage Whatever:

You want me to acknowledge that people are free to make their own decisions, and that you have a right to sell crap to people if that's what they want? Fine, as long as you acknowledge that you are a greedy fucker. And don't pretend to care about people if you don't thoroughly care about people. . . . What? Yeah sure, I'll have a Dr Pepper. You have any diet?

Hmm. In my imaginary conversation the beverage guy looked a lot like David Corona. You know, I'm not even that sure who it was I was talking to. Anyway, it's just as well, because I may have said some things I'm going to regret.

In the end I can only sit back and hope the soda tax passes, or doesn't pass, and that the little people can still afford their much-needed fruit punch, or that they can't and are the better for it, and that the "Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc" isn't bankrupted by all the injustice running rampant. Well, that, and also I can see how many Circus Peanuts I can possibly cram into my mouth.

Mmm. Sweeeeet.

Monday, March 22, 2010

24 Hour Patty People

Even though I've lived in NYC for quite some time now, before this year I had never attended the St. Patrick's Day Parade. This time I was determined to drink in the atmosphere, and feel the very essence of the “Emerald Isle” and witness the grand Irish procession making its honking, squawking, bag-piping way up 5th Avenue. And what better place to do that than outside of St. Patrick's Cathedral, which was built to commemorate the glorious day when Mr. Patrick chased the snakes out of Manhattan. (As I understand it, he herded them down 9th Avenue with a squeegee and a traffic cone, and through the Lincoln Tunnel to the wilds of Weehawken, New Jersey.)

I really didn't know what to expect at the parade. I usually spend St. Patty's Day deep in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, staking out the Nethermead in hopes of catching a leprechaun. (It hasn't happened for me yet, but once I did see a black squirrel.) I do know that Ireland is verdant and charmingly rustic, and I was looking forward to a cultural treat. For that reason I was a little surprised to see so many people celebrating the patron saint of Irish Americans adorned in such a gaudy sort of greenery.

Ahh, but this is America, and here when you want to find the perfect attire for an ages-old tradition, you never need look further than the nearest Rite Aid.

This being both a parade and New York, the scene was doubly crowded. In fact, it was so crowded that I could scarcely see the actual proceedings.

If you look very closely you can just make out the top of the pipes amidst the crowd, sticking up ever so slightly into the air like the bamboo breathing tubes of a Viet Cong regiment surreptitiously moving up the Mekong River.

I even tried crossing the avenue to get an actual glimpse of the approaching marchers, but I hit a lull and all I could see was cops and photographers.

Not one to remain flustered for long, I resolved to instead make green-tinted lemonade of the situation, so to speak, by shifting my focus to the spectacle presented by the spectators themselves. And how fortuitous, as the real parade was happening all around me. No sooner had I so resolved than I discovered I had been standing arm's length from a Leprechaun! Right in front of the Armani Exchange store!

I moved around for a closer inspection, but it turned out to be just a monkey in a velour outfit. Shame I didn't get that picture, but I had to duck for cover when he started throwing green poo.

Undaunted, and even a little invigorated by the shrieking, excremental excitement, I opened my eyes to the wonders around me.

Perhaps this green, glowing, humanoid was the living essence of St. Patrick. Or maybe an Irish superhero, here to oversee the safety and contentment of all! However, the lack of a mighty Guinness emblem on his chest suggested otherwise, and I concluded he was in fact a human glowstick, making his way across town to an Irish-themed rave.

At the realization that no spandex-clad hero was going to protect us in the event of riot (this isn't Boston, but with so many out-of-towners anything could happen) I nearly paniced. But a quick scan of the surrounding rooftops revealed that the vigilant eye of law enforcement was looking down upon us.

When the president comes to midtown each year for the U. N. General Assembly there are Secret Service agents, even sharp-shooters stationed on rooftops. I wondered if these guys were packing any high-powered rifles. I zoomed in for a closer look.

Their aim may not be so good, but at least they were keeping in the spirit of things.

As I made my way through the teeming green masses, which swarmed the streets in all directions well beyond the parade route, something began to occur to me. Most of these people were not paying any more attention to the actual parade than I was. Considering all the beads, silly hats and plastic party cups, most of these people were here to take part in what has become Manhattan's Mid-March Mardi Gras.

Further to that, most of these people were also going to have to forge a note to explain why they missed driver's ed and health class.

Eventually I needed to get back across 5th Avenue, but heading back through the epicenter things were becoming wilder and crowdier. It got so that I could barely move in any direction. And there, in the eye of the storm, I nearly tripped over what might well have been the true spirit of St. Patrick.

Apparently I hadn't learned anything from the monkey incident, because once again I moved around for a closer look.

Some people will use any excuse to drink and get rowdy in public. Who am I to find fault if people want to play faux-Irish for one day and have a good time? I guess my issue is that if you're going to adopt a pretense to get loaded, you could have a little bit of respect for the tradition you're crashing—at least enough to go with liquor appropriate to the occasion. No, Jameson doesn't go as well with Sprite, but if Captain Morgan and a green Jamiroquai hat is the best you can do, why not save yourself the commuter rail fare and find a frat party in your own town?

Anyway, apparently I wasn't the only one who'd been disappointed. On my way out I saw the elusive glowstick guy again, looking as lost and defeated as I was.

Not only was he de-hooded, but he'd also been stripped of his backpack and other adornments (maybe he was robbed by a real Irishman) and was being led by the hand, presumably back towards Grand Central Terminal. I tried to follow him to confirm this, but moments after this photo was taken he disappeared Sasquatch-like into the forest.

Now that the St. Patrick's Day Parade is over, all the truant high school students have gone back to their suburbs, and the shamrock necklaces and green feather boas have been returned to the attic until next year. The added protection of roof-top cops is gone too, and this could be a problem, as the Isle of Manhattan faces a new threat: coyotes!

I don't now what his rates are like these days, but considering all the reverence we've shown him over the years, maybe St. P. can come back and chase out these roaming, semi-predatory scavengers. I've even got a squeegee he can borrow in my basement.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Marketing Confusion: Generalizing Specifics

My daily commute to work takes me from Brooklyn to Manhattan, or in borough-speak, from outer to inner. To accomplish this Herculean quotidian feat, I alternate between riding the subway and riding a bicycle. There are occasional lapses in my cycling habit, but I always get back to it before long. Most recently, after neglecting my cyclo-commute for a few weeks on account of other commitments of the athletic variety, I once again set off "awheel" on a cold morning in early March.

As I began my commute, I was feeling both hale and hearty, as well as one or two other redundancies which I have since forgotten. Upon the "inbound" ascent of the Manhattan bridge, however, in spite of keeping in good shape the preceding fortnight or so, I quite suddenly felt the negative effects of too much time away from two-wheeled contrivances.

While "cross-training" sounds like a fabulous idea, and may even look fabulous with the right sneakers, it doesn't always work out that well. You can run yourself silly or sprint up an office building's worth of stairs if you train yourself for it, but that doesn't instantly translate to cardiovascular success in all other areas. Only the exact confluence of exertion of a select group of muscles, with precisely timed huffing and puffing, can fully prepare you for, well, doing that particular confluence of things.

Without a continued regimen of such confluences, or "confluations," if you prefer (which is to say, if you prefer made-up words), you may find yourself aching to quit at a point where you'd otherwise scarcely break into a sweat. And so it was for me: just half way up the relatively small ascent of an East River bridge, and I was thinking about stopping. Here's a summary of what I was feeling:

- shortness of breath
- fatigue
- dizziness
- the erection went away after a few minutes so I decided not to seek medical assistance

At this point I really should explain that I am given to frequent (and sometimes fabulous) conflations. So to be honest, while I was feeling a bit winded, the fatigue and dizziness were not so much symptoms as fictions. (The erection, however, was real, and it was powerful, and life-affirming.) And so in spite of my difficulties, both real and conflated, I was able to sufficiently coordinate my physiological confluences to finish the bridge ascent and the rest of my journey to work.

Recalling this incident now, I must admit I'm a little dismayed. I have secret aspirations to expand my cycling proclivities to include some road racing, but how can I seriously expect to succeed at that if I can't even ride over a bridge without feeling the need to whine about it on the internet?

To be fair, there were several mitigating factors. As I said, it was chilly, or at least chilly for March; it may have been a Monday; I was surely suffering from TV-induced sleep-deprivation, as described in my previous post; and, apparently, I'd been cross training without the right footwear.

You see, the truth is I might have felt weak on the bike because during my non-cycling activities I was not wearing cross-training shoes! It sounds naive to say so now, but since I was running (variously on pavement, a treadmill, and up flights of stairs), it seemed natural that I should wear running shoes. Ahh, but had I only been equipped with bona fide cross-training gear, the cardiovascular benefits of my alternative sporting activities would have better transferred back into my cycling capabilities.

Back when cross-training shoes were all the rage, I assumed it was some new sport, only nobody seemed to know the rules. Upon learning that was not the case, I wondered how "they" could presume to know what cross-training activities I might partake of, such that they could market a shoe, to me, for that purpose. (Of which. For doing. Grammar. Sneakers. What?)

It then dawned on me that cross training was not some complicated new idea; it was probably an unremarkable term within the athletic lexicon, used now and then by coaches and athletes while detailing a particular week's schedule, without attaching to it any additional fanfare. Only now, like a janitor discovering a soiled jockstrap left overnight in the showers, some marketing executives had gotten wind of it. And by Dammit, they were going to use it to move some shoes!

Most of what I was hearing called cross training would previously just have been called training. Let's say I'm a football player, and I put on a pair of running shoes and run 3 miles. Look ma, I'm cross training now! Can you take me to Foot Locker and buy me some Nikes with thick soles in case I cross some dirt?

Now, given my admitted habit of adorning the facts to suit my needs, you might suspect my cynical view of this subject to be a bit biased. So let me take a minute to present both sides of the matter more objectively: The concept of specific gear for cross training could be seen as a real stretch (also known as dubious or conflated), but on the other hand one could argue that it only lacks credibility because it hasn't been taken far enough.

In the first view, you don't need it because you already have basketball sneakers, or running shoes, or whatever the appropriate footwear may be, or something that's close enough and besides, what, are you some kind of pussy who has to go change his shoes before playing a game of H.O.R.S.E.?

The other angle suggests that you may wish to do a combination, or "cross," if you will, of multiple sports without having to outfit your feet anew for each activity. And so the cross-trainer is meant to be a good all-arounder.

But I think that's why my skepticism is roused from it's slumber in the back of the cave that is my mind: here is an athletic shoe that is specifically designed for nothing in particular. For a cross-training shoe to be taken seriously, it should fulfill the precise requirements of two specific activities. For instance, a tennis shoe with an "anarchy" symbol on the toe, to double for use on skateboards. A cleated flip-flop that can be worn to play soccer as well as table tennis. (And those are just off the top of my head!)

Until sporting goods manufacturers and their marketing departments learn to inject a little more creativity into their insoles (maybe they can mix it with impact absorbing gel), cross-training shoes will never know their full potential. And in the meantime, the all-time champion atop the heap of fully-specified sneaker technology will remain:

The original Reebok Pump. The first shoe that could only be fully conflated by the consumer.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sledding Versus Sliding: Training For Mind And Body

In my last post (which is to say, my other post) I took a look at the fine line that separates rational and ridiculous behavior. At times I myself can be a highly functional individual, but I'm also plagued by a myriad of hang-ups and short circuits that impedes me from completing simple tasks like reviewing anything I've ever written in my appointment book, putting the milk back in the right appliance, or adhering to my own physiological directive to turn off the television and go to bed rather than pouring another Bushmills and watching six more DVR'd episodes of Robot Chicken.

It's not that I'm apathetic--in fact these shortcomings concern me greatly, which is why I spend a great many of my waking hours trying to figure out what, exactly, is my major malfunction. I would say that I'm depressed, but on the whole I've gotten past that, even though looking back I can certainly pinpoint specific times in my life when that was the case. For example:

- 11th grade: having moved with my family from the great metropolis of Boston to a tiny town in upstate New York with one blinking street light and no sidewalks, I fell into a deep, dark, intoxicating pit called Disintegration, and stayed there until spring.

- Shortly after college, entirely unsure of what I was doing with my life, lying on my bed in my apartment in Albany, listening to Radiohead's then-new OK Computer and breaking into tears, unsure if this was the best thing I had ever heard or if it was in fact killing me.

While these periods of darkness have ebbed and flowed over the years, I've trained my mind to better direct the tone and direction of the endless onslaught of thoughts; I'm now able to avoid sliding into those little oblivions, lest I have to encounter Robert Smith's sloppy clown-face ever again. So I'm not depressed, but there's still some kind of tangle of dendrites or something up there--maybe I'm the less dire sounding "depressive," or a victim of the difficult to diagnose Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), or the new high-resolution version, ADHD.

However my ailments might be classified, it seems that all the thinking about what could be wrong with me is itself the problem. I believe the Buddha said something like "By our thoughts we create our world." (Or maybe he was just asking for directions--I wasn't paying that much attention.) But if I understand him right, he meant that if you spend a majority of your time trying to figure out what your defects are, you're just going to reinforce the notion that you are defective. If you instead contemplate making your fortune in oil, you may well end up a rich oil tycoon. In my case, I'm not sure how that could work, on account of my living in New York City, which affords little opportunity for drilling, and having no start-up capital to speak of. But, you see, that's exactly the kind of problem I could address, were I to make such tycoonery the focus of my thoughts. (You have to admit, Buddha's a pretty sharp character.)

Fortunately, as I said, at times I'm able to divert my endless train of thoughts away from the fields of fretting and into other, less neurotic lands--which is to say that I also obsess about other stuff besides myself. For instance, I'm still bemused, even baffled, about aspects of the Winter Olympics, which ended over a week ago in sunny Canada. I might have already moved on, but a few nights ago I saw an ad for an appearance on a talk show by the gold medal-winning U.S. Men's Bobsledding team. Bobsledding, you see, is at the very heart of my Olympical embafflement.

The Whistler Sliding Center

Even this is baffling. Shouldn't it be called a "Sledding Center"? I thought "sliding" is what you do when you FALL OFF YOUR SLED (as demonstrated by German bobsledder Romy Logsch, or American skier Lyndsay Vonn, who in different events illustrated the difference between world-class skiing and world-class falling down and sliding into the fence and breaking your thumb.

Now concerning the U.S. Men's Bobsledding Team, here's a summary of their achievement: they did some races, came in with the fastest time, and all 4 of them were awarded gold medals which apparently this year were made of over-baked Shrinky Dinks.

I'm very impressed by bobsledders, but I must say that while all Olympic gold medals appear equally hefty, not all gold medal-winning performances carry the same weight. I'm not convinced bobsledding requires anything like the effort of, say, speed skating. Unless you are the guy steering the sled, and thereby entrusted with getting yourself and all of your passengers (ahem) teammates safely to the end of the course with Autobahn-worthy speed, then your entire job is to run and push for 5 seconds.

And that’s it! Well, you have to remember to keep your head down, and also resist the urge to stick your hand out and weave it through the air currents, pretending it’s a real athlete like Charles Hamlin, deftly wending his way past his competitors. (For those not familiar with Hamlin, he’s the Canadian version of a U.S. short-track speed skater, which is to say less Asian and more hairy.)

Now, to be fair, and in the interest of not maligning an entire sport and its participants unnecessarily, let me state that I’m sure bobsledders train like crazy, because in order to win medals they have to run and push harder and faster for those 5 seconds than anybody else in the world. I should also point out that the annual bobsled training window is not as long as that of other sports. A speed skater can train even in the ice-defying temperatures of a tropical summer by trading his skates and iPod for a pair of Rollerblades, a Sony Discman and little cutoff denim shorts.

And to be completely fair, I should adimit that I am in fact entiretely ignorant of any facts pertaining to bobsledding, speed skating, or locating Canada on a map. Who’s to say? Maybe bobsledders keep themselves in top form throughout the warmer months by hiring themselves out as pallbearers.

Whatever the reality may be, there’s more to bobsledding than meets the eye. But still I’m not convinced that all four of those guys are doing enough to warrant the adornment of Olympic medals. I think the best solution would be to award them one medal, split up into wedges: little golden pizza slices! With the Olympic rings scattered across them like pepperoni.

Anyway, now that “The Games” have been over since about February, I’ve had time to cozy up with my DVR and watch all 90 hours of recorded coverage of curling, biathlon, skating (short track, long track, half track, ice dancing) and all the rest. Which means I can finally enjoy a full night's sleep. But first I'll probably catch up on the last three weeks of Robot Chicken.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Revolt Of The Imbeciles

If you travel to work in a place like New York City, you know that daily life can be a fight through a crowd of angry imbeciles. You might be aware that such people not only seek a target for their anxious, riot-eyed frustrations, but also to blame and punish someone for them. Like frenzied peasants hunting down snooty royals one day, and a sensitive, intelligent, club footed monster the next, they live in a state of perpetual revolt. When you come into direct contact with any of them, for that moment you are the scapegoat for all their ailments. In their eyes, you are the imbecile.

This sort of thing is easily observed. Stand on a street corner for any length of time and watch the traffic. An automobile driver is waiting to turn. His progress is temporarily impeded by pedestrians availing themselves to the crosswalk. Two cars back is a driver who lays on the horn. He is an imbecile. And he is in a state of revolt at the imbeciles in front of him who will not drive.

Some days I ride a bicycle to work in order to avoid the antagonism of the subways. This helps to alleviate the tension of pressurized human interactions for a while, but ultimately it’s trading exposure to (and participation in) one form of hostility for another. For instance, there’s a cyclist who occasionally shares a portion of my commute: a twig-like malcontent who somehow manages to fit his spindly legs into pencil-thin black jeans, and who, at every encounter with any vehicle in any way obstructing the designated bicycle lane, screams with a volume and vengeance that belies his diminutive frame. The last time I saw him there was a city bus blocking the bike lane. Mind you, the bus driver had pulled over to the curb at a designated bus stop, and was simply waiting to move back into traffic. The entire block heard the shrieked admonishment made to the bus driver, indicating exactly what to do and how vigorously to do it.

I don’t know what that guy is so angry about. Maybe he should try eating something. Or maybe he has suffered some great tragedy that has left him bitter and vengeful: like a comic book villain but without any extraordinary powers… apart from screaming. Either way the result is that this young man’s viewpoint is as constricted as the roadway ahead of him or the blood vessels in his denim-compressed legs. His impeded rationality has rendered him a functional idiot. And with unfathomable rage, he revolts.

We all have our moments. But it seems like misery to inhabit that space all the time. Although when you’re in a state like that it simplifies things, having that kind of certainty. In spite of the confusion, fear and anger that otherwise plague your daily life, at those moments at least, you are justified. In those moments, the world is the imbecile.