The New York Times has a strange idea of fun. They seem eager to give me, the reader, tips on enjoyable things to do with my free time. But the activities suggested aren’t always so relevant to my interests. I could become an influential industry bigwig, then spend years befriending club promoters and buying $1000 “bottle service” to earn myself a permanent spot on the guest list at a trendy night club. I could go to an exhibition of designer nightstands featuring such artists as Sting. (“I liked the idea to let men conjure up their story for the nightstand. It’s almost role reversal,” says the curator.) Or stop in at a racist country club to sample a delicacy called a “frozen tomato” that consists of “essentially tomato ice cream (except, instead of cream, it’s got cream cheese, cottage cheese and mayonnaise), served in a round scoop on a lettuce leaf with a dollop of more mayonnaise on top).” I could collect Victorian taxidermy, or knit Brobdignagian cozies for public statuary.
Still, for every bizarre activity that they praise, there is another relatively harmless pastime they disparage. Why? Maybe it’s too lowbrow. Maybe it’s because the fans of said pastime are presumed to be illiterate proles who don’t understand the consequences of their actions. Or maybe it’s for the opposite reason — the pastime is question has gotten too popular with the hip, trend-chasing urbanites whom the writers fondly imagine comprise their core readership. There must be something dangerous about it. But what? In a selection of recent articles, we’ll explore how Times scribes find fear in the benign.
Fun activity: Sitting around like a stupid stoner, pretending to eat hash brownies.
Reason for disapproval: “These melatonin-laced brownies flagrantly mimic the soothing effects of hash brownies — and do so legally. At least for now…. But these snacks contain roughly 8 milligrams of melatonin per brownie or cookie, so selling them is similar to a parent serving an unsuspecting child applesauce containing a crushed aspirin tablet to make it go down easier…. Of melatonin, Dr. Seres warned, ‘If you take it while you’re driving a car, you will find yourself in a ditch.'”
Method of critique: Medical scare.
Related dangerous thing mentioned: “In January last year, the F.D.A. sent a warning letter to Peter Bianchi, the creator of Drank, a purple drink with 2 milligrams of melatonin in each can that went on the market in 2008.”
Token opposing opinion: Dr. Alfred J. Lewy is quoted as saying “It really doesn’t have any documented side effects except for making you sleepy at bedtime, which is good.”
Melatonin is a hormone naturally occurring in the human body that is thought to regulate sleep cycles. Let me just note here that I take melatonin most nights, and have done so on and off for years. It doesn’t do anything. I’ve never noticed any effects, good or bad. I keep taking it because it seems like sort of a healthy thing to do, and I cherish vague hopes that the placebo effect will kick in and make me sleepy before 3 a.m. It never does. Maybe some of you take melatonin and it knocks you out just like a horse tranquilizer, but that’s my “take” on the melatonin controversy.
“The drug-packed desserts can even be paid for with food stamps.” Great. So now the idle poor are being spoiled by getting to eat and relax at the same time, while the LazyCakes corporate behemoth sucks at the government teat. The Missing Fifth will never find jobs now! David Brooks would freak out about this, in his extremely bloodless way. David Brooks flying into a rage is like a tree making a getaway– the results wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye. He’s just not a man of passion.
“And the snacks are increasingly being endorsed by fans on Facebook and Twitter as an antidote to stress and sleep deprivation. (Who needs yoga?).” People are clicking “like” on Facebook? That’s how the crack epidemic in America’s inner cities got started. I also like the idea that stoners who buy dessert at the gas station are somehow being lured away from a rigorous yoga practice. Twenty years from now, an idealistic young couple will stop to give change to a bum lying in the gutter, and he’ll start drowsily slurring at them about how he coulda been the next Krishnamacharya, if the demon ‘tonin hadn’t gotten hold of him. JUST SAY NO!
“Lazy Cakes appear harmless, even amusing, with swirly purple packaging; Kush Cakes have a tie-dye-printed wrapper. But they are not to be underestimated.” Oh, like it’s so sinister that they “appear harmless.” What doesn’t “appear harmless,” except for like, chainsaws and iron maidens and bloody severed limbs and stuff? Cigarettes “appear harmless,” with their cylindrical shape and virginal white coloring. A brick of ketamin looks just like harmless cocaine! But it’s always the same way with these drug scares. Just look at the article they ran about Four Loko — people complain about the drink’s “colorful packaging” and how its “brightly colored cans… look like iced tea, soda or energy drink containers.” We’re talking about the packaging for a novelty beverage. It is colorful and lighthearted. Did you expect it to look like a Cannibal Corpse album cover?
Fun Activity: Learning about sex.
Reason for disapproval: “Blue laws, for the uninitiated, enforced the concept that Sunday, in our Christian city and nation, was a time for churchgoing, not for …’any unlawful exercises or pastimes,’ as an 1828 state statute put it. And certainly, one imagines, not a time for going to museums of sex…. That said, it felt odd being in the museum on a Sunday morning in a town where you used to not be able to play a ballgame, go to the theater or buy a six-pack on a Sunday…. I do wish some things were still prohibited at certain times, because a little deprivation is good for the soul, even an irreligious one.”
Method of critique: Fake nostalgia.
Related dangerous thing mentioned: “From 10:30 to 11:45 a.m. on Thursdays, there is to be no eating of those overpriced cupcakes that have been so popular in recent years.”
Token opposing view: “I know that religiously based blue laws can no longer be tolerated, what with the discovery that — guess what? — not everyone in this city is a Christian or even religious.”
Neil Gentzlinger went to review a burlesque exhibit at the Museum of Sex. Instead of admiring the view, he seems to have spent his visit consumed by guilt-induced hallucinations, imagining himself to be in church and wishing the government would forbid him to go there for his own good. Although the idea of sex seems to terrify him (never mind the actual having of sex, which has never been banned by any blue law I’ve ever heard of), he wouldn’t be a Times writer if he didn’t come up with high-minded and intellectual-sounding reasons for his prudery.
“It was Sunday morning, about 11 o’clock, and a casual glance might have suggested I was in church. There were a couple of bibles nearby; a depiction of the Garden of Eden was available for examination.” I don’t buy this “casual glance” thing for a moment. A museum looks nothing like a church, what with the absence of pews, congregation, or stained glass windows. By that logic, the DMV looks like Versailles, since they both have chairs. Is this a review, or an Oliver Sacks case study? Gentzlinger’s rare neurological condition must have caused him real confusion when he got to the BDSM part of the exhibit, and thought he was at a horse farm.
“But I wasn’t in church. I was in the Museum of Sex.” Can you imagine if this had turned out to be a review of a Sunday church service? That would be crazy. You had me going there for a second, Gentzlinger.
“[Re: 1828 blue laws]: But that was then; this is now. And here in the now, most anything goes on Sunday.” I must admit, he has a point: The 1820’s were definitely different from “now.” You couldn’t go to a bar on Sunday, plus slavery was legal. It must take real effort to be nostalgic for a time over 100 years before you were born. This is like, historical re-enactment culture shock.
“Available for perusal [was] a display about bondage, domination and such explaining that these practices ‘include, but are not limited to: role playing, flagellation, erotic spanking, tickling, whipping, paddling, sensory deprivation, movement restriction as well as sensation play.’ Your average tippling house looks tame by comparison.” Well… yeah? I don’t think “tamer than the bar at the TGI Friday’s down the street” is really what people who go to BDSM dungeon flagellation parties are really going for. “Those people are tickling each other! That’s it, this sadistic pain orgy just got too crazy for my taste. I’m getting in the car, and I’m not going to stop until I see one of those big buildings with all the Bibles!”
Finally, Gentzlinger turns with a sigh of relief to something he’s comfortable with: corny humor. He presents readers with a satire on the faults and foibles of modern-day New Yorkers, in the form of “new blue laws we can all get behind.”
“From 2 to 3:30 on Tuesday afternoons, no one’s allowed to send a text message, an e-mail or any other electronic communication that includes a smiley face.” I know you heard that, smiley face texters! Gentzlinger is telling it like it is! If that’s how he feels about emoticons, just imagine what he’d say about airplane food or women’s love of shopping. He’s like Lenny Bruce. But I know how to really get to him. What if… I combine the two things he hates most in the world? Genzlinger, if you’re reading this: 8===D ~~~~ (.)(.)
Fun activity: Shopping outside on a nice day.
Reason for disapproval: Flea market shoppers are “searching for meaning and connection in their rudderless lives…. ‘Flea markets proliferate a volume of goods needing to be sold and people who are hungry — emotionally and aesthetically — to sort out the meaning of life’…. ‘For most people who go on these ritualized scavenger hunts looking for something that they may not know exists, it is a kind of pilgrims’ process through the detritus of the past’…. the flea marketing of New York is all but complete…. What, exactly, is behind the new flea market hegemony?”
Method of critique: Fake sociology.
Related dangerous thing mentioned: “Food occupies a significant space at many of the markets, with vendors selling items like Korean tacos, artisanal popsicles, entire pizzas with fresh toppings and, yes, even oysters.”
Obligatory opposing view: A visitor at one market explains that “They have food and antiques and jewelry, so it’s a good mix. It’s not just old clothes.”
New York has some new flea markets, and it seems like they’re increasingly popular. Ashley Parker got stuck with the task of expanding this fact to two pages, but she knew just what to do: Interview a history professor from the Ontario College of Art and Design, and expound on his theories (which she describes as “deep”) about the subconscious motives of the patrons. In doing so she (and the professor) adopts a condescending tone toward the markets’ thousands of fans, questioning the authenticity of their desires and implying that their uniqueness, their individuality, their very humanity is nothing more than a scrim of hollow consumerism. Also, they eat weird food.
“For most people who go on these ritualized scavenger hunts looking for something that they may not know exists, it is a kind of pilgrims’ process through the detritus of the past.” The parallels between flea marketing and the famous allegorical text “Pilgrim’s Process” [sic] are lost on me. But also, I’d like to know what rituals are associated with going to the flea market. Are these people druids or something? Guys, you don’t need to summon Satan’s minions and paint pentagrams on the floor in goat blood just to get a good deal on a midcentury-modern end table. Jesus, have some perspective.
“In a city that thrums with opportunity and a veritable buffet of wonderful things to do — theaters! museums! parks! — flea markets have somehow emerged as many people’s first choice of a way to spend the weekend.” In other words, in a city where there’s a bunch of stuff to do, some people have picked one of those things as something they actually want to do. Will the paradoxical logic of late capitalism never cease to mystify?
“While the foundering economy, the banality of strip-mall and big-box shopping, and the generally whimsical and serendipitous aura of flea markets have all played a role in their popularity, the real reasons behind their rise in New York City are more complicated and hardwired than even the most well-trained scavenger or vintage aficionado might expect, experts say.” I thought only women were “hardwired” to shop. Men are supposed to be hardwired to drink beer and kill mastodons. What’s wrong with this wiring? These wires are wired to all the wrong wires! It would take 100 electricians to figure out these wires.. and 1,000 history professors to explicate the complexities of the real reasons behind the rise of the electricians! But who’s going to explicate the rise of cultural theorists explicating the rise of things? Especially in a city that thrums with a veritable buffet of “things” to “do” (hookers)?
“According to Professor Prokopow, the ‘Stuff’ instructor, ‘It’s this sort of idea of material self-fashioning, a self-curation of life. I’m always amazed by these groups of cool young people, wandering around, looking for stuff, and I think, ‘”If you didn’t have this venue, your performance of yourself wouldn’t be as complete”‘…. He described the phenomenon as ‘I have something that no one else has. I was different before I got this fantastic blank, but now my differentness is borne on my shoulders.'”
What a shrivelled old killjoy. Maybe if you spent more time working on your “performance of yourself” and “self-curating your life,” you could enjoy a nice day out without casting flinty-eyed glares at everyone else. I hate when people imply that some hipper group of people are phonies because they’re always “self-fashioning” and “performing their identity” and “curating their image” and whatever. It’s like secret ugly people code for “I don’t have any clothes I look good in.”
Fun activity: Cursing.
Reason for disapproval: “The argument that someone’s use of a vulgar expression was surprising or politically dramatic, or revealing about art or the intensity of feelings, will not be compelling…. Those who print [profanity] should be aware that it will outrage some readers. . . . If the paper is peppered with it, the news report is cheapened and the character of the paper tarnished.”
Method of critique: Benevolent paternalism.
Related dangerous thing mentioned: “Sexual behavior, arts censorship, science, health, crime and similar subjects… however disturbing.”
Token opposing view: “The Times differentiates itself by taking a stand for civility in public discourse, sometimes at an acknowledged cost in the vividness of an article or two, and sometimes at the price of submitting to gibes.”
This editorial defends “dignity” and civility” against all that is “coarse” and “vulgar,” as well as “offensive or coy hints,” warning of a future in which “the news report is cheapened and the character of the paper tarnished.” Gibe all you want, harlots and rakes! While you gibe, we’ll be using our dignity and propriety to defeat Kaiser Wilhelm and defend civilization against the Hun! Wait, what year is this?
But whatever the policy may state, coy hints are in plentiful supply throughout the paper’s essays and reviews. They refer to a “play that dare not speak its name,” a “title that cannot be printed in most daily newspapers, “the unmentionable noun”; to “a name that’s just on the other side of what’s printable here”; and to “a word that can’t be used in this magazine,” “an unspeakable word,” and “the word I can’t use.” This essay on “cunt” was otherwise thoughtful and mature, so it’s a shame readers had to be protected from the very subject of the article. To quote Dan Savage: “Daily newspapers need to start winning back adult readers, and adults don’t trust papers that are timid and condescending.”
Fun activity: Twitter.
Reason for disapproval: Twitter is like “a pipe of crystal meth… [its] price is a piece of ourselves…. we [will] become effectively cyborgs…. We are outsourcing our brain to the cloud….It is reductive and redundant… Our tolerance for others’ opinions [is] stunted…. It certainly makes some smart people sound stupid…. [and is] displacing real rapport and real conversation.”
Method of critique: Paranoid Andy Rooney.
Related dangerous thing mentioned: “There is something decidedly faux about the cameraderie of Facebook.”
Token opposing view: “It restores serendipity to the flow of information.”
In a successful bid for pageviews (it made #1 on the “Most Blogged” list), Bill Keller argues here that even though he uses social media to promote his writing and talk to his friends, people really shouldn’t use social media to promote their projects and talk to their friends. Because it made him stupid… somehow? and so people should listen to him?
Just check out the damning evidence he’s put together. For instance, his daughter has “accumulated 171 Twitter friends,” which made him feel “a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth.” Did she suffer any bad consequences? Apparently not, because she’s quickly lost sight of after being used as a rhetorical ploy in the first paragraph. Indeed, Keller doesn’t cite one tangible bad effect on any person. Instead, he quotes cultural studies professors (different ones than in the flea market piece, it is to be hoped), refers to Mark Zuckerburg as “the Johannes Gutenberg of his day,” and describes his own father as lamenting the death of the slide rule.
Keller “wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.” Keller has entered a nightmarish upside-down world in which the mere existence of a fear proves that said fear is justified. With enough research, he could have found someone who regrets that people stopped using Roman numerals and sundials (or, indeed, cited Plato as evidence that writing itself is a dangerous innovation). Instead, he tells us all about the results of his attempt to whip up debate by tweeting “#Twittermakesyoustupid.”
In a surprising turn of events, he thought some of the tweeted responses were stupid. But “I realize I am inviting blowback from passionate Tweeters, from aging academics who stoke their charisma by overpraising every novelty and from colleagues at The Times who are refining a social-media strategy to expand the reach of our journalism.” In other words, he’s “concern trolling” to start a “flame war.” And it worked! Bill Keller, you are smart after all.
Oh, I could go on with these articles. Facebook has “sucked the life out of birthdays.” Yoga causes “strained backs, pulled knees, aching wrists and slipped discs.” Circle contact lenses will make you go blind. Gardening will give you lead poisoning. Lip gloss and mascara are “barbarians at the gate of [children’s] innocence.” But I needn’t. At this point, a few things are clear.
First, the more benign an imagined danger, the greater the intellectual gyrations required to dream up frightening effects. And secondly, Times reporters are up to the task. It doesn’t matter whether the subject is foreplay, a four-letter word, or four milligrams of melatonin. With the help of a few cultural studies professors and some idle speculation, they can declaim eloquently on any topic they choose. And they’ll never need to limit themselves to a 140-character tweet.