Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Basketball and the Meaning of Life

I am not a sports fan nor do I like basketball, and I sometimes find it hard to understand the market and culture that surround college sports. However, in what I hope is a result of my increasing maturity and not my new softness of mind or spirit, I am starting to see just what value it might have to society. I volunteered working concessions for two such basketball games recently (the volunteer’s hourly wages are donated to a community service club), and as a result I was trying to understand the sociology of sports.

In my natural tendency toward cynicism, a nearly empty basketball stadium (are they even called stadiums?) can make me very sad and sorry for society. All the investment of money, time, ideas, design, all the training and hope on behalf of the players and the families, all the lonely people who are fans of a team who is clearly at the end of an era of greatness sends strains of melancholy Beatles songs in my concession-stand-bound ears. It is hard for me to grasp that anyone’s life is made better by wasting hedonistic amounts of money on food, or clothing, or other merchandise that is specifically designed to make the purchaser feels a certain way that, even when effective, so swiftly fades. Though I was volunteering and my sales statistics hardly mattered, I felt myself willing our would-be customers elsewhere, thinking at them, “Please don’t walk up here. I don’t want to have to rip you off. I can’t make you happy.” I didn’t want to support the corporate-giant sponsor whose products we were shilling at what felt like a billion percent mark-up, to support or condone the kind of consumer manipulation that makes me so sad for what my history professor calls “the American market society.” It puts an ache in my heart to see good, hard-working Americans putting their hard-earned wages into making a giant trans-fat merchant more giant and fat, to watch the people watching the game and see a tiny bit of their hard-bitten, hard-knock, just plain hard lives.

But in the many hours I spent providing the hard-core basketball fans who came out for the 9:30pm tip off with all-American eats, I realized a few things in what were epiphanies probably to me alone. When we arrived several hours before the game to inventory our stand, I met some very nice people whose entire life is spent in the sodium-and-sugar shanty that I had but a one-night sojourn in. They work for the corporate-giant sponsor who is the very definition of “the man”, selling semi-unsuspecting fans popcorn and peanuts and momentary bliss for the low, low price of five dollars a popcorn kernel. But in what was a miracle only in my failure to realize it, they were real, well-intentioned people, just doing what they can to get by. I had been tricked into the romantic deception that soft-drink conglomerates are run by some group of crazy suits trying to rip off the world and steal all our money and clog all our arteries – and maybe they are. But these companies employ the little people, the real people, the people who fix soda machines and pop popcorn and get a little thrill out of a well-played game of basketball, making it possible for them to support their families, live their lives, pursue their own happinesses. All the people who designed the stadium, whose ideas, construction, advertising, training, coaching, recruiting, or other blood, sweat or tears go into that stadium or that team are probably good, honest people too. Though I am not na├»ve enough to think that any of it was done for anything other than the bottom line, I am also more certain that none of it was done with malicious intent. An infinite number of peoples’ livelihoods are created by the basketball culture, and it’s hardly the most depraved social phenomenon that supports families. And all those red-and-blue clad fans, who cheer so fervently for the team, who spend so generously for a snack at halftime, are hardly expecting to find enlightenment between free-throws and rebounds. They are probably just regular people, getting to forget for a bit just how hard life is, experiencing a tiny bit of nirvana in their team’s valiant bid for the win. As I sold a tub of popcorn to a man who still goes to every game his alma mater plays 48 years after he graduated, or to a father brought his physically and mentally handicapped son to enjoy some ‘guy time’, or to any of the people who wanted nothing from me but something to quench their thirst, I began to understand a tiny bit about life. The people involved in the basketball stadium aren’t trying to rip anyone off, just trying to do what’s right by them. The people involved in concessions have no malicious intent, they’re just trying bring in a paycheck for an honest day’s work, no matter how giant their employer. And the people who attend late-night college basketball games aren’t expecting to get or even looking to find enlightenment. They are hoping to remember their glory days, or spend time with their families, or just forget about their problems for a while by placing their hopes in a few promising young players. As it has taken me so long to realize, finding the meaning of life isn’t about broad strokes, taking down the man, enjoyment as only I can see it, or happily ever after. For normal, regular, real people, at least for a night, meaning --and perhaps even a taste of happiness -- can be found in the squeak and swish of a well-played game of basketball.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Being Seen: Are You What You Try To Be?

When I get a new haircut, it is one of the only times I am consciously thinking about how I come across to other people. For example, while I might hope that my choppy bob comes off as “young sophisticate”, I am usually just praying that it doesn’t come off as “mental patient” or worse, “shabby Victoria Beckham imitation.” As much as I’d like to deny it, I place as much hairstyle-choosing faith in those who will see my hair as I do in my own power to choose. And though I am at least aware that I’m doing it, I am not alone in the time-and-money consuming pursuit of a certain and specific persona.
Everything a person appears to be is at least to some degree the result a contrived and conscious effort. Like, if I was really a young sophisticate, would I be so concerned with my haircut broadcasting it to the world? In every choice one makes (at least in their young, keeping-up-appearances years), one is cultivating a brand, a symbol, a projection of oneself. If a girl hopes others will think her an aspiring pop star, she will probably wear faux-distressed jeans, a bedazzled tank top, and Rainbow flip-flops, if that’s what she thinks music darlings favor. She’d probably talk about her recent trip to LA long after it was recent, and her screen-name might be “Luvz2SingXO”. Just as an author would develop a character so that the reader would believe and maybe like her, we each cultivate ourselves – how are character appears – for our audience – society. As anti-self as this may sound, it is inevitable and undeniable, for at least in younger years, that how others view us is how we validate ourselves. Through our clothing, our speech, our screennames and Facebooks and preferred hangouts, we are creating an image, a reflection, a brand of ourselves that we are just hoping the rest of society believes. If someone appears to be fashion-forward and worldly, it’s probably because they wear expensive-looking dark fabrics in flowing skirts and pepper their daily language with delicious morsels from foreign tongues, be it correct or not. We are hardly at fault for wanting to portray ourselves in certain ways, but just like the author I mentioned above, we have little to no idea of just how our efforts to appear actually come across. Our potential Mariah may think she looks like the next Grammy’s darling, while everyone around her thinks she’s silly to wear a tank top in November and thinks she should stop bleaching her natural brown hair. The Francophilic Fashionista’s trans-Atlantic banter may come across as offensive and her many skirts may make her look like a bag lady. Do we ever know when our attempts at creative costumery fails? I can think of any number of people I’ve seem who could not possibly see themselves how I see them (as an example: I think all can agree that Spandex does not come across as confidence after a major weight gain). And what do we do, if we find out that people are thinking that our attempts at looking like a young sophisticate make us look like a Jersey sale rack? We can not care, of course. But just as everyone, consciously or not, tries to control how people views him, everyone lives in a society and at least to some degree has to cultivate their appearance in order to be accepted. Maybe there are people who don’t think about this phenomenon, or who just look great without trying, but in perfect keeping with my point, the people around then probably think they look like slobs, or sluts, or are trying too hard. We can wait until we’re say, thirty, and such things don’t matter anymore. Or we can go on trying to convince other people – and ourselves – that we just don’t care, to hell with what people think of us, it doesn’t matter anyway. And just to make sure everyone knows we don’t care what they think, we might wear a lot of black, buy a MacBook, get a young-sophisticate’s piecey bob, and start a blog.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting from Passion and Youth

As I am still twelve days shy of the legal voting age, I have watched this election as more of an outsider than most can: I am an American who understands the governmental process, and my future is certainly invested in the outcome of today’s election, but I can watch it with a strange kind of detachment as I won’t be casting a ballot. I've been observing the passionate, impressionable eighteen-to-twenty-four voting demographic as they cast their vote to determine the next President of this fine country.
Since the voting age was moved from 21 to 18, the new voters have yet to make much of an impact on an election, but this time, they could be a decisive part of the voting population. Their set of key principles is different from an older adult’s, their responsibilities are different, and their opinions on many key topics vary greatly from an older voter’s. From what I have observed, the tide of popular opinion has had the greatest affect on the red-vs-blue decision, with shows like Saturday Night Live and promotions from stores like Urban Outfitters making a greater impression than scholarly articles and candidate’s web sites. Granted, there are those students who are passionate as well as well researched, and they also play a large role in persuading those young voters who are less interested. The issues that matter most to young people – like the legal drinking age – are so drastically different than what matters most to a voter only a few years older – property taxes, or healthcare. Though I appreciate that the young people have a chance to be heard, it scares me that people who have yet to own a house, or care for a dog, or do their own taxes are making decisions that could change the nature of this country. I am not saying all young people are ignorant or ill-informed, but I am venturing that there are some questions they are unqualified to answer: one will undeniably better understand property taxes and how best to vote on them after they have actually paid them. One will better understand healthcare and how best to organize it once one has been seriously sick. In some states, one must be over 18 to own a gun, so how could someone younger than this really understand the micro-implications of owning a gun? I have heard far too many discussions between young voters saying they are just going to guess what is best when voting for propositions and the less-glossy categories on the ballot. Is guessing any way to make an important, informed decision? I am hardly advocating the white-landowning-male restrictions of the past, but I deeply hope I am wrong in my appraisal of how much research and time the young voters have devoted to this momentous decision. The right to vote makes everyone into an expert, and as unpopular as it may make me to say it, the under-twenty-one age group is hardly expert on mush at all. It strikes me as illogical that the drinking age (formerly 19 in most states) and the voting age (formerly 21) have switched in the last 30 years, because frankly, most people between those ages care more about the former than the latter.
Another popular heated debate for young people is the Electoral College: the usual logic is that whoever gets the most votes from the most people should win. While political pundits and political science professors alike have discussed this countless times, I also argue with this rationale. Some governmental historians have argued that the Framers of the Constitution created the Electoral College because they didn’t trust the masses to make the right choice for president, and sometimes, I don’t either. Even in times not wracked by economic and political turmoil, Americans hardly even seem to like each other, let alone trust each other with the most important decision many of them will ever get to make. Though the Electoral College is hardly a stopping point for stupidity and un-trustworthy voting, in whatever its many forms, I admire the Framers’ foresight. Especially in this presidential election, the candidate one chooses is more a reflection of one’s own hopes and dreams than an accurate reflection of who each candidate is as a person, what he or she is capable of, and who is best qualified to lead this nation. Just like youth and passion, hopes and dreams are shaky foundations to lay a vote -- and a presidency -- on. I just hope most that when people vote, whatever their age, they are thinking first of red-white-and-blue and not merely red-versus-blue.