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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Trip: My family

Family trips are about standing around smiling for photos.

I don't do that.

I didn't get the true family trip experience.

What I did get is a fair amount of time sitting around with these people. This was the most forgettable part of the trip.

But surely I learned something about my family I didn't know before? Surely I bonded with them more than I could have at home...?


I did learn some stuff about Benjy, I guess. Or maybe I'd known it before, but forgot it because it'd been so long since seeing him.

One thing I learned is that he has a pretty good artistic sense.
When we were at Niagara Falls on the "Maid of the Mist" boat ride, there was one priceless moment I noticed. There was a speaker on the boat with recorded tour info playing for the first few minutes of the ride- you know, boring dates and stuff. Halfway through, we reached the climax of the experience, being right next to the waterfall and getting totally drenched. And at that precise moment, the speaker announced in that proud marketing voice, "Welcome to Niagara Falls!" It was like a movie, where they hold off the opening title for a few minutes. Whoever had written that knew exactly what people were coming for.

Well, I was surprised that Benjy noticed that, too. When he got off the boat, he mentioned it, so that's how I know.

Oh, and he's a smart photographer. He brought his camera everywhere, but as he put it, "I prefer not to set up my shots.". Instead, he tries to take more natural pictures of how everyone would have been standing anyway. I like that.

Benjy had this wacky idea, when we were in Detroit, of a variant of Ping Pong which even the little kids present could join in on. In this game, it didn't matter if the ball went completely off the table, so long as it was bouncing like a basketball. So the game environment included the entire room and everything/one in it. It was so chaotic, it reminded me of games Benjy used to make up when we lived in New Jersey. And it occured to me that games are more fun when there aren't any rigid rules, and you just play. That's something Benjy's always known.

My father really enjoyed the trip. Sure, it was hectic, but we got to do some stuff he loved. Namely, the International Spy Museum. Though we really had to rush through that, it really sparked his imagination. He wouldn't stop talking about espionage for around two weeks after that. It was a really fun museum.

In Chicago, my father played ping pong with us. He hadn't played in around ten years. And he whipped us at that game. Occasionally I see something like that, which reminds me that he's a very multi-talented guy. Most of the time, he's just running around doing things.

He and my mother had some nostalgic fun in Boston and Baltimore going to the places they lived and went to college. They both enjoyed that, though my father enjoyed it much more (You could see it on his face.).

In Baltimore we stopped by a couple who'd been good friends with my parents back then. And I learned the amusing anecdote that even back in college, my mother was trying to stay busy helping everyone else out. They called her "Mother Fallet". My mother didn't remember that, but it makes sense. She hasn't changed so much.

I don't think my mother knew what to do with herself on this trip. We were staying at hotels and other people's houses, where she couldn't do all the chores. And she doesn't know how to have fun. It was pretty sad seeing her sitting with me watching TV when there wasn't anything good on. She wasn't enjoying it, yet she was even watching the commercials because she just couldn't think of anything to do, what with the lack of political/social activities to volunteer for.

I'm pretty sure she enjoyed all the schmoozing she did, though. She generally likes that.

My sisters were, um, there.

Miriam kept singing pop songs wherever we were, and I kept trying to get her to stop.

Dena kept criticizing me for being so weird, and I ignored her.



The ping-pong game kind of developed like that, with everyone laughing and running around like crazy, we just made the rules as we went. But yeah, Benjy was having so much fun with that, you could tell. He liked playing with all our little cousins, all the munchkins :-) I was just FUN, in all it's simplicities.
And also, they weren't POP songs, they were ROCK songs.
That's the only thing you remember about me on the trip? You're trully pessimistic.
Thanks, though.

I meant Negative, not Pessimistic.


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Friday, September 15, 2006

The Trip: Socializing In Solo

If you give six people something to do by themselves, and then have them do it while they're in a room together, is that a social experience?

For instance, say the activity is actually inactivity, more specifically the inactivity of waiting and the act of looking out the window absent-mindedly. Say the environment we're talking about here is a car, just to make it easier to visualize. And to add a human touch, let's say it's a family in the car. Is this a social environment, or just a combination of six solitary environments?

I could certainly see the multiplayer aspect of a family sitting in a car if that family happened to be fighting. But say they're listening to the radio, or not even so much as listening to the radio. In theory, the people should get bored and have no choice but to start talking, at which point the environment will become a social one. In theory.

But let us further assume that in this family there are not enough common interests to start up a conversation, or at least a conversation which will engage more than two or three of the passengers. Maybe three of the family members are in a heated discussion about politics, while the other three are left out due to their own disinterest. We can say that there are four wholly separate "environments" (one involving three people, the other three involving one each) existing within this car. Whether those left out are doing anything or not, and what they are doing, is completely irrelevant for identifying socialization, because their presence does not affect anyone around them.

Now, at this point you may very well be suprised to learn that this is not really a hypothetical scenario at all, but in fact a true story in which the characters are my family (myself included). But do not worry!- The situation is not quite as hopeless as you might think, for we had a DVD player in the car!

Now, watching a DVD is a single-player activity, so to speak. The filmmaker (excepting certain specific cases) gives no thought to what social context the video will be viewed in- the best, most pure way to enjoy a movie is with as few social distractions as possible, so that you can view it on its own terms rather than the random social context it has been placed in.

You probably have already anticipated the question which I am leading toward (Well done!): "How does a one-person experience fare in a setting with more than one person?" We all know that it works fairly well in a theater setting, due to the unspoken rule "SHUT UP AND WATCH THE MOVIE!". (It is unspoken mostly because everyone has shut up and is watching the movie.) A car is a smaller yet more chaotic setting, because not everyone is involved in the watching of the movie. The screen is placed in between the backs of the front seats, hanging from the ceiling. Thus there are at all times two people (one thankfully being the driver) who cannot see the movie. Keep in mind that they can hear it nonetheless.

Some of the rules are inherited from theater, to retain some measure of common courtesy. Namely, no one person should control the pacing, and all present are to remain silent for the entire duration of the film. At this point we have six solo experiences within the car: four viewings of the movie, and two waitings in silence, with a little driving added in. This situation may seem stable at first, but it is not. The two in front (one of whom happens to like to have control over the situation in his car) are bored enough to talk but forbidden to, and so they occupy themselves with the one activity left to them:
Fiddling with the volume control to make the louder portions of the movie less unpleasant for themselves.

Suddenly a social experience emerges, and a complex one at that. The volume is adjusted only at especially loud segments (such as action scenes), but a good movie will usually not be perfectly consistant in its dynamics and so the softer portions, often containing only dialogue, cannot be heard at all. And so the four interact between each other, with exchanges like this:
"What did he say?"
"I don't know- I didn't hear. Did you hear what he said?"
"Me? No- you're the one by the speaker!"
"But I was leaning over here to see the screen better! What did he say, really?"
"Is that my fault?"
"I think he said something about horses and windmills."
"Your ears are broken, he said something like 'I have no foot with which to eat my lunch.'!"
"Shut up and let me watch the movie!"

And then the four viewers must put their trust in one of their number, sitting in the middle row, to control the pacing so they can watch that segment over and over again. When it turns out that it still can't be heard, another facet of this game appears, in which one brave member of the viewers must ask one or the other of the nonviewers to raise the volume again, while taking into account which of the two was the one to lower it in the first place (so as not to offend), how much time has passed since the lowering, how many times he and/or others have asked (at risk of frustrating the front-sitters), how forceful such a request must be and whether it need be asked several times, and the fact that everyone in the car knows that it will get louder again later and again upset the driver and his companion. In the meantime the movie has still been playing, leading to more flow-control, and the front-sitters have taken the opportunity presented by the commotion (an indication that the movie has lost focus) to start a short conversation between themselves. All participants in this now-unified car may bask in the light of the social atmosphere.

And now we may return to the original question, and ask: "If you give each six people a single-player experience, and then have them do it while they're stuck with the others, is that a social experience?" And now we see in practice the answer which was obvious from the start:


But if you stick these chaos-ridden people in a room together, unless the setting is as stable and time-tested as can be, one of these people is likely to stop playing in their own corner and start affecting everyone else. At that point, all involved will be having a social experience.

And I hope I've made myself clear: This is most assuredly NOT a good thing.

Throwing a one-person experience into an unstable social environment is like throwing a person into a pit of untamed crocodiles. Big ones. With sharp teeth and nasty tempers.

Volume is one problem, and it was as much a concern when I was trying to listen to music as when we were watching a DVD- more so, in fact. The solution would be some sort of "audio contrast" control, which the divergence of the volume from the norm would be divided by. (If you lower the audio contrast to 0%, the volume stays consistantly at one level. If you raise it to 150%, all differences in dynamics are exaggerated. In this case, we'd want to keep it around 40% or so.) It would detract very much from the quality of the single-player experience, but concessions must be made to the crocodiles in order to escape the worse alternative. Audio contrast is a very important feature to the stereo system of any social environment used for music and movies with changing dynamics -like say a car. Too bad it doesn't actually exist.

Even if it did, the volume problem wouldn't go away in all settings. At almost every social setting on the whole trip, I played the piano. What else would I do- talk? Neah, I preferred to show off. So I would play for them much as I do at home to amuse myself. It was a form of socialization to begin with here, because it was affecting the people around me. (This is not to say that I payed any notice at all of whether anyone actually wanted me to play- I didn't care.) Now, I was trying to be considerate to some degree, so I didn't play my most bombastic pieces. Some people commented that my music could be classified as "easy listening" music, and I pointed out that under the circumstances I couldn't very well play anything else. But that wasn't enough for my father, who kept coming over (every time I did this, several times) and begging me to "keep it down". I was the one in control of the volume here, playing the piano as a single-player game, but it was a crowd. It doesn't work, I tell you.

Pacing is another frequent problem. When we were at The Art Institute of Chicago, I tried to savor each pretty painting I came across. Well, not every pretty painting, but there were some which grabbed my eye, and I'd just stand for minutes, not really analyzing so much as looking through the "window" the frame was, into this other world within. This isn't exactly how my sisters approached the museum. Miriam and Dena must have ran through the rooms, because my father came to tell me that they were bored so it was time to leave. Art is something which must be appreciated for yourself. It's not a group activity. And we put it in a social setting, and -smush- there goes half the experience.

We were only in Illinois for two days. I wanted to stay. No, I mean for good- I really do love my grandparents' house. I enjoyed myself just walking back and forth in their house, I love it so much. We didn't do all that much in Illinois, but that's the thing about contentment- it doesn't rely on keeping busy. It didn't take me any time at all from the time we arrived to get settled into "my" room- it really did feel like coming home. I didn't want to go. It was a personal thing, between me and the house. And we had come as a family. We left.



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Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Trip: Greed and Galuttony

In the airport, a simple cart to carry our luggage with cost us three dollars. My mother said, "I guess some people would say that's an example of capitalism at its finest." "Of course.", I added, "Capitalism is all about ripping off people for as much money as possible." For the next hour, as we waited for (just like last time I'd been to JFK) the broken luggage conveyor belt to start working and give us our luggage (because who'd pay to fix it?), I pondered that maybe Americans did go quite a bit past practicality. I mean, this cart (which happened to be falling apart) wasn't an ordinary cart. No, this one had a brake system! And for what practical purpose does a $3.00 function like that need to be in a luggage cart? It's not about practicality- it's about grubbing money.

The one kosher restaurant in the center of Washington D.C. cost a sizeable fortune for each meal. Why, when they could charge a reasonable amount? Because they could get that money, being the only kosher restaurant nearby. (It looked like a terrible restaurant, too!) So we had to walk for more than an hour in the scorching heat to find a dinky little museum cafeteria reported to be kosher. Actually, they had only three things on the menu with rabbinic supervision, which were roughly edible. Though it might not have been obscenely expensive, I as a person who had to actually taste this food can say that it was severely overpriced- they should have been paying us. And then they sold me a Good Humor bar which seemed to have been melted and refrozen. Why would they sell trash like that? Why, because they could get our money, of course.

The other side of this greed, naturally, is the reward paid in excess. All the houses we saw were enormous by Israeli standards. The families we stayed by always had several cars, as if one wasn't enough to get you from point A to point B. The digital cable has hundreds of channels, even though there's never anything on any of them. Excess is a way of life there. And I guess that as long as its pursuit for its own sake doesn't become the driving force in life, that's not bad. I don't know if it actually is a driving force- we weren't there that long.

What was a little bit troubling for me is that no one seemed to appreciate any of this. This wasn't amazing architecture, such that the space was needed to make the house feel just right. And it wasn't actually being used. It didn't look lived in, it didn't look wanted, it just looked empty. Like a person would be ashamed to have a house without all that excess space he'd never use in it. It seemed like every house had a piano in it, even though most of these families never played on it. So these musical instruments just sat, often out of tune and sometimes completely broken, just sat and took up space where it would catch people's eyes.

And then... what? Would these people just sit themselves down and start playing, finally serving the purpose the piano was created for? Or would their esteem of the piano's owner increase? Or maybe their eyes would just pass over it without recognition, no matter how well placed it was, because they've seen it so many times before.

I'm not sure whether any of this is good or bad, or even if a value judgement should be made here. But it certainly gave me food for thought.

Now, excess with appreciation- that's something else entirely. All art is excess- it serves no practical purpose. If we lived our lives obsessed with practicality we'd live in huts and eat vegetables all our lives. Bl'bah! And though I didn't notice it at all, my family mentioned that there was a lot of obesity around. So I suppose my association of America as a whole with practicality was way off. Maybe they limit practicality to work. Hm. I guess what I'm saying is I was overwhelmed by all this, and still don't exactly know what to think of it.

There's a lot to like in a money-driven culture, certainly. One of my favorite days of the trip was the very last one, in which we just stopped at a mall and shopped. I never like doing that here, because there's nothing to shop for. But though America doesn't make many good games, they sure sell 'em! On the one hand, there were three game stores in this mall in close proximity to each other, all members of one single game store chain, so two points for excess. But on the other hand, I could actually walk into a store, hand them physical money, and walk out five minutes later with games! I can't tell you how refreshing that was, and I only wish I could have that sort of set-up integrated into my life instead of visiting it once.

Maybe that's really all there is to it- envy. I knew we couldn't really afford this trip- we were outsiders to this whole consumerist lifestyle. And I got to be treated like a king regardless. We stayed at a Hampton Inn, with comfortable beds and free little bottles of shampoo and pretty good TVs, and just a few minutes after Benjy and I came into our room the phone rang. I answered, and it was someone from the hotel staff. He had called just to ask if there was anything we needed. It's such a little thing, but it was so perfect. "No, everything's great!", I answered. "Enjoy your stay in Hampton Inn.", he said. And with a huge grin on my face I joyfully concluded, "Thank you sir!" Okay, so people don't actually live like that and it is meant to be a one-time visit. But do you think inns are like that here?

I was jealous when I practically saw a Dunkin' Donuts on every street. And every time we passed one in the car, I pointed and yelled out excitedly to my family, "Dunkin' Donuts!". I have very fond memories of Dunkin' Donuts from Israel. I used to savor the taste of a Caramel Boston Creme on the very rare occasion I got one. And I imagine the rarity is not a factor which should be overlooked. Anyway, I've got a lot of nostalgia for that doughnut chain, which closed in Israel because no one could afford them on a regular basis. We didn't actually go into one on this trip, though, because my parents said they were rarely kosher. Yep, envy.

The first place we went from JFK airport was my Aunt Shari's house. Her house was not as big as some others, but Oh My! was it luxurious. The key word here was comfort. Rain outside, comfortable furniture, welcoming color schemes in each room. And then there was the basement, where I slept. Wowsers. She has one of those giant high-definition TVs, and let me tell you, it does make a difference. And she has a first-rate 7.1-speaker surround sound system hooked into it, and in the center of this reasonably-sized and cozy room was the most comfortable couch. And I turned the TV to a dreamy music channel, let the sound wash over me, and rested my head back in perfect bliss. And I sighed:

"Ah, money."



That word in the title is pronounced "gah-LOOT-uh-nee".


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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Trip: Introduction

On our family's trip to America, I didn't miss home one bit. I didn't miss Willy and Fudgie too much, though I worried about them, and the same goes for the Gamecube. I didn't even miss my computer, actually. The one thing I missed was my screensaver.

Normally I wouldn't have a screensaver. It's not like I need one, especially since I turn my monitor off every time I walk away from it. But practicality has nothing to do with this. Only a little bit before we left, I got a screensaver called Electric Sheep. It's sort of an ever-changing medley of abstract animations, only prettier than that sounds. Most people see something pretty, they say "That's nice." and move on. But I can sit and watch Electric Sheep for hours. I don't know why- I just like looking at pretty things. The little artistic moments are what I live for.

The last time I'd seen Electric Sheep was the day before we left Israel. I was sitting and staring at my screen, and the rest of the family was running around frantically preparing. "What's to prepare?", I said. "Clothes!", my parents yelled at me. I packed clothes, a bunch of Game Boy games -------
Super Mario Bros., Metroid: Zero Mission, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga
(with Final Fantasy Tactics Advance still in my Game Boy), and what little American money I had. Then I took a large portion of our DVD collection to watch in the car. And I had all I needed.

After saying goodbye to my friends on the Adventure Gamers forum and locking my computer, all I had left to do was set up the Gamecube for the neighbors. I was hoping (in vain, as it would turn out) that it would be used for more than Mario Party, and I figured whoever wanted to play Beyond Good & Evil or Pikmin should at least have good-quality stereo sound (which our TV, with its poor-quality mono speaker, couldn't provide). So I set up the speakers from my computer by the TV. Now, I didn't want anyone to adjust the volume on the speakers because the left speaker has a tendency to stop working when you do. So I had to make sure it was on just the right level, in the interest of being a good host. And that was all the excuse I needed to once again wander around in Metroid Prime for a few hours. (I was ready for the trip already.) It was good to be back in Tallon IV.

Though I went to bed early, the rest of my family was still running around and yelling outside my door. I fell asleep as soon as they all shut up. I woke up again at around one or so, too nervous to get back to sleep. So I went downstairs and paced around, thinking about the trip. I wasn't too eager to see my extended family at the bar mitzvah- people I hadn't seen in around ten years and probably wouldn't see again in just about as long. My cousins themselves? It's not like we ever had anything to talk about. Come to think of it, I wasn't even anxious to see my siblings: Miriam had started the trip two weeks early by flying to Florida, and the house had been more peaceful without her. And Benjy had lived in Boston for so long it was hard to believe we'd ever been related.

But I was excited to be seeing my grandparents' house again. I really missed that house.

And then I just paced around some more, imagining a trip taken with some sort of strange computer worn on the head. (By this point I really should have been back in bed.) And I composed myself a little folk song to go with that concept. -------
Moving forward on a random route, I'm thinkin',
This is what life's all about-
Just one man in the wild, on his own.
Moving onwards in any direction,
With a wireless internet connection--
A little man and his home.
I didn't like it even as I made it up, but it had a catchy tune which I couldn't get out of my head. Finally I went back to sleep.

My alarm woke me up early that morning. I turned it off, put on some clothes, and sat on the floor waiting for my brain to boot up. Then I sat downstairs 'til it was okay to play piano. Well, I had to wait a little longer actually. See, my mother was davening, and she said it was okay with her if I played. So I did. But then my father walked in, and got furious at my inconsideration. It was such a ridiculous argument, but that's what my father does under pressure- he demonstrates that he is in control of the situation. For instance, once my mother finished she asked how they'd follow the news from Israel while we were away. He said: "We won't turn on the radio or talk politics- we're going on vacation! We're going to have fun! Even you!"

I figured by that point it would be okay to play piano. I had just come up with a new musical theme (nothing special, but sort of pretty) in the time it took him to walk Fudgie, and I wanted to develop it a little. But my father still wouldn't let me play, even though I was literally ready to walk out the door. "We're taking suitcases now. Help take the suitcases." I took a suitcase, and he still wouldn't let me play. I guess he wanted to control for himself the pace we took in leaving, and my leisurely attitude didn't fit with that. Or maybe it was just the volume (above pianissimo) he objected to. I waited for the taxi.

The cab driver talked a lot as we drove, which was interesting to me. It must be a boring job to drive from place to place, I thought. People only see you as "the cab driver". But inside the car, he's no less a person than his passengers. No, it's not a particularly profound thought, but you take what you can get when you're nervous and tired! So he talked about politics, and of course my parents talked about politics. When we got to the airport, the lady doing security ("Has anyone given you anything since you packed your bags?) was similarly outgoing, making lots of smalltalk with my parents as she checked our passports.

I hadn't been in Ben-Gurion airport since it was redesigned- and I was blown away! The ceiling in the hall you enter from is fairly transparent, so that the room seems twice as big as it really is. So I remembered that the last time I was there, it had seemed much smaller. Then there's this gorgeous waiting area, with a waterfall in the center of the room and stores circling around it. What amazing architecture!

The flight was not bad, or at least as close to "not bad" as a flight of that length can be. My father had bought me a new Mad magazine when we were in the airport (just to be nice), apparently not realizing how far the quality had fallen since the good ol' days when he was subscribed. It was trash from cover to cover- phony humor calculated by marketers to as large a target audience as possible. Oh well. I watched a movie, and played for hours in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. And that still left lots of hours of waiting.

The longer you wait, the less meaning the passage of time seems to have. After a while, sitting in that plane in that cramped seat seemed like my whole existence. It was a long flight. Someday, I reminded myself roughly twenty times in all, there would be nearly instantaneous transportation, and we could make trips like this all the time! And then I'd look at the walls of the plane sadly. And wait.

Somehow, I reached the end of the flight (Strange.), and we walked into JFK airport. And the whole building was gray in 90-degree angles! "What terrible architecture!", I said. So my mother responded that it just looked like a bureaucracy. And so it did. I would have payed more notice to the strange (to me, at least) accents people were using if they were using them for anything other than rehearsed business talk. And I would have noticed how they looked, if they weren't standing quite so straight in their places as if they were pillars the building was standing on.

Oy vey!, I thought. I've entered the accursed land of practicality!



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