Oui, the jury.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my father and brother for giving me an iron-clad way to get out of jury duty.  And although I would never commit perjury, I only need to slightly exaggerate our family dynamics in order to make sure it works every single time.  When they’re selecting jurors and I’m called up to answer the judge’s questions in front of the prosecutor and the defense, I always find myself in a conversation very much like this one:

JUDGE: Now here’s a very important question, Mr. Howard. Do you have any lawyers in your immediate family?

ME: Why, yes. My brother is a partner at a firm in the city, and my father was a social security lawyer for many years.

JUDGE: I see. And do you talk about law with them?

ME: Oh yes, all the time.  We discuss all sorts of cases, such as Plessy v. Roe, which had an eerie similarity to the case that’s about to be tried in this very courtroom--if you ignore the fact that it wasn’t about a civil lawsuit but rather about illegal rutabagas being smuggled into Honduras.

JUDGE: Okay, and do you--

ME: And after we’re all done talking about famous legal cases over the dinner table, we discuss old Matlock episodes.  And if there’s any time after that, we talk about being on jury duty and how we wouldn’t be easily swayed be either the prosecutor or the defense because we could reason rings around both of them.

JUDGE: What I need to know is whether you can remain impartial even though you--

ME: Also, I page through LSAT study guides just for fun. And I’m friends with Antonin Scalia on MySpace.  I often ask him for special “pics” of himself.

PROSECUTOR: Your honor, could you please make him shut up?

ME: Objection!  The prosecutor is badgering me.

JUDGE: You’re not actually allowed to say that.

ME: Listen, I know my rights. I’ll writ your habeas corpus all over your ipso facto until you’re nothing but a deux ex machina.

JUDGE: Prosecution, do you want to keep this juror?

PROSECUTOR: God no.

JUDGE: Defense?

DEFENSE: I’ve only known him for a few minutes, but I’ve really grown to hate him.

JUDGE: Mr. Howard, you’re not only excused from the jury pool, but I order you to get the hell out of here.

ME: No, you’re out of order.  This whole court is out of--

JUDGE: Bailiff, feel free to use the mace.

On the way out of the courthouse, I text my co-workers back at the office: “they’re still picking jurors...won’t know until later this afternoon if i can get away.” And then I go home and watch Robot Chicken.

It’s not as though I’m unwilling to do my civic duty. It’s just that I was always picked last for dodgeball in elementary school, so I see this as the universe’s way of giving me karmic redress.

Sleep aid.

I spent this week at a work-related conference in the city where it was expected that I went out with colleagues every night until the late hours. This is tougher for me than for most people, because I have never been a night owl. I never once pulled an all-nighter in either college or graduate school, because I knew that the analytical and creative parts of my brain start shutting down around 10 p.m.  Any essay I wrote at 3 a.m. would have had all the rhetorical clarity of a Dali painting.

One late night is enough to put me in a daze the next day; doing it five nights in a row is enough for me to start speaking in tongues.  I’m pretty sure this affects my system the way a series of knockout blows affected Muhammad Ali.  In a few years, I expect to start slurring and be even more unable to do basic math than I already am.  And really, I have no idea how I’m going to transition into being an old man because my sleep patterns are already pretty elderly.  What am I going to do, progressively go to sleep an hour earlier every night until I fall asleep an hour after I wake up?  That cycle is the single thing that scares me most about growing old--well, that and wearing nothing but plaid.

I think it was environment that made me this way.  I grew up in a woodsy area about three miles outside of a small town.  Even when the lights were on in our house, the lush, quiet darkness made you want to go to sleep early. It’s the same with eskimos. One of them says “Let’s go clubbing!” and the others say “No, man, we’re in the Arctic,” and they eventually just catch some fish and hit the sack.

Similarly, my house was small enough that I’d often be awakened early by the low, burbly conversations of the parental units as their voices wafted up from the first floor.  I couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying to each other at 6 a.m., but it was probably something like:

“Do you ever feel guilty that raising Greg in this environment means that he’ll never be able to pull an all-nighter or stay up late five nights in a row?”

“Don’t worry, honey.  I predict that certain helpful tools will become trendy and ubiquitous in the decades to come--such as coffee shops, energy drinks, and meth.”

One thing I notice is that my mind reacts to lack of sleep the same way it does when I’m about to finish an especially long run: some inane thought gets stuck in my head and loops around like the chorus of an annoying pop song. In the case of the past week, I kept thinking “Charlie Sheen may not be much of an actor, but you have to admit that he’s had a lot of sex. Ironically, I bet the only thing he hasn’t done is Two and Half Men.”

Natural woman.

When I was getting my Ph.D. in English, my professors tried to pound into my head that gender was a false construct--an act of linguistic performance manufactured by a society hell-bent on dialogic, binary thinking. I didn’t really get it. But a night at Asia SF has convinced me.  I mean, most of the “women” weren’t really “gender illusionists,” as the the club advertises; I don’t consider putting on a Tina Turner wig and prancing around to “Proud Mary” to be much of an illusion so much as a bad night at the karaoke bar. But then there was one girl, and...whoa.

The cheekbones!  The legs!  The lack of an adam’s apple!  That was a guy?

I think I need to give the place a wide berth, because “she” could cause me to constantly question what I think I know, and I prefer to think that I sort of know all there is to know about the crying game.  It’s an illusion that I’d rather not be stripped from me; I might see beyond the veil of patriarchal gender norms and wind up accidentally getting pregnant.

Mix post.

Some people I know say that they’ve stopped listening to new music and just replay their CD collections over and over; I’m the opposite. I voraciously seek out new music.  I listen to Internet radio to find new artists, and I even sometimes TIVO video blocks to find a mainstream song that I might have otherwise missed (that Maroon 5 video in the airport is catchy, damn, you, and if you don’t agree with me I’ll totally shiv you).

The problem is, I feel as though I’m becoming a less sophisticated listener than I used to be. If I found another album like Peter Gabriel’s Security--which I initially didn’t like--would I keep listening to it until it started to unpeel its layers and reveal its art to me?  I did that as a teenager but I don’t know if I have the patience now.  I’m like a drug abuser, years and years into his addiction.  I’m looking for the quick hit. I’m looking for the easy buzz.  I want a song to slice through me and enflame those nerve endings which, after decades of heavy music use, have become more jaded and deadened than I like to admit.

But it’s always worth it when the hit comes off just right.  For one week only (because that’s when the links will expire), here’s three songs* that have recently given me that energy rush. They’re not especially deep or sophisticated; they’re like blunt hammers. But they make my senses speed up a little when I hear them.

Tim Armstrong - Into Action

The Sippy Cups - Drinking from the Sky

Hot Chip - My Piano

*And hopefully they’re obscure enough that the artists won’t sue because I’m, like, giving them exposure or something.  Right guys? Right.

Flash forward.

I was watching the new Flash Gordon series on Sci-Fi the other night, and I’m pretty sure it was awful, but I’m not positive because a particularly atrocious piece of dialogue near the beginning caused me to be lost in thought for the rest of the 90 minutes.

In this show’s version of the character, Flash is a marathon runner who lives with his mom.  His ex, Dale Arden, is a television reporter.  He runs into her and says “Dale, you look fantastic.” She shrugs off his compliment, replying “It’s just hair and makeup.”

And I’m like--what? What did she say?  What does that mean?

Is she saying that hair and makeup aren’t important, and that she’s actually not looking all that good?

Or is she saying that since we all know that hair and makeup (well, hair anyway) are crucially important in a person’s appearance, she’s saying that she knows she looks good and that Flash ought to shut the hell up?

There’s actually two ways to look at the situation.  One, the show was written by lobotomized monkeys who couldn’t write a coherent conversation between two fictional characters if their lives depended on it.

Second, the line actually represents a kind of zen koan.  It’s a cosmic riddle, one you ponder endlessly until the mental energy accumulates inside your mind and eventually helps you reach a state of transcendent insight so you can unlock the secrets of the universe.

After due consideration, I’ve decided that option #2 is the correct one.

So if you see me, go ahead and tell me how we’re existential specks of dust, twirling on the head of a pin as we’re blown through the cosmic maelstrom on our way to a rendevous with eternity. I’ll simply shrug and say “It’s just hair and makeup.”

Hipster to be square.

I found myself in the Dogpatch area of San Francisco late Saturday night, at a party held in a warehouse that had a bomb-blasted, post-apocalyptic look to it.  Tucked away inside the building, however, was a designer kitchen, a widescreen TV, a DJ, and an amazonian blonde serving gin and tonics so strong that they jumped off my tongue and straight to my head:

This was, in short, a 30something hipster mecca. Ask some of the people what they did for a living and you would be receive answers that would either make you perk up or reconsider your own professional choices or both:

- I’m a fashion designer.

- I’m a photographer.

- I work for Lucasfilm Light & Magic.

I wore an untucked button-down black shirt and black shoes, which is what you wear to these things if you don’t want to put a lot of effort into it. At some point I had to give a final farewell embrace to my inner sophomore-year child and wave goodbye to faded blue jeans and white sneakers, watching them retreat into the mists of time along with my old Thompson Twins records: they have no place in an age where, no matter what anyone tells you, black is always the new black, as these pictures taken by the host prove:

“My God, it’s the standard uniform,” said one of my friends, looking around at the scene.

But it was possible to stand out if one was sufficiently confident with his or her sense of style. For example, you could wear a tie and a cool hat:

Or go ironically retro with cheesy sweater with a yellow collar. All he needed was some horn-rimmed glasses and he could bust out with the Elvis Costello:

Speaking of sophomores, the cute girls can always pull off the young student look.  I mean...talk about rocking the socks. She did way better than the one with an indelicate pair of handcuffs slung across her blouse.  Rather, with her mild aura of academic erotica, this eager scholar could either walk into a Pimps & Hos party or the more obscure yet far more sophisticated form of festivity known as Truck Drivers and Schoolgirls.

It made me think about what kind of hipster outfit I might wear if I ever wanted to give more than two seconds to the way I dress.  I considered my options:

  • Sunglasses at night? No, too Corey Hart.
  • Giant swan? No, too Bjork.
  • Oscar Meyer? My friend Donovan once went to a Halloween party dressed as Oscar Meyer with bits of bologna taped to his body.  An amusing idea that became increasingly unamusing throughout the evening as the meat started to become rather rank.  Operating on the theory that bologna isn’t the new anything, I decided to pass on that idea as well.

    I feel bad that I give nothing back to fashion; I enjoy other people’s creativity but appear doomed to offer nothing of my own. But perhaps it’s like cooking. Some people are born for the kitchen and others are born, as Charlie Brown once put it, to make cereal and maybe toast. And besides, it allows me to fade into the sea of black and enjoy the bland anonymity.

  • Pet sounds.

    One gradually accumulates a list of reasons to distrust people. One of the highlights of my list is people who give their pets human names.

    If you have a dog, you simply can’t call her “Sally.” If you have a cat, you simply can’t call him “Fred.” These are people completely unclear on the concept of “pets.” Pets are not people, and as a result, it’s imperative that you give them names that distinguish them from our own species.

    I am willing to grant an exception if I am able to stand over the shoulder of the pet while he or she does your taxes for you. If the animal can pull this off, I will personally shake Reginald’s paw and congratulate him on his ability to find hidden deductions even after several loopholes were closed last year. If your pet fails to accomplish this, you need to look up “opposable thumbs” and toss out that book of baby names until you actually find yourself with a dependent who does not have fur, feathers, or gills.

    Please try not to veer all the way over to “Mr. Wiggles,” however.

    New republic.

    Sometimes when things aren’t going my way, I like to go clothes shopping--say, at Banana Republic. I make a point to get to know the names of all the people working there. Then I take my things to the cash register. The woman behind the counter says “And did anyone help you today?”

    In response, I say something like: “Natasha tried to help me, but she’s pretty creepy. Her eyes kind of fall to the left, like marbles.  I couldn’t say more than two words to her.

    “Then there’s Chad. He’s not gay, by the way.  He just said that to get the job.  He knows about as much about fashion as Paris Hilton knows about abstinence.

    “I think Rachael wants your job.  She said a few words to me about the new charcoal slacks that the store just got, and then she went out in the hall to text her friend about her scary, harridan boss.

    “So anyway, if you’re asking who should get the commission for these purchases I’m making, I recommend you split it among all of them, because they were all equally unhelpful.”

    Then I leave the store, walking slowly enough that I can hear the furor start behind me.  The only problem with this hobby is that you generally can’t go back to the store again.  I’ve had to start moving further and further out of my area.  I just got back from a Banana Republic near the Oregon border.

    What Colin Farrell has been doing now that his career has cooled.

    Taking zany pictures in a $3.00 photo booth with his pal Cuba Gooding Jr.

    Denying band friend requests on MySpace

    Talking with inner city kids about career possibilities in show business

    Writing script treatments for sequels to S.W.A.T. and Miami Vice

    Chasing after the paparazzi

    Finding out what’s really important to him in life (e.g. acting in movies)

    Rearranging spice shelf

    Enjoying email forwards such as “You know you’re a child of the ‘90s when...”

    Thumbing through GMAT study guides

    Nostalgically re-watching tapes of old threesomes