Hallmark holidays are not my forte

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As you may know if you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time by now, I’m not normal. I mean, not normal in the regular sense, but also in the sense that I don’t enjoy the things that most women enjoy: manicures, massages, and understanding how to wear clothes.  I also suck at cooking.

As I was growing up, my nonability to know how to turn on a stove was an evergreen source of disappointment for my mom, who enjoys  dressing up, wearing makeup, and doing all of the stuff women are supposed to know how to do so they don’t call their mom sobbing two weeks after living in an apartment on their own because they’re not sure how to boil water for eggs.

My mom was always proud of me for my academic accomplishments and the fact that I wrote my own sequel to Star Wars when I was 12, but she held out in her heart of hearts that one day,  I would turn girly. She dressed me in dresses, but despite her best attempts, all of the ribbons would be dirty after twenty minutes, not because I was playing outside, but because I’d either picked up an ink pen, or gotten some glue on it, or ate something that dripped.  She carefully put ribbons in my hair, all of which would be lost after a couple hours. For my fourth birthday, I got a doll, but  my neighbor got  a huge red interesting fire truck. I cried when he left with it.   I was a terrible lady.

As I grew older, I strayed even further away from what was considered the realm of normal for ladies. I tried to wear ChapStick in 7th grade but had to give that up because it smelled too good and I’d tried to eat it.

These days, I’m a little better about convincing society that I am, in fact, female, but I don’t always succeed. For example, My mom is still always game for talking about the latest shoes she bought, how her new purse looks, and what she’ll be making for dinner. I want to talk about  pogroms.

This year, I figured I would finally repay her for all the tzuris I inflicted during my youth by doing that thing daughters are supposed to do for their moms on Mother’s Day. I signed her up for a spa day/massage.

If you recall my previous post about getting a massage, you may remember that it included the sentence “Finally, after an hour, the torture was over.” So obviously this time around I was very excited to get a massage again. I hid the terror from my mom. 

“Mom, guess what,” I said over Skype one day.

“You’re having a baby?!” she said.

“No, I said. Not at the present moment.”

No response on the other end. Then, a sad emoji.

“Even better,” I said.

“There’s nothing better than that,” she said.

“We’re going for a massage,” I said.

“!!!” she wrote.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said, feeling like a hero.

“How much did you pay,” she demanded.

“Doesn’t matter,”I said.

“Yes it does. I won’t be able to relax. Let me pay you for it. It’s expensive, isn’t it?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Aren’t you excited?”

“Kind of,” she said. Another pause. “Do I have to be naked?”

“Kind of,” I said.

A long pause. Then typing again.

“I’m worried,” she wrote.

“It’ll be fun !!! And relaxing !!!!” I said. Never trust someone who uses seven exclamation points.

The appointed day came, and we drove to the massage place. “Happy Mother’s Day,” I warbled enthusiastically. My mom had a look like she was going to the Hunger Games as a contestant. “It’ll be fine,” I said. “Just tell them which areas to focus on and relax.”

We came in, undressed, changed. Robed, we walked into The Butterfly Room,  where other women were waiting for their massages. Some reading fashion magazines.  Some were eating crackers and cheese. Some were quietly sipping fizzy water. All of them looked like they had been getting massages for years.

My mom fidgeted nervously with her gown and put her hands in her lap. I examined my toes. When was the last time I’d gotten a pedicure? Had it been a month ago? The big toe paint was chipping-had anyone noticed? It seemed like it was too dark to notice, but if they had, they were probably judging me. What does it say about a woman when she has a chipped toe pedicure? Does it say that she just got a new job and is taking a full courseload? Yes, that’s what it says. No, you idiot, it says she’s lazy and might have graduated from licking ChapStick but hasn’t gone too far.

As I was stuck in these thoughts, my mom’s mind was obviously on the torture ahead of her.  On occasion, a shadow would dart past the lounge, come in, and take a woman to her massage.My mom’s head turned each time.

“Have some crackers,” I told my mom, as casually as I could to lighten the mood. We were having so much fun!

I tried to calm her down by engaging in our favorite pasttime: gossip.  “Did you hear what A is doing?” I said quietly.

“No,” my mom said with a gleam in her eye, temporarily forgetting that she was about to be flayed.

The other women looked at us and quietly went back to their magazines.

“Well, she did x and y and Z said that she shouldn’t be doing it…can you believe that,” I said.

“No,” my mom said with glee and outrage in a tone that was more fitting for a colosseum-style execution than the Butterfly Room. “I bet A doesn’t feel great about that!”

Then she remembered where she was. “How long do we have to wait,” she whispered in Russian. All the distinctly non-Russian women looked at us like we were escapees from the looney bin.

“A couple more minutes,” I said. We were having such a great experience!

A male voice echoed down the hall, past the lounge. My mom stiffened. “You said there wouldn’t be male masseuses.” I lied, but hoped it was a true lie. “We won’t have a guy,” I said.

Two distinctly Russian women came in. “Vicki?” one called. The other called my mom’s name. “Are we going separately?” My mom said in Russian. “Don’t leave me alone with these monsters,” her tone said. “I thought we were going together?”

“No, maybe we can work something out, ” I said in Russian. I had neglected to request a together massage, because I didn’t know you could do such things.

The Russian women switched to Russian. “Are you Russian?” they asked us. “Yes,” I whispered with relief.  Ah, their expressions said. These are our people. “We can get you a couples’ massage room,” one said. “Yes, yes, please,” I said, and my mom nodded.  After a minute, we were escorted into parallel rooms, the door left open between them.

“Strip down and get under the blanket,” the women said, and left. This was all old hat to me. “I have to take my robe off?” my mom said.  “yes, but they’ll be careful about it,” I said, lying down. There was some shuffling, and then silence.

After a minute in the darkness, my mom’s muffled voice said from under the blanket, said, “I feel weird. This is weird.”

“Shhh,” I said. “Enjoy the experience.  Enjoy the quiet.”

“I’m worried,” she said, and then the women came in.

The massage was great, as a good massage is. Very relaxing. Lots of oil. Lots of pressure points. The whole time, though, I was thinking, hoping that my mom was enjoying the experience. I was hoping that when it was over, I would ask her how it was, and it would be a Hallmark card moment. “It’s everything I ever dreamed spending time with my daughter would be,” my mom would say, and then some sappy music from the 80s would filter through the speakers as we hugged and reaffirmed our bonding experience.

Instead, when it was over, we shuffled to the dressing room.

“I wonder how much those Russian women get paid,” she said.

“Probably a lot,” I said. “But probably more if they do it outside this place, because one of them just slipped me her business card and told me to call her if I ever wanted an in-home massage.”

We shared a laugh about sketchy Russian businesses.

“How was it,” I asked, hoping against hope, that she would have loved it.

“It was weird,” she said. “Really weird. I’m just not used to people doing things for me like that.”

“So you liked it,” I said hopefully, hoping I had made it a good Mother’s Day for her. Wilson Philips would start at any moment now. A woman’s voice would come in a voiceover, “Vicki, making sure her mother gets a Mother’s Day treat. The best daughter and gifter of female bonding experiences in the world.”

“It was weird,” she said. “But I’m spending my Mother’s Day with my daughter, and that’s the biggest gift. ” (I added that last part in my mind because Russian moms will never talk like they’re in a life-affirming sitcom.)

And that’s when I understood several things. First, I will never understand how to be a woman. Second, I now understand where my fear of massages comes from. And third, next Mother’s Day me and my mom are going somewhere where we can just talk about how sketchy Russian businesses are , how much they charge for an hour’s worth of services, and how we can’t believe A did X to Z yesterday.

The American dream as seen through Polly Pocket

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 7.49.33 AM I am six years old again and I’ve been in America for a year. My cousin has been in America for six months, and somehow by the benevolence of our relatives, someone gifts her a Jasmine Barbie. I see it in her room, where she is staying with our relatives who sponsored our trip to America.

“What’s that,” I ask, eyes wide. Soviet dolls were all huge, ugly, and vaguely mechanical in nature, like if you tipped one over, springs and sawdust would fall out, like they were manufactured at the Petrovodsk Rubber Tire Plant Number 3.

All of my dolls were named Nastya, short for Anastasia. All of them had stick-thin stringy yellow hair, like mine.

This doll was tiny and shapely,and she had huge almond eyes. She looked like my cousin.  You could never name someone that looked like this Nastya. 5784105450_03796cc154_m “That’s Jasmine,” my cousin, who is six years older than me, says matter-of-factly.

My cousin is the sun to my moon. She is pretty, popular, and has beautiful black-brown straight hair and eyelashes that reach her cheeks. When she tilts her head sideways and laughs, the whole world smiles. She walks, dreamily, paints with watercolors I’m not allowed to touch, wears clothes I’m not allowed to wear, goes places I’m not allowed to go.  I am short, little, and have an imagination that the real world can’t hold. I wear hand-me-down clothes that look weird.  I’m annoying.  The only way I can get anyone’s attention is by doing funny things, or saying funny things.  It’s hard to think of funny things to say all the time, so I give up and read books.

Screen Shot 2013-06-09 at 12.50.31 PM “Can I play with her,” I ask, reaching up . She is encapsulated in the box she came in. Most Americans throw these boxes away, but my cousin has kept it, meticulously attaching each piece of clothing to its original twist-tie, organizing all the accessories in one place. “No,” she yanks Jasmine away.

“You’ll lose her earrings.” “I promise I won’t. I’ll stay right here.” She hesitates, then carefully unties Jasmine from her plastic exile and hands her to me. I am pure joy. I stroke her hair. I feel the fabric of the pants, the tiny plastic shoes that come with her. I’ve never seen the movie Aladdin, unlike my cousin, who, even though she’s been in America less than me, already knows everything and has seen everything, but I love Jasmine.

“I want her,” I say.

My cousin yanks her away. “You can’t have her, she’s mine.”

“Can I borrow her,” I say, breathily. “No, no, no!” My cousin leaves the room in a huff. She is used to getting her way. She calls her mom, my aunt, who calls my mom. They break away from their adult conversation downstairs, about how the hell they’re going to do something in this new country, and come upstairs to powwow.

“Let her borrow the doll,” my aunt says. “No, no” my mom says, firmly. “Stop being a bad girl,” she tells me. “Be polite, be nice.” Only bad girls ask for others’ toys. Nice girls don’t say anything, no matter how much they want something.

“Ok,” I say. I don’t like when my mom reprimands me. I try to color inside the lines my whole life. “She wants it, she’s smaller,” my aunt says. “Let her have this doll!” “No, don’t be ridiculous, we’ll buy her her own doll,” my mom says. My mom is proud. We don’t have any money yet, not even for a $12 doll. But she’ll be damned if she lets me borrow my cousin’s.

I start whining. We’re both only children, and we’re at an impasse.  My mom leads me away with promises of dessert and tea downstairs. My cousin looks on triumphantly, but just as I’m about to go down the stairs she says graciously, “You can come play with her on weekends.” 8080862401_12152ebc13_z I am eight years old and we have moved away from Philadelphia because neither of my parents could find jobs there but now we have some jobs.

We live alone, without family, without anyone except ourselves for now, and it’s just the three of us in a tiny apartment, and it’s close to Christmas, I think, although we don’t celebrate it.

I am still short, pudgy, not incredibly attractive, and still wearing funny hand-me-downs, but those hand-me-downs are now being replaced with 80% markdown clothes from two seasons ago from discount outlets,  but at least now I have more teeth and I can write short stories.I write hundreds of short stories, two pages long, about ponies and a town called Maytown where everyone is always happy and it’s always – you guessed it – May.

Now it’s dark, and we’re coming back from a walk along the river. We take a lot of walks along the river because Russians love walking, and because it’s free.

It starts to flurry, and now we’re in the car, driving home. “Can we go to McDonald’s, please?”  I beg my parents. Everyone else in my class goes to McDonald’s. I’m the only one who’s never been. “No, we have dinner at home,” my mom starts to say. I want to go to McDonald’s because every American does, but more importantly, because they have Polly Pocket.

Everyone in my class has Polly Pocket dolls. They come in with them, take them out of their perfect Jansport backpacks, next to their Lunchables lunches, next to whatever else their parents bought them that weekend. I want a Polly Pocket with my Happy Meal so bad.

“No, we have dinner at home,” my mom says.

“Please?” I say. I try to think of how to say this like a good girl, even though my heart is pounding in my chest. I’ve never gotten up the nerve to ask this before, and I am terrified I’ll be turned down.

“No-” my mom starts to say, but my dad overrides her. “Let’s go,” he says, nodding to me. He knows.

We get there. We are at a loss for what to order, so we all order hamburgers without fries, because it’s cheaper. “But the hamburger doesn’t come with the Happy Meal-” I start to protest. “You’ll be fine without it,” my mom says. The happy meal is more expensive. I eye the meat on my tray. I don’t eat red meat. “Go ahead,” my mom says. “I’m not making you anything at home.”

I put up a fuss. I’m a picky eater. The only way my mom got me to eat in Russia was to show me pictures from a picture book while she shoved kasha in my mouth. Eventually she gave up. At eight,  I don’t eat: red meat, pork, cheese, pizza, olives, pickles, beets, or cabbage. I am a constant headache to cook for. My mom makes two separate meals, and tonight she is not having it. She’s exhausted from her new job.

“Eat it,” she says. “Eat it,” my dad says, raising his voice. Through the sting of tears, I take a bite of the hamburger. It is disgusting, because it is red meat. I chew another leathery bite, looking over at the happy meal display menu with the Polly Pockets, picking out which one I would take. Later that night, my mom boils pasta, sighing over the pot.

Later, under the New Year’s tree, I find the Polly Pocket castle. It is the biggest Polly Pocket, better than any of my classmates’. It even has a battery switch where you can turn the lights on. I have never been happier in my life. I bring it in the next day. Bam, I put it down on my desk, and all the other little girls crowd around it. “Wow, I don’t have that one,” they say, and I beam with pride. I know.

DearDiary I am ten or eleven, and ready for a computer. “You can’t have a computer,” my dad says. Computers are really expensive and you have to pick out all the parts from a paper catalog that comes to your house. You have to spend time configuring the memory, the hard drive, the monitor.

We’re not ready for a computer, although when we get one next year, it will become my universe.

I’m not wearing hand-me-downs anymore. We buy all our clothes in stores,mostly from the clearance section, but still in real live department stores where everyone I know shops.

I set my sights lower, thumbing through the Toys R’ Us catalog.  I can ask for things from the catalog now. I won’t get 90% of them, but I’ve built up a Barbie collection to rival anyone. I don’t have to share anything with anyone. The toys are all mine and I hoard them, greedy to own. In the catalog and on TV (we have cable tv now) I see it. Dear Diary. You can write anything you want in Dear Diary, and you can keep it with you. You can organize things. You can calculate things. And you can share secrets. I don’t know about the calculating, but I love writing, secrets, and being really organized. I want a Dear Diary.

But the Dear Diary is $40, so I have to save up some of my allowance for it, and we have to wait for what seems like months. “I just want to go to Toys R’ Us to look at it,” I say, burning with desire. “Ok,” says my dad, giving in. I look at the Dear Diary through its plastic clamshell packaging. “You still want it?” he asks. “You sure you don’t want something else?” Something cheaper, is the subtext. “No,” I say. “I want this.”

The day we buy it, I am giddy with joy. My own diary!  When we get home, I rip it open. “Careful!” my dad warns. What if we have to return it? We have to keep the packaging in tact. I try to turn it on, but it doesn’t work. “Needs batteries,” I read in the pamphlet, my heart sinking. “We’ll get them tomorrow,” my dad says, but tomorrow is not soon enough for a kid with a diary, I need them RIGHT NOW.

So we go to the store again and shell out for super-tiny super-special electronics batteries. “Stupid toys, why don’t they come with batteries?” my dad grumbles, but I’m already absorbed in all the non-functionality of this non-internet-connected non-touch-screen PDA. I spend hours with it, typing my secrets and carrying it around the house. “Put that thing down,  you look ridiculous,” my mom says,but she says it laughing. I am bursting with pride. I bring it in the next day. No one has a Dear Diary. I am the first one. No one else knows how to type.

***

I am 27, and I have my own job, my own house, and my own Macbook Pro, and sometimes I still can’t believe it.  Thank you American toy industrial-complex, for the toys, to Buzzfeed for the trip down memory lane,  and my parents, for the rest.

The show-me state of self-promotion in realtime

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A couple months ago, Paul Ford, one of my favorite internets writers, tweeted that he was sick of self-promotion.

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There’s a reason over 150 people retweeted it, and it’s because we’re constantly deluged with announcements of other people’s success.

I’m no less guilty of it than anyone else. In the past month, I’ve announced at least three obnoxious things on Facebook and Twitter about how great I’m doing in my professional and personal life. Last week, I posted that I was excited to start a new job in two weeks (why not wait until I’ve actually started and done something useful?), and that I was 2/3 of the way through my MBA (why not just wait until I have the diploma in hand?)

Before,  I’ve written before how I’m losing weight, working on a novel, and getting an MBA.  None of these things are completed yet, but I’m still chattering about them. Why?

Countless friends have posted about their pregnancies as soon as they found out themselves, linked to races they’ve signed up for that are months away, and announced conferences they’re going to long before they happen. Kickstarters beg for money for half-finished projects (“Just had a great meeting about phase one, stay tuned,” they chirp), and “Coming to your city,” authors cry.

Then, there is a couple who made a wedding trailer. Yes, a trailer for their wedding.

Epic Save The Date {Bambo + Janice} from Major Diamond Productions on Vimeo.

What’s this obsession with updating people on how hard we’re working, how fast we’re growing human beings, and how often we travel, how many helicopters are going to take us to our nuptials? For businesses, it’s obvious. It’s advertising.

But what are we non-corporate entities advertising? I think it’s our success and our happiness. Humans can be quirky, but in the end we’re all wired the same: we all want to be standing next to the most popular guy in the room, even if we’re not the ones doing the talking.  In the age of social media, when connections are easier than ever, we want to signal as much as possible that people should pick us as friends, business partners, travel bloggers.

We all want to be doing great at work, at home, abroad. Every time we see someone doing even better, we feel worse. Why aren’t we doing as well? The grass is always greener on the other side, especially if that grass updates in five-second increments, with Five Stunning Photos.

It also seems  that it’s an inherently American thing to talk about what you’re doing without any thought to who’s reading and what they might be thinking.Of course, there is the history of the humble, quiet Puritan work ethic, backbreaking years of mindnumbing toil until we meet our maker. That got boring as soon as we realized we were the Beacon on the Hill, the country of Big Shoulders, and if we don’t pat ourselves on the back, who will? Capitalism ensures that the loudest and the best rise to the top, and being glued to our phones, combined with the 24-hour news cycle solidifies it.

Russian and Jewish social norms, like those of many other Indo-European cultures,  on the other hand, frown upon showing anything good going on in your life, lest someone cast the evil eye on you.  Jewish tradition prohibits baby showers until a baby is born. In Russian, there’s a word for messing up the good vibes going on in someone’s life by simply glancing at them with the evil eye of desire or hate, sglazit’.

“Don’t post that picture on Facebook. Kto-to sglazit‘,” Someone’s going to ruin your good luck by coveting what you have. When my aunt got back to Russia, she didn’t show anyone pictures of my parents house. Sglazyat. “Who needs that? Better keep it to yourself.”

This is, of course, wearing away, because I see hundreds of thousands of Russians using VKontakte, Russian Facebook and posting Instagrams of their amazing vacations in Turkey. And Jewish bar mitzvahs costing thousands of dollars. Oy.

So, where’s the middle ground between self-promotion, genuinely wanting to share good things going on in your life,  and worrying that God, or an angry mob of passive-aggressive comments,  is going to strike you down because you mentioned you might be taking a weekend trip to Atlantic City? I don’t know, but I’m working on figuring it out, and once I find out, you’ll be able to read about it right here ON MY BLOG.

In Miami and in Vapiano

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South Beach Bathers, John French Sloan 1907

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, is a weird jewel of a novel about a nuclear family running a slowly-dying gator wrestling park on a small island  off the Gulf Coast of Florida.  Russell’s Sunshine State is surreal, dreamy, swampy, thick with mud, mosquitoes, and warbling birds.

Florida, in those days, was a very odd place: a peninsula where the sky itself rode overland like a blue locomotive, clouds chuffing across marshes; where orange trees and orderly rows of vegetables gave to deep woods, and then, further south, broke into an endless acreage of ten-foot grass.

The seeming impossibility of a tropical paradise combined with the exuberance and proximity of South America, the salt and heat, and, of course, a python-killing contest, makes for a unique atmosphere unlike anywhere else in the U.S.  It’s a unique brand of chaos and laziness.   It’s Florida:

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Mr. B and I flew down to Florida for a weekend in March, the week of Spring Break. We went with two friends to visit a third friend who had moved there recently from Philadelphia. It was actually in no way like Spring Break since all of us have full-time jobs, some of us have kids, and none of us want to do wet-t shirt contests because our Gap cotton blends are tumble-dry only.

We weren’t going to shotgun beers, go to clubs where they played Pitbull, or stay out past 12. But damnit, did we need spring.

Just a couple months ago, I wrote,

It’s cold enough to heat up the car for fifteen minutes before you go anywhere. It’s cold enough for soup every week, almost every day, for scarves and for the wind to bite your lungs as you walk outside. It’s cold enough to be sick every week, which I am, and it’s cold enough for my thighs to tingle through three pairs of pants on the walk to the train.  It’s cold as hell. It’s cold and miserable,  and the world seems large, dark, and unforgiving outside of our small house.

Going back through my archives, I realize that I’ve bitched about winter almost every year, which makes me believe I need to either move to Florida or stop blogging from September to March for the sake of humanity.

But, the plane emerged from the clouds and into Florida air space into blobs of green, brilliant and sparkling, oceans and pools of water lapping in marshy, lazy bays, life, pulsing on its very vein! Here it was! Warm Valhalla!

“That’ll be $6 if you want the in-flight snack,” the stewardess said.

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We landed in West Palm Beach, about an hour from Miami and rented a car. It was so warm that we opened the windows.  We turned on the club mixes. You can turn on the song below and feel like you’re in Florida, too.

Driving into Brickell, Miami’s new,  wildly-sprawling financial district, we passed ceviche stands, palm fronds, glimpses of the waving ocean. We saw an old guy jogging in just a Speedo. We looked away awkwardly, because it was gross. But inside we were happy it was shorts (no shorts?) weather.

Coming to Miami from the buttoned-up, rigidEast Coast in the winter is an exhale, a descent into warm, toasty madness. Anything goes.

So we exhaled.  We drank coconut water out of coconuts that a guy hacked at with a huge machete.

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We ate paella out of shared plates.

We smoked cigars in Little Cuba. Some of us with the chromosomal capability to do so grew Castro beards. We were ON A BOAT. We passed Key Biscayne and there, in the middle of the ocean near the island, was a flock of twenty or thirty small boats, strung together, bobbing with the rhythm of the EDM coming from them. These were the Spring Breakers. They dove in and out of the water, between the boats, guzzling cheap beer and swaying like palm fronds. 

We laughed at them and looked seaward. Some of us unfortunately continued to look like Fidel Castro in the 1940s.

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 10.05.43 PMWe did all the Florida things you’re supposed to do, and while we were doing them, I was thinking about how eclectic, weird, and wonderful Florida is, and what joy it was to be able to experience it. 

If I were a normal person, I would end the post here on a high note. But you know me.  I can’t have normal-people fun. I’m neurotic.  I’m Slavic-pessimistic, and I’m pretty sure if I’m having a good time, the world’s going to end tomorrow. So I’m going to tell you that there was one shadow in our sunshine-y vacation, and that shadow’s name is Vapiano.

Vapiano is chaos that happens when restaurant industry ambition, combined with wishful thinking, goes unchecked and descends into anarchy. And, let me tell you, anarchy tastes like olive oil drizzled over bruschetta. It’s a restaurant “that is defining the future of fresh casual – a new and refreshing niche in the restaurant industry”, according to the website.

Vapiano is like if you take the worst parts of an Italian restaurant, graduate-level math, and guilt and blend it together into a hurricane of extreme social awkwardness, according to me.

For dinner on Friday, our friend recommended that we go to Vapiano because he had a Groupon and had been before, and the food was great. The way Groupon works if you’ve never bought one is, you sign over your email address to the devil, who will send you approximately 11 Groupons per day until they break down your will to live. Most of these, your spam filter will catch. Until you see one that looks like vaguely a good idea, but that’s 10 miles across town and there’s a 5% probability that you’ll go, but you buy it anyway because “it’s 50% off and you want to try something new.”

If you actually go to the restaurant, there is a 95% chance you didn’t read the small print correctly and you end up paying more money because 1) if you don’t, the restaurant sues you and 2) You’re too embarrassed to pay for a $12 meal with a $5 Groupon. You then begin to wonder if you can put the tip on Groupon and all of a sudden you’re a horrible person and the societal norms of Western humanity are collapsing.   All of this would be fine, though, if Vapiano operated like normal.

But Vapiano operates on hipsterism, whimsy, and vague suggestions.  As Jack Donaghy would say, there are no rules, just like check-in at an Italian airport.

When you walk into Vapiano, They give you a card. “Hang on to this card,” the Hostess says in a breezy voice that has a hard edge to it, not unlike Soviet bureaucrats handing out housing applications in the 1960s. God help you if you lose your Vapiano card, because then you can’t pay for your meal. And I’m not so sure there aren’t any legal repercussions.

After you get your card, the hostess leads you to believe you’ll be seated, but you’re really funneled into an open space with three possible choices: the alcohol bar, the pasta bar, the pizza bar, and the salad bar. “You can go to any of the three,” our friend encouraged us while we stood like lost sheep, bleating at the options. He strutted to the appropriate line without any hesitation.  He was an expert. He made it look easy.

“Oh, one quick thing,  but if you’re going to the pasta bar, go there before you go to the pizza bar because you have to pay differently for each one.”

“But don’t we just pay with the swipe card?”

“Yes and no. You do need to swipe it, but you also need to pay after you’re done eating. So hold on to the card.  But if you’re getting a drink, get that last, because you have to pay with cash and leave the tip on the card.”

“Ok, so we should go get a drink?”

“Probably not. You should order the pasta first.”

“Can we order the pizza?”

“Not until you’ve ordered in the pasta line. The salad is in the pizza line.”

“So we can get salad and pizza?”

“Yes, but you have to pay for pasta separately.”

“And we tip separately?”

“Yes. They’ll bring the meals to your table.”

We became desperate. “Do we need a PhD in Mathematics and Logic Theory before we order?”

“Probably.” Our friend laughed. “It’s not that hard you guys.”

We tentatively approached the pasta line. There were other prisoner-diners behind us, and they were fidgety. “I’d like a pasta?” I said. “What kind,” the chef glanced at me. “You can have four toppings, but you have to pay for the fifth.”

“I have a Groupon?” I said tentatively. “Not here,” he said. “You’ll have to pay separately when they tally you up at the pizza line.” The fun quirk with our Groupon was entitled us to two entrees and one appetizer per person, as well as a free drink. Which were appetizers? Which were entrees? Would the world ever make sense again?

We struggled through our pasta order. “That will come out later,” the chef said. “You can go sit down.” He reached expectantly for our cards. My heart was racing. I hadn’t been this stressed out since I watched March of the Penguins (WILL THE EGGS MAKE IT??? WILL THE DADS STAY ALIVE???). We swiped the cards. “This isn’t the only place you swipe. If you order a pizza, you have to swipe there, too.”

We moved into the pizza line. “Do you want a salad?” they asked us. “Yesmno,” we mumbled. And mumbled our way through the toppings and salad choices. We swiped the card again.

Then we tried to order drinks. “Do you bring those out to the table, too,” we asked. “No, the drinks, you pay for here,” they said. “How do those work with our Groupon,” we asked. “Not sure,” the bartender said.

We ate, gulping down huge doses of basil nervously. The food was great, but all the time we were eating, I was panicking. “Do we tip the waitress? Do we put the tip on the chip card? Do we split out the difference of the Groupon?”It was like H&R Block during tax season in there.

The waitress came up, smiling. We needed to swipe our cards once more to pay the bill. “I think I threw mine out,” Mr. B said. The table went silent. The waitress stopped smiling. He finally procured the card from his pocket. “We have to split the bill into three, with three Groupons,” our friend said. Steam visibly started coming out of the waitress’s ears.

Finally, we paid, and got out of that Godforsaken, delicious place.

“Vapiano is a fast casual restaurant with a twist – customers use a “chip card” to personally order their food or drinks from the bar or from the individual fresh pizza, pasta or salad stations. With this new innovative technology, Vapiano is going to change the way restaurants do business!”

Watch out, America. Vapiano is coming for you.

And that was my Florida.

Why it’s important to learn how to speak tech

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For six weeks between junior and senior year of high school, I went to the Governor’s School for International Studies, where I took an immersion class in Japanese. The first week, we learned the words for chair, teacher, and bathroom, and verbs. The second week, we weren’t allowed to speak English. As much as I enjoyed learning the cadences of Japanese, what I enjoyed even more was the getting rid of the nuances that made me sound American.

For example, Japanese has a special stop sound that people make instead of “umm.” It’s either “anoo” or “etoo”, depending on context. I spent the six weeks of my Japanese class consciously replacing every time I said “umm” with “anoo.” It is damn hard to catch yourself making unconscious noises.

Later, when I was in Israel, I forced myself to practice my rhotic Rs so I could get the Israeli discount at falafel shops.

I was insufferable in high school. (Ed. note – only in high school?)

I love languages, but what I love more about languages than the mechanics themselves is they allow you into someone’s culture, and if you speak the right phrases, knowing a language beyond its bones is like a lock that opens a key to a different, deeper level of that person, and that culture.

What’s really cool is that you don’t have to leave English at all to experience this. silicon-valley-hbo

Truck drivers have different slang than doctors (just read the archives of one of the first blogs I started following 8+(!) years ago, the Underwear Drawer, when its author was still in med school), who have different slang and worldviews than stay-at-home moms . If each of these different communities could  understand that when we’re communicating with someone they’re perceiving it from their lens rather than ours, it would reduce all miscommunication by half.

Unfortunately, culture is one of the things you can’t learn from a classroom.  You have to learn it by living it and absorbing it through your skin.

Mike Judge is one of the best people at thinking this way today.  When he created Office Space, one of my favorite movies of all time, he brilliantly captured the feel of corporate America with even every single nuance accounted for. Even just the tiny things like the printer not working (printers never, ever work in offices) and the pieces of flair that are so prevalent in places like TGIFriday’s and Ruby Tuesday add to the overall experience so much so that thousands of people swear Judge worked at their office.

He’s made it clear that he can speak different languages in his latest show, Silicon Valley, on HBO.

Part of this probably has to do with the fact that he worked a stint in Palo Alto before moving on to TV, but it doesn’t matter, because  startup culture today has its own special nuances different than the culture decades before it, and he was able to grok it as well.

Judge nails the way startup culture, and to an extent, tech culture works today, and in doing so, shows how ridiculous it is.

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In the show, the main character, Richard, is a mild-mannered beta-geek who works at Google-like giant Hooli manned by a charming psychopath visionary (played by the same guy who was creepy Albie on Big Love.) In his spare time, he lives in a startup incubator with a couple other guys, working on a lossless compression algorithm that scans all known media to see if the music you own is out of copyright compliance.

The brogrammers at Hooli make fun of him, but word of his startup eventually gets to the CEO, who starts a bidding war for Pied Piper with a Peter-Thiel/Paul Graham-like figure who drives in a compact car that’s the size of a bicycle to reduce his carbon footprint. By the end of the episode, Hooli and Peter Graham are in a bidding war for equity or a buyout of his company, and Richard’s on his way to becoming a millionaire.

Does any of that seem funny? If it does, you probably work in tech or read Hacker News.

To me,  it’s perfect.

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All the right signals, the ones that say, “Trust Mike Judge, he knows what he’s doing,” are there. For example, the main character constantly wears a hoodie. This is  a blatant nod to Zuckerberg, but also signals the fact that Richard is very insecure. Or, it could mean that he’s just wants to be like every other dude from 25-50 working in tech, all of who wear casual clothes as much as possible.  The way everyone else on the show dresses also gives signals. People who wear jeans but really nice shirts that make it seem like they’re not really wearing jeans are executives. People wearing shirts with startup logos are broke and don’t have money to do laundry.

Second, the technology is correct. When I saw the teaser trailer, I did a double-take. A guy had an HTML5 shirt. HTML5 is an actual thing! It’s not something that the producers made up! And what’s even cooler is that HTML5 is the new hotness right now, so it’s actually relevant, as well.

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It shows how most of us use tech on the go: not pristinely, glamorously sitting on a counter. Usually, it’s  juggled on our laps, in thick cases, with our work badges splayed out for everyone to see.

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And, they write code just like the rest of us!

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I couldn’t get a great screenshot of this, but it’s obvious that the show put up real code editors: SublimeText and Powershell. This seems really stupid and pedantic, but to geeks, it matters, because we’ve been subjected to decades of bad code on TV. Hollywood doesn’t care about portraying code correctly because code doesn’t make for good action shots. But it should, because if you get the little details right, you’ll be the larger ones right, as well.

And, the culture. It’s just so right, and it can be summed up by this one picture:

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I guess what I like most is that Judge made a smart show filled with accuracy to the people like me who are pedantic about it. He’s trying to appeal to a mass audience, but he’s really speaking to people who know the industry and can vouch for it. Details matter.

Compare this to supposed favorite nerd-festival Big Bang Theory, which is so popular not because it glorifies smart people, but because it’s coming from Penny’s point of view. “Look at these geeks,” Penny says to the audience, snickering, every time Sheldon or Leonard do something. The scientific facts they spout aren’t meant to educate or further the plot, but just serve to point to the fact that these nerds are talking way too much about stuff regular people couldn’t care less about.

What’s really interesting to me on a personal level is that, a couple years ago, half of this show wouldn’t have made any sense. There are hundreds of billions of dollars of jobs in the tech industry. The tech industry is going to save America.  But for all its luster, it’s still incredibly hostile to newcomers, not because of any inherent bias, but because it’s still largely merit and knowledge.  There is a LOT OF STUFF to know, and the more you know, the more regarded you are. Some people will be encouraging and teach you things, but sometimes, it seems intimidating to ask questions, especially of people who have been programming since they were fifteen. Some of these people programmed in assembly language. Some people were so hardcore that they didn’t even wait until computers came out. They were writing programs on notebook paper and running them by burning the pages.

But, all of a sudden, tech an economic boom and everyone and their sister wants to get into it, which is great, because it means more people making more great stuff. But, how to get into it? A couple weeks ago, I had coffee with someone who’s looking to get into analytics and was looking for advice. “What should I do to understand the tech industry,” they asked.

And I thought for a minute. How do you learn a language that you can only learn by being exposed to the culture? There are books for learning Italian. There are no books for learning to speak tech. I mean, sure, there’s O’Reilly.  But reading is one thing.

You can only learn what a server is by that feeling in your stomach when one goes down, what rm -rf does when you wipe out a directory you didn’t mean to, and how much space in gigs things take up when you run out of memory and can’t back up your data.

So I thought for a minute and said, “Read Hacker News. Read it every day.  You won’t understand 90% of it to begin with, and you won’t care about 95% of it. (I didn’t. As I write, the top ten stories are on two-factor authentication, DOMS,Tarsnap, and Lispy Python. I’m excited that I know what all of these are, but it took months and months of reading to absorb. ) But the more you read it, the more you’ll get. Look up words you don’t know. Ask me questions. Click on comments. Read people’s experiences. Wander loose around the Internet, your mind open like a sieve, and let the writing wash through it. Some of it will stick. Later, more of it will. ”

In addition to being in the thick of the action, it helps to have a second place that reads, kind of, like a dictionary.  It took me over three years to “start getting it”, and I’m still learning by reading, and less frequently, by breaking things.  So maybe what I really appreciate about Silicon Valley is that it’s obvious that someone else knows stuff because they broke stuff, too.

So, I’m curious how both tech people and non-tech people perceive this show that I think is so great and so spot-on, and does it matter? And what is it saying about where we are as an economy, as a culture?I’m don’t know, but like I said, I do appreciate the full-on cultural and linguistic accuracy.

Here’s the pilot episode, in full for free from HBO. You can Judge for yourself: