The Restoration Hardware Catalog Killed My Cat

Restoration Hardware Catalog

It goes like this: Every few months, some blogger decries the death of print media, an efficiency guru campaigns for paperless offices or a paper airplane goes missing over an ocean. Paper is being torn asunder as a medium. We get it: screens are in, paper is out.

As a writer whose career exists in the twilight between pulp and pixels, I’m necessarily neutral on the matter. Some money comes as checks, some as direct-deposits. I pet the paper tiger with one hand and the digital tiger with the other. Being part cyborg, I admit to a proclivity for digital but I’ve been largely ambivalent about the issue until yesterday, when Restoration Hardware dropped a 17 pound chunk of eco-terrorism onto my porch.

I’m not kidding – the catalog was 17 pounds. It’s behemoth weight was printed on the plastic binding that contained 12 individual volumes of the home furnishing store’s entire 2014 catalog collection. It was a sad day for the green scene. From a certain angle, the stack of pages resembled tree rings.

Hasn’t anyone told RH that printed catalogs are the phone books of retail? And phone books are dead. They should plant a grove for every doorstop they delivered this season and rename themselves Reforestation Hardware.

In the old days, to address your disapproval of such an eco-affront you’d need to tie a note to a brick. In this case, the RH catalog collection has the same mass as a cinder block and, if chucked through the window of their Corte Madera corporate offices, methinks the medium is the message.

Heaving the whole unopened tragedy into the recycling bin brought to mind a time I was dining at a vegan Santa Monica eatery when a waitress balked at a table’s request for take out boxes. “Let’s save some trees, people,” she said, which received the swift retort, “It’s okay, I’m Julia Butterfly’s agent.” I have no idea if that was true or who was being more of an ass on the evergreen battlefield of eco-one-upmanship. Julia “Butterfly” Hill, you will recall, was the twenty-something who lived in a 1500 year-old redwood tree for a couple of years to prevent it from being chopped down by loggers back in the late 90s. She’s now a 40-something who offers life-coaching and does speaking engagements for $6,000 honorariums. (I too am a forty-something and will gladly coach you for a thousandth the price. Like so: “Get off your butt and give me six bucks.”)

I’m confident that 99 percent of my printed work gets recycled. That would be the newspapers for which I write. The books, I suspect, get burned. Newspapers have always been repurposed, hence the affectionate terms “fishwrap” and “birdcage liner.” I like to pretend my columns get wrapped around roses, but getting shat on by canaries is better than not in this trade. Because that means they’re alive and well in the coal mine of traditional media.

With the proliferation of the word processor in the 80s, an essential element of writing changed forever. No longer were we typing on single sheets of paper, but rather on endless virtual scrolls. Some writers stopped using paper altogether as a sprig of eco-consciousness sprouted in their minds. Others just wrote more digital compost.

Imagine if Kerouac, who typed On the Road on a roll of teletype paper, had a blank canvass that scrolled into infinity. He’d still be writing On the Road. He’d also be 92 and no one wants to read about the exploits of geriatric drivers and their forgotten left-turn signal, blinking its syncopated rhythm with the heartbeat of a lost generation.

Whenever I finish writing a novel or a screenplay, I print what I call a “trophy draft.” It’s usually the only time I ever print anything, and I only do it in the off chance that the Internet might someday evaporate, taking my cloud-stored oeuvre with it. The problem with committing a draft to paper is that it’s tantamount to leaving behind physical evidence of my own ineptitude. I’ve come across such drafts long after a project has been published (or, as likely, buried in a virtual drawer) and have shuddered at the paucity of the product, let alone the waste of a tree. And this is my life’s work.

Clearly, Restoration Hardware has a healthier sense of their own cultural contribution. Print isn’t dead. It’s undead and weighs 17 goddamn pounds. And it can kill a cat. I bet.

Chipotle Cups are Publishing’s New Porn

It used to be the pornographers who pioneered innovative ways to distribute their product, from the banal (like matchbooks and playing cards) to the once-cutting edge province of the Interweb. In the mid-90s, the Federal Communications Law Journal published an essay by attorney Peter Johnson that?succinctly captured porn?s opportunistic exploitation of media:

“Throughout the history of new media, from vernacular speech to movable type, to photography, to paperback books, to videotape, to cable and pay-TV, to ‘900’ phone lines, to the French Minitel, to the Internet, to CD-ROMs and laser discs, pornography has shown technology the way.”

Porn has a way of filling every crevice of medium it encounters, with a particular emphasis on novelty. Until now, the only thing porn hadn?t filled, it seemed, was Chipotle cups (the container used in the cultural low of ?two girls one cup? was unbranded). However, it failed to fill this final frontier — instead Chipotle cups runneth over with literature, thanks to author Jonathan Safran Foer.

Five Authors, Five Cups

Thanks to an appeal made by Foer to Chipolte?s CEO Steve Ells, publishing is taking the big gulp and printing original works by the author and a cherry picked roster that also includes Malcolm Gladwell, Toni Morrison, George Saunders and Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Lewis, who?s site, VF Daily, broke the story.

?I tried to put together a somewhat eclectic group, in terms of styles,? VF Daily quotes Foer?I wanted some that were essayistic, some fiction, some things that were funny, and somewhat thought provoking.?

And now they?re also disposable.

Perhaps porn will have its day at Chipotle when the chain serves adult beverages. Until then, as Ohioan Steve Elbert protested to the Chicago Tribune when a local adult video store was bulldozed for a McDonald?s, ?We think fast food is equivalent to pornography, nutritionally speaking.? Raise your cup to that.

Mother’s Day: Only Once a Year?

After giving birth to the world’s population, one might think mothers would rate more than a single day to celebrate to their contribution to humanity. But, being the planet of spoiled children we are, we allot just the one day. And it’s a Sunday at that.
In the US alone there are more than 85 million mothers — nearly a third of our nation’s population. In the “mom and apple pie” formulation by which our country traditionally defines its character, mothers are easily fifty percent. And yet, moms get little more than a kiss on the cheek and maybe brunch (for more about the Mother’s Day industry, click here).

Q: Why is “brunch with Mom” a traditional way to celebrate Mother’s Day?
A: For us wayward sons coming off Saturday night, breakfast would be too damn early.

The enormity of Humanity’s selfishness as regards its moms is rivaled only by our mothers’ own selflessness. From the local (“I carried you in my body for nine months, kid!”) to the global (our yen for pollution has sent Mother Earth into early menopause, hence all the hot flashes), we’re just terrible to our mothers. We never call, we never write, we take, take, take. It’s like we’ve been using Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree as a user manual — emphasis on “user.”

Moms are superheroes. I know this because five years ago my wife became a mother and acquired several superpowers — among them: the ability to locate unseen playthings, heal wounds with kisses and function without sleeping for weeks at a time. I also suspect she has x-ray vision and can read minds since she regards most of my antics by shaking her head and saying “That doesn’t surprise me.”

My wife has also developed a psychic link with our son such that she remains in some kind of emotional geosynchronous orbit. It’s like a spiritual umbilical cord that can’t be cut. Despite the fact that she says her body feels like her own again, she can’t shake the sensation that part of her is always in danger of skinning a knee whilst playing t-ball. And she doesn’t play t-ball. But she can feel it.

Between failures in Hollywood, I had a gig writing a column for the L.A. Downtown News under the pseudonym “Sophie Dover.” Why, in their infinite wisdom, the paper hired a dude to pretend to be a woman and write what amounted to female confessional fiction, is beyond me. Suffice it to say, I was under-qualified by at least a chromosome but I was probably cheaper than a real woman and, hey, I needed the work. One of my early assignments was to pen a Mother’s Day-themed story predicated on a mother-daughter dialogue about men. The result was an exercise in mental menstruation from which I’m still trying to recover.

Looking at the piece 12 years hence, I see it’s a mish-mash of stylistic tics and trite observations that betrays little understanding of women, motherhood and possibly English. But in the course of writing it, I did come to the realization that the mysteries of motherhood are ancient and weird and the best I could do in the face of them is to simply be a better son.

These days, I’d readily cut 90 percent of the story and given its lack of everything including length (they paid by the word so concision was emphasized) the editing would leave me with something akin to a haiku:

This Mother’s Day piece
Was written by a man, not
By someone’s daughter

My own mother has the psychological constitution of guano, which is to say she’s batshitt crazy. I’m not in the mood to write a weeper otherwise I’d tell the tale but suffice it to say, I think raising my brother and I contributed some. That notwithstanding, I know that even 40 years hence, part of her still frets the skinning of a knee, wherever we are, which is always too far. For moms, their children can never be near enough. No matter what. Not even on that certain Sunday.

Big Data vs. Big Brother

Unless you’re a “data rebel or a data scientist” you’ll be forgiven for not knowing that Big Data Week begins May 5. Before you start blocking out your calendars, perhaps we should first discuss what Big Data is – and isn’t.
data-from-star-trekBig Data is NOT when fat Trekkies put on Starfleet uniforms and pretend to be Lieutenant Commander Data, the clammy mandroid of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Though this will likely disappoint some neckbeards to learn, the organizers of Big Data insist their namesake is a global, crowd-sourced event focused on the “social, political, technological and commercial impacts of Big Data.”

That’s some fine circulus in probando but it still doesn’t define “big data,” at least when the term is slumming it in lowercase. Permit me an attempt: In this grand experiment known as the Information Age, we are the Guinea pigs and data are the digital droppings we pile high and deep during our online lives.

Data is big. It accretes naturally, bit by bit, like dust bunnies. Or tumors. And before you know it, it’s both a behemoth and a commodity.

Once upon a time, the traces we left of ourselves were little more than breadcrumbs, fingerprints or even mere inference on the part of others. Then, in the ’80s, we figured out how to make the copious DNA we shed admissible in the courts. Where we’d been could be confirmed on a cellular level, but that’s nothing compared to the predictive capability of Big Data – it not only knows where we’ve been but where we’re going. It can even mold our intentions. Think of how many times you’ve been sidelined by the temptress of Netflix “Because you liked…”

Yes, you’re traceable by everything you ever did online. The amount of data sloughing from you is probably more than you realize since “online” can mean anything from that cloud-based service on your desktop to every saucy text you ever thumbed into your smartphone or precisely when you paused that Game of Thrones episode via set-top box for your TV.

When the Internet of Things invades our household appliances, trust me, it will know all the above as well as the contents of your “smart-fridge.” The profiling info that can be spun from a half bottle of Annie’s Goddess Dressing could keep the spooks at the NSA busy for weeks (fact-checking the UPC code against the bank card transaction and the Whole Foods terminal at which it occurred).

From the salad dressing online, they will deduce that you’re a woman in her early 40s making peace with where she’s arrived in life – “Why did I date that guy in the ’90s?” – but knows she deserves better – “why am I dating the guy I’m dating now?” – and debating whether she’s attracted to “Conner” the checker, or if she’s just bored.

Big Data is like Big Brother except it knows what kind of porn you like.

Surveillance predictors like Orwell, and Promethean fire-starters like Snowden, all knew this was in the cards, but I’d hazard a guess that neither believe that big data is all bad. One benefit of “them” knowing who, what and where you are is, if you ever get lost or stolen, they know where to find you. Unless you’re on Malaysia Airlines.

The first thing terrorist organizations do when they kidnap you is break your iPhone. This stands to reason since it’s basically a fancy geo-location device. That it can also read your mind and sell you pop singles from the ’80s you’re dying to hear, or call forth a vampire novel it knows you’ll love, only infuriates the terrorists further. Your iPhone is a sponge for Big Data. Android – not so much. The terrorists won’t bother breaking an Android device because it’s probably already broken.

“Big data has gone from a buzzword to a business reality. Now is the moment to learn from each other to advance the art and science of harnessing data to benefit all aspects of society,” says Kenneth Cukier, a co-author of the book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think.

Or, Ken, perhaps now is the moment to put on a Starfleet uniform and stomp our digital devices back into silicon, “Because you liked believing you controlled your data and not the other way around …”