Monday, June 30, 2008

Even though it's summer, put away the flip-flops, please

I get a lot of weird looks when I tell people I don't wear flip-flops. This isn't exactly true; I wear them at the beach, in grody showers, and now that I joined the cult by buying a pair at Old Navy, occasionally around the house. But I don't wear them to work, to run errands, or when I'm going out. Flip-flops hurt my feet--a lot--especially if I'm driving or if I wear them for an extended period of time, like, say, more than half an hour. Flip-flops have no support, and there's increasing evidence that wearing these flat soles actually hurts your legs and feet, and can cause long-term damage.

Like tanning, flips-flogs are another culturally acceptable style that is actually harmful, and brought on by youth culture. Flip-flops can be dressed up, but they are still seen and primarily worn in their most casual styles, demoting a dressy outfit. Nobody seems to realize this, even though girls will get manicures and pedicures to show off how beautiful and put-together they are, only to ruin the illusion by tossing on a pair of $5 flip-flops to accentuate the rest of their hundred-dollar bodies. In the absolutely fascinating New York piece, "How We're Wrecking Our Feet With Every Step We Take", the author explains how women especially kill their feet:

Here’s another example: If you wear high heels for a long time, your tendons shorten—and then it’s only comfortable for you to wear high heels. One saleswoman I spoke to at a running-shoe store described how, each summer, the store is flooded with young women complaining of a painful tingling in the soles of their feet—what she calls “flip-flop-itis,” which is the result of women’s suddenly switching from heeled winter boots to summer flip-flops.

The truth is, I like heels. High heels. But I can only wear them a few times a week--and with my summer shoes, I feel like my mobility is severely limited. I am a sneaker girl through and through, though that article turns the argument of padded sneakers on its head. It's obvious to anyone who's ever put on a pair of high heels that your gait immediately changes, and it's the same with any type of shoe. Even when I walk barefoot I walk differently, carefully, partly because I'm too afraid of stepping on something slimy, gross, or hard.

But while I always thought of that as a bad thing--I am much slower barefoot--apparently it's healthier than wearing many shoes. Obviously heels put feet at a disadvantage, since the feet are arched and crammed into an uncomfortable and rigid frame. But flip-flops cause the foot to hit the pavement harder, causing ankles, legs and toes to work harder. Walking in flip-flops is precarious, because one twist of the ankle or jolt of the seat and the shoe can easily fall off. When walking barefoot, our feet naturally propel us forward, with our weight distributed the way it's supposed to go, also making us walk slower and less harder than we would with shoes.

Of course, most of us aren't really going to add "walking barefoot" as something to work on. But a greater awareness of our feet--instead of the usual pretty toes preoccupation--can only help us, especially when tying this into the rest of our bodies. After all, according to a podiatrist quoted in the New York article, by age 40 80% of Americans have some ankle and feet pain, and that number only increases.

So put those flip-flops with the rest of your swimwear; after all, if you're going to meet the president, you might as well put your best foot forward.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Rest in Peace, Tim Russert

I was away when Tim Russert died. My mom originally wrote this information in an email, but my father made her delete it, for fear of upsetting me.

My parents and I loved Tim Russert. I loved his exuberance, the jolly earnestness he had when discussing anything remotely related to politics. He could hardly contain himself when discussing the election, and his eagerness was a joy to watch.

"Oh, look at him!" we would say. "Look how excited he is!"

His passion for politics was infectious. After hearing about the Pennsylvania primaries, I felt the need to get my hands on anything remotely related to the facts, then go out and do something, be part of the process. I was always happy when I saw him on the newscast, knowing that I was recieving the best quality information from a guy who truly cared.

I'm still reading about his death, and of course, am sad that I missed all the media coverage that has been criticized for overblowing his death. I'd rather see that than any of the firestorms that circulated among lesser individuals--and I'm not even talking about people who achieved only a fraction of what Tim Russert did in his life.

On the plane back I read the New York Times Magazine cover story on Chris Matthews. I had been saving it for a while--though God only knows why--since it wasn't particularly good and Chris Matthews is a blowhard. Apparently the two didn't like each other, and I can certainly see why Russert would not care for Matthews. When you're better known as your impersonation on Saturday Night Live, you know you're in trouble.

One of the saddest things to me is that Tim Russert did not live to see how the 2008 election finished. But then I know he would just be hungry for more, to see what would happen under this new president. I'll miss his twinkling smile, his passion, and how he made me care about whatever he was talking about. And I'm very sorry that I never watched Meet the Press.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Transcending Nationalities

American music follows you everywhere. Pink is played on the same station sqeezed between a Hungarian DJ and some local music, which has similar (though inferior) production values.

Pizza and gelati transcend nationalities.

So do obnoxious drunk people.

Sports hysteria also transcends sport. Crazy wigs are not limited to (American) football.

Never doubt the ability of a hit song to bring people together. "American Boy" is just beginning to climb the charts in the States, but the Hungarians went crazy for it, whereas their English-speaking breathren in the States, Canada, and Australia all were clamoring for some Flo-Rida, chanting "APPLE-BOTTOM JEANS, BOOTS WITH THE FUR."

New York City is practically a mecca. Here, on a coastal town in central Hungary, you can eat at Manhattan Pizza, buy baseball hats with NY emblazed on the front (note: no one will ever buy that you ever bought it in NY, let alone the States), dance at Club NY, and shop at Broadway shoes. New York City inspires so much awe that when I told a drunk Hungarian girl I was from there she felt moved to kiss my entire face, as if I were her savior.

People and things do not look so different in Central Europe. Fashion, with the exception of a few rattails and mullets, is essentially the same. You cannot usually tell who are the tourists, who are the Americans, the Germans, the English, only by the language they speak. The biggest barrier is the language, and if you are in a country whose language is romance-based, you will be fine. All you need to do is look at a menu or a sign.

Speaking of signs, roads are not well marked, only occasionally posted on the side of a building. There are not many traffic lights outside of a major city. There are no big numbers or signs marking national or international highways, though many street signs (no cars allowed, speed limits, etc.) are the same throughout Europe. Pictures, even for ones explaining tanning and nail salon, are frequent. With so many people speaking different languages, this is the easiest way to communicate.

This might possibly be the longest period of time in my life that I will go without turning on my cell phone.

It is comforting to realize that gender behavior stays the same throughout centuries and cultures. Women still want pretty jewelry even if they lived in dark mud palaces in the 9th century, and teenage boys are still rowdy and annoying in a rundown train in sketchy Hungarian towns. It does not mean that they cannot be helpful, just like train security guards can be too eager to help out tourists and get information wrong.

I have seen how global we all are. American media is very insular, and we rarely care about anywhere else, at least not for extended periods of time. In the time that I have been away, we have heard inklings on the BBC of floods across the world, including Cedar Rapids, OH, and earthquakes in Tokyo. We really are screwed. I might live in the US, the dominant country of the universe, but we are not doing so well, as our dollar is now becoming a punchline.

But so far I would not live anywhere else. I like American lingerie, swimwear, music, toilets, doors, and media too much to kiss it goodbye.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Travel Observations: Stop Dominating the World, America

I'm vacationing in Europe right now, traveling from the Czech Republic to Vienna to Bratislava to Budapest. One of my cultural observations--besides little things like finding that there seem to be no gyms in Prague--is just how overwhelming American media and culture is. Go into a local bookstore in a small tourist town in the south of the Czech Republic, and see bestsellers from Sophie Kinsella and Jodi Picoult, Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, Josua Ferris' And Then We Came to the End, and a really awesome cover for Freakonomics that featured hip-hop kids, pimps and just all-around flashy people. The American cover is orange. If Americans are the idiots and the Czechs the big readers (according to a book I saw on Czechs for foreigners), then how come they get the dumb-downed, misleading cover?

Prominent books are usually by Americans or Brits, including lots of classics by Austen and Hemingway, followed by big names like Stephen King. Czech authors--unless they are Milan Kundera or Kafka--are in the back. But I think it's really awesome that the Czech's first president, Vaclav Havel, is not only a prominent statesman and was active in the Velvet Revolution, helping to overthrow communism, but is also a playwright and author, and is just as well known for his writings as his political contributions. I can't imagine any writer actually getting the respect and the backing to be a full-fledged working politician in the states.

But back to the media. As soon as I landed in the Prague airport, I heard James Blunt in a novelty shop. In fact, every radio station overheard in buses, restaurants, and shops has played American music. Oh, maybe one unfamiliar song might have been some Eurotrash hit, but Rihanna seems just as popular here as she does in North America (and I haven't even heard Umbrella yet). Even lite-fm Canadian staples like Bryan Adams gets some play. In Cesky Krumlov, where I am now, I heard Britney Spears' "Pieces of Me" and Cher's "Strong Enough", mediocre hits for both artists. Middle aged people in the Czech Republic look the same as they do in the states, as does old people. Preteen girls show off too much skin for my taste, wearing lower-cut shirts than even American girls dare to. Maybe the American media should stop their hand-wringing--other countries are much worse.

What's different, but only as an afterthought, is that the clothes aren't flashy or filled with labels. Girls wear less makeup. Occasionally you see some unmistakable Europeans, since they have real fringe-y, close-cropped bangs which are incredibly unflattering on everyone, funky mullets or other odd, stringy hairstyles. Their is much less talk or visual cues about dieting and nutrition. There's Coca-Cola light, not diet, and that's the only light flavor, although there are fruit juices and fruit sodas galore. Labels are in several different European languages, usually Czech, Hungarian, French, and various Slavic ones.

"Look at the labels," my friend instructed me to do in a clothing boutique. I pulled out a button-down: "H&M. Made in Indonesia".

We keep hearing how we're living in an age of globalization, how the world is flat. If anything, Americans are the last to know this, because we dominate the conversation. How does it feel to grow up listening to music that is written, produced, and performed by artists from across the world, meant specifically for those listeners, in their language, espousing their values? How does it feel to see their presidential election drama mentioned on the front page of the paper, with editorials from their papers inserted into yours, even if only for the tourists and the expats' sake? How does it feel to know that the majority of the movies and television you watch come from a smog-filled city thousands of miles away, and are dubbed for your viewing pleasure?

I cannot help but think that I would feel resentful that my country, and my people, get none of the attention. We hear all the time of the American dream, how each little Bobby and Susie wants to grow up to be a baseball star, a Hollywood actress. But what about all the non-American Bobbys and Susies? They are informed by the same Indiana Jones, the same Carrie Bradshaw. How come they don't get their chance to shine in the sun? Even in their own country it seems that they either lack the ambition or the means to become famous, and that's just not fair.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Women's Websites: Finally Getting Some Attention

David Carr, another favorite Times writer of mine, discusses the larger implications of the Sex and the City aftermath, comparing it to the Superbowl. The article is really about women's web communities, which are really basking in the attention the movie is making. I've written about this topic once before, critiquing Shine, and many of the sites he mentions have gotten full-course treatment from the newspaper and the same section he writes for (Monday's Media Business).

Basically, women make up a large portion of viewers online. Shocking, I know. In the last several months there's been several new "community" sites to cater to different groups of women, among them (for older women) and Journal Women (businesswomen). I'm partial to Slate's XX blog and Jezebel, both of which I link to. I was never one for iVillage or Glam, and while I like the idea of Blogher, I don't find it relevant to my life--and I also do not fit the critera for their site, as I find it difficult to post at least once a week (though I'm going to be working on that this summer). Granted, the problem with many of these sites--or at least, sections of them--is that they can get very girly, focusing on shoes and fashion and whatnot. While that's all well and good occasionally and for some girls a necessity, I prefer some social commentary or news with my girly side, hence my love of Jezebel, XX blog and yes, Sex and the City.

For many years I read avidly the postings on Television Without Pity, and a demographic analysis showed that a large majority of the site's viewers were women. I was actually pretty shocked by the high number (Stilwell places this figure between 70-90%; see bottom of page 60). Granted, things have changed in the five years since this was published, and while I could tell that many posters were women, I didn't think the number was anywhere close to being that high; after all, since when was television a predominately female hobby? If anything, it was the men who would sit all day and watch hour after hour of crap. What I realized was that women were willing to talk about and analyze what they watched. Men watching ball games would congregate in other areas. It was the women, regarded as the more social sex, who really made internet communities. MySpace and Facebook might have been founded by men, but Television Without Pity was formed by two women. Women think more by niche, going off their interests; parenting and other "feminine" topics sometimes seem like the only things women of a certain age are interested in, but that's natural; after all, Urban Baby (founded by a woman) is a top site, and it has a rabid following and is a vibrant community of its own.

One of the things I found most interesting was the observation that women's sites, as a whole, tend to be more ambitious than strictly male sites. Both types of sites feature a lot of gender-specific content and the appropriate style graphics and colors, but male sites will be about busty women and stupid videos, whereas female ones will discuss a subject, no matter how frivolous, in depth. If men want to be ambitious, it seems, they'll go on a specific niche site (like politics) to say what they need to say. CollegeHumor, as much as I love it, is meant to tickle the funny bone of college boys, so much of their humor is gross-out or physical. That's fine; it serves its purpose well, and girls will always be attracted to men's worlds. But women, whether or not they are out to prove something, have a strong desire to make a difference, to be heard and seen, and being a respected member of a community is a form of legitamacy and power. Or so I'm trying to rationalize...are men, on the whole, just more likely to take an easy way out? Rest on their laurels? Get lazy as they get older? Distracted by things like money and women?

Let's hope with the increased attention comes legitamacy, money, power, and above all, the ambition to make female-centric websites not totally about celebrities, gossip, and fashion.