Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Minor Media Madness

Holiday at Dad's place means I have access to digital cable - including BBC Prime. After several days, it appears that most of British television entertainment these days is focused on two topics: houses (including gardens), and food. Though I don't mind too much - the shows are worth watching and I'm fairly interested in both. Yes, I'm a yuppie.

Except that all the food shows have made the field a bit too much of a media focus. When a TV show host really says of a contestant, a kid of maybe 19 who wants to become a chef - "his cooking is incredible, but not his personality; he's not a star" - you have to wonder.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The superior value of money

Value is a matter of perception - right? A 500 Euro bill is only worth more than the paper it's printed on because governments say so, and businesses agree. In fact even metal money was to a large extent a matter of consensus: in the Middle Ages there were very few practical uses for gold. It was used as money because it was rare (so people couldn't randomly make more) and because it was soft, easily malleable. But because it was so soft, you could not make satisfactory weapons or armor, or nails out of it.

Money is a convenient tool for the exchange of things that have intrinsic value, and allows the seller to split up the value in a convenient way. (You can trade a piece of land for 20 years worth of food a lot better if you use money.) But this convenience in itself has additional value. An item worth a hundred dollars is actually less valuable than a hundred-dollar bill.

A real-life example. I am looking for another car, and there's one being sold through the local Honda owners club that I like. The problem is that it's on an island, and it's a six-hour bus trip one way for me. I could have the owner bring it to Tartu... for an extra thousand kroons. Which is around what a bus ticket there and gas money back would cost me.

Whoever makes the trip, risks losing money if the deal falls through. Him even moreso than me, because the bus fare is a lot less than the ferry and gas costs. But I'm lazy, and the price would still be acceptable, so I expected him to come to Tartu. The reason being that even though we would be exchanging an amount of money for something of that worth, he would be getting liquid assets. He would be getting more value out of it.

And yes, I realize that this is probably something you can find in Chapter Three of most economics texbooks. But in a similar way, the thought has a lot more value if it occured to me independently.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Sad Bastard Christmas Set

This, I kid thee not, is a matched pair. For the second holiday season running (that I've noticed, at least), you can buy a bottle of Johnnie Red and get a miniature Canadian spruce in a pot for free.

The little piece of glossy cardboard sticking out of the dirt holds care instructions, suggesting that the tree be repotted in a bigger receptacle soon, and in the spring, as soon as the winter chills have passed, it be planted outside. Eventually it is to grow into a lovely, cone-shaped, classical fairy-tale Christmas tree up to seven feet tall.

Which is, of course, just some conscionable copywriter attempting to cut down on alcohol-related suicide spike around the end of December.

The weekend bookstore run landed me with Nick Hornby's "Long Way Down", which is a book about a quarter of sad lonely people failing to kill themselves on New Year's Eve. It's this sort of little coincidence that you notice. The night before I got on an airplane for the first time, or rather three airplanes in succession for a 20-hour trip to San Diego, I watched Pushing Tin, a movie with John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton about psycho air traffic controllers.

Nick Hornby is best-known for High Fidelity. I read the book once, and saw the movie countless times. It has John Cusack in it, and Jack Black. Cusack is a very Christmasy actor, overall. He did that film with Kate Beckinsale.

If I was an existing movie star, I'd be Jack Black.

There's a girl some hundred-odd miles north of where I'm sitting, who would be Kate Beckinsale. Even though she says she'd be Mila Yovovich.

Years ago, around this time of the year, a girl said she'd started to worry about me killing myself. (Months earlier I had told her I loved her; did it in the most cowardly way imaginable, seconds before getting on a bus to another country. I expected her to tell me to sod off, but she didn't. She waited a couple months for that. A few weeks after that, I couldn't talk to her.) I thought to myself that the girl had a bit of an opinion of herself; I'd had much better reasons to kill myself, and didn't. She'd hurt me deeply, but in the grand scheme of my life, she didn't rank.

So no, I'm not going to wash down a tin of painkillers with that bottle of Johnnie Red while looking at my little Christmas tree.

(The Kate/Mila girl and the suicide girl are two entirely different girls, you understand. Polar opposites in most ways, though I met them under similar circumstances.)

I don't really think I've done badly in my life so far. Not objectively. And I'm used to being alone. Spent the first eighteen years of my life around people I never specifically liked, on a personal level, and put a fair bit of effort into being able to live alone for the last four. I've got a job, and I've got friends who like me. Saw six of them after the bookstore run on the weekend. (Well, OK, some were spouses.)

Still, I can't help feeling miserable when I'm alone on Christmas and New Year's Eve.

Gam zeh ya'avor.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

It's all so SAD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder - SAD. It's something you are acutely aware of in Estonia, especially this time of year - but I suspect elsewhere in North Europe as well. A mortal combination of apathy, melancholy and irritability, it is brought on by a deficiency of sunlight. This year it has been compounded by an unusually warm November and December. A little bit of frost - enough to cause a few high-profile car crashes - and then nothing, weeks upon weeks of overcast, +8C weather.

For Nordic people, SAD is usually neutralized to a large extent by snowfall, but we've not had any. All we have is rain, and muck, and even Campustown feels dirty; Tallinn resembles an anthill in a toilet bowl. Useful sunlight (defined by the ability to read a newspaper on the street comfortably) is scarce: Daylight Savings Time has made a valiant attempt to at least make people leave for work when it's not dark, but the impermiable cloud cover negates the effect. Proper cold would bring about clear skies at least, if not snowfall. But the forecasts are not pretty.

I sit by my office window all day, overlooking a building site and the intercity bus terminal. The grey-brown mud, the naked trees, the dirty cars all serve to create a down mood. The constant drizzle and the wind mean that people have to wear their winter coats; you are either uncomfortably hot, or uncomfortably wet.

Mutton, ever the cheerful and cheeky Brit, has succumbed to SAD with the rest of us. He's confused by his girlfriend's lack of excitement at a trip he's been looking forward to; and I suspect she's at least partly affected by SAD as well. The syndrome is characterized by an all-encompassing feeling of bleh.

The capital, with its defining aspect of ambition and greed, regales in commercialism, but that doesn't quite do it for Tartu. The street decorations are beautiful this year, but they look wrong without snow; and although the calm, intellectual and family-oriented South Estonian town should find solace in approaching holidays, the general mood isn't uplifted. It is especially hard on the students - not only in Tartu, but elsewhere too - as they are finishing up their semester and preparing for exams. It does make sense, the way the colleges are doing it - no distinct Christmas break, big tests just after the New Year, and most of January off - but it does make people tired and annoyed before the holidays. Makes them SAD.

The point of having Christmas when it's being had, going back to the pagan celebrations that it took over, was to offer something to which you could look forward. Break up the monotony, the rut of the farmer and fisherman who are done for the year and now spend most of their time indoors mending equipment. The entirety of January and February, and most likely March, before we see the Sun again is just too daunting. Hey, in 1918 the locals were so sick and SAD by the end of February that they actually gained independence. Very well-placed holiday, that.

This will be my second holiday season since graduating, but I'm not doing any better than an exhausted college student. Yes, I'm an atheist and a cynic, but I genuinely enjoy the idea of Christmas, the myth of it. The distinct sensation that I'll probably end up alone, on the days when I most need someone to hold and be near, is the most SAD thing of them all.


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