Wrapped in Cellophane

Contemporary art museums have the extraordinary ability of making mundane, day-to-day objects seem important and unique. They typically require us, as viewers of art, to adopt a new perspective on what we see and interact with everyday. For example, a chair in the office does not have the same meaning as a chair put on display in a museum. Likewise, a human body exhibit in a natural history museum does not have the same significance as that placed in an art museum. We are required to gain a second level of understanding of things we usually take for granted or of objects we understand only for their utilitarian function. This realization becomes apparent to us only after a brief analysis of an art piece, an understanding of its place in society, and finally, introspection.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto, a Japanese-American from California, is an artist that takes provocative photographs and labels them as art. In a Polaroid photograph taken in 1984 and titled “Wrapped Food,” he shows us an image of four red apples covered with clear plastic wrap viewed from the top. A sticker on the apples tells us the price—¥512—as if they were ready to be sold in Japan. The white reflection from the light is most prominent, and the background is black. The photograph is realistic and does not appear distorted in any way. The artist’s signature is at the bottom right of the work.

A first glimpse of the photograph makes us think that the piece on display is not actually a work of art, but merely a picture of something we might see everyday, in the grocery store or supermarket. But the fact that the photograph hangs on a wall in a museum suggests that it is important to society in some way and important to the artist when he took the photograph in 1984. It is our job as viewers to understand Ishimoto’s meaning in “Wrapped Food.” There is a superficial beauty about the photograph, in that the black background focuses our attention solely on the apples themselves. There is also a kind of symmetry in the photograph of the four apples, and because of it, our eyes are not specifically attracted to any particular part of the image. A more careful look, however, shows that the apple at the top right is most illuminated of the four, which makes it seem larger than the other three; the other three fade into the black background, where the ‘black’ depicts a feeling of isolation. The fact that the fruit is wrapped further adds to this mood by creating a layer between the object and the viewer. The photograph takes live and organic objects—the apples, or “food,” as in the title—and makes them cold and distant (as in, food that is just out of reach).

Ishimoto’s photograph, like most art, reflects on the culture in which it exists. The image of food wrapped in plastic speaks to the mass cultivation, production, and packaging of food in cellophane. The concept of mass production was relatively new during the 1980s, when “Wrapped Food” was conceived. The photograph intends for us to realize the significance of mass production in our lives and how the mass packaging of food has led to an artificial quality in the way food is prepared and how we consume it. In addition, the ¥512 sticker price on the four apples wrapped in cellophane plastic speaks to the consumerism that is now so prominent in our culture and our individual lives. For example, we take for granted that we can go to virtually any supermarket and buy all that we want to eat, from fish and chicken to vegetables and desserts. Even the meat we buy is becoming increasingly amorphous, where the original cow, pig, or lamb has become an unidentifiable chunk of meat. Only the label tells us what it is and how much it costs. Ishimoto’s “Wrapped Food” forces us to realize that food is hardly an organic process anymore, where anyone can pick the apple straight of the tree. Instead, food is now a factory process involving plastic wrapping and artificial marketing.

As we continue to visit art museums, it behooves us to gain more than a merely superficial understanding of a work of art. Each work of art speaks to one aspect of everyday life, such as how food is made readily available in “Wrapped Food.” It has the inherent goal of making us, as the viewers of art, reflect on how society functions over a period of time, as well as react to the message that is being conveyed.

Neither a Garbage Man, Nor a Trash Collector. Here Comes a Sanitation Engineer.

The phrase “sanitation engineer” may tempt you to think highly of whoever is worthy of that title, because, as we all know, engineers are the ones who design and develop things for the betterment of everyone and everything else. Being sanitary, too, is important as ever to people. So, with that logic, sanitation engineers are greatly respected and their jobs greatly desired. That is, until we learn that “sanitation engineer” has come to merely mean garbage man. Then, our impression changes faster than we can drop our mouths open in shock, as the job of garbage men is a job unwanted by most. Being a garbage man is widely considered a low-status job. Regardless, in the political context, we now come to regard this worker not as a garbage man or refuse or trash collector, but as a “sanitation engineer.”

What is the purpose of such a term—of such a convoluted way of meaning what we all ordinarily regard as garbage men? Clearly, “sanitation engineer” is an indirect and milder way to mean “garbage man” or “janitor.” This euphemism is a means of providing more respect for an occupation that is typically poorly received. And this is far from being the only euphemism prevalent in society today. American culture abounds with euphemisms, including “motion sickness bag” for “barf bag,” “pre-owned cars” for “used cars,” and “resting in peace” for “death.” Sometimes the use of this kind of verbiage is justified, when talking about a sensitive subject, such as death, or when discussing something that might be offensive to someone else, such as job titles as in this case. In another example, euphemisms in advertisements are used to promote a certain product or service, which would otherwise be found too cheap or too repulsive for the average buyer. Sometimes, these are acceptable. The problem arises, however, when euphemisms are used too often to replace known phrases as to become extremely subtle, vague, and elusive. The bigger problem, though, is when they are so tied into the culture that they become unnoticeable.

It has become clearer and clearer today that in America, a place where countless cultures and subcultures exist and clash, people must be careful about what is said, written, or expressed. As a result, saying what we do not truly mean becomes pervasive in the context of American politics as well as of lifestyle in general; the use of euphemism is everywhere. Sometimes, it allows for variety in speech and writing, using different terms to refer to the same thing. “Euphemism” and “synonym,” however, hardly mean the same thing. The former is loosely defined as a mild or indirect expression used to suggest something thought to be too blunt or offensive to be expressed otherwise. And, of course, a synonym is a word that has the same or similar meaning as another word. It is curious to note how these two words have merged to form something of a cultural norm in America, where the use of euphemisms is not only acceptable, but encouraged. Speaking in a roundabout manner enables us to be sure that third-party listeners will not be insulted or hurt the wrong way in any way. Also, in today’s high society and image-conscious culture, euphemisms are critical to their lifestyle. It would be unusual for such a person to use the word “shit” when referring to cow feces; rather, they would use the terms “excrement,” or “droppings,” for example. In this instance, the use of euphemisms avoids indecency, which is exactly what we are taught to shun. In American politics, using euphemisms to avoid indecency has become a full time job.

It is often said that the primary job of politicians is to get reelected. In order to do so, he or she must appeal to the majority of people, and to do that, we get speeches and campaigns filled with politeness, sensitivity, understatements and overstatements. Euphemism in politics has its own name—political correctness. To be politically correct is to say or write things that appeal to not just the majority, but to everyone. The obvious issue of the differences such as race, gender, disability, religion and political views are largely ignored or toned down with political correctness by censorship or by limited free speech that is acceptable. Words with any hint of negativity are ignored. For example, “illegal aliens” are now called “undocumented workers,” “chairman” are now called “chairperson,” and “trash collectors” are now regarded as “sanitation engineers.” It is a technique used to make people feel important and to sway their opinions one way or another. The inherent characteristic of being politically correct is that it not only avoids the actual meaning, but it also allows the speaker or writer to avoid claiming personal responsibility1. Also, the extent of political correctness has led some people to believe that the words of politicians are essentially lies.

In today’s politically correct America, there is no surprise that euphemisms are ubiquitous. This, in turn, drives the tendency in Americans to equivocate, most notable in the younger generation today. People often avoid saying what they mean in order to not offend others; they would write in such a way so that they may claim no responsibility for their words (i.e. the passive voice, where the true subject is omitted and ambiguity and misunderstanding is present). In speech, this has become so common that it is all right and tolerable. The use and abuse of the word “like” in everyday speech is one of way of equivocating, used by most . For example, one might say “Uh, like I was just going to say that like I think the story was like very compelling. Tom Joad was like a character that like . . .” Beside the general annoyance of this word where it does not belong, it has now become so fixed in the speech of the younger generation that it goes unseen (or unheard) most of the time. There are two severe implications of this. Firstly, children will be brought up believing that equivocation, at the most basic level, is okay. And secondly, they will have virtually no responsibility for what they say or write, when intentionally or unintentionally offending or demoralizing others. The usage of euphemism must be kept in check.

Because of the origins of euphemisms (and of the phrase “sanitation engineer,” as an example), it is a fact that euphemisms are here to stay. Speaking indirectly is a good way to say what we are uncomfortable to say otherwise; it is also an acceptable and preferred way to say what would potentially be insulting to others. The excessive use of euphemisms in speech and in writing, however, is a problem that often goes unnoticed. In an American today where everyone is either some sort of manager, specialist, consultant, or engineer (a clothing salesperson is a apparel specialist, for example), sometimes some words intending to be euphemistic become satirical, like “sanitation engineer,” which is, today, more sarcastic than respectful. In the politics of language and in politics itself, being politically correct is sometimes more important than the actual context; appealing to all and offending none is the American way. At the end of it all, “political correctness” is a euphemism for “euphemism.”

More iPods for Everyone Everywhere

It is amazing to witness the success and ubiquity of iPods. It has become so widespread (with Apple Computer reporting to have sold over 40 million of them) that the term “iPod” has become a generic one. The iPod is merely one among the hundreds of digital music players on the marketplace, but people often and mistakenly use this term to describe all music players in general; some would call the Sony MP3 Walkman, or the Sandisk Sansa, an “iPod,” but each is a music player in its own right. The iPod is an Apple product. Why, then, would many confuse this? For example, no one today would identify all hybrid cars as the Toyota Prius. Of course, there are the Ford Escape Hybrid, the Honda Accord Hybrid, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, etc. There is a distinction among these products. But the success of the Apple iPod has made many people believe that “iPod” is synonymous with “music player.” Within five years, the iPod has become a social and cultural icon. It has become a symbol for America’s rising consumerism and desire for more widgets and for products that can serve more than merely one function.

Apple Computer (traditionally a computer hardware and software company) delved into the media world of music in October 2001 with the release of the iPod—a player with a 5 GB capacity purchasable for $400. This was big news in the technology world, especially with product competitors offering only a fraction of the storage space that the iPod offered at the time. Within five years, this has evolved into a 10 GB player for $400 in 2002, to a 30 GB player for $400 in 2003, to a 60 GB player for $600 in 2004, to a 60 GB player for $400 in 2005. It is clear that with each successive product launch, the capacity of the players becomes ever more enormous. On Tuesday, September 12, 2006, Apple Computer again announced an entirely revamped iPod product line up. Now, avid buyers can get an 80 GB iPod for merely $350, making it “affordable and accessible to even more people,” according to Apple. In its five-year iPod history, Apple has claimed 75% of the portable digital music player market and 80% market share of legal music downloads through its complementary online iTunes Store. Obviously, the demand is there. Consumers are asking for more and more, and whereas the iPod of 2001 featured a music player, the iPod of 2006 includes a video player, a photo viewer, an address book, a clock, a stopwatch, a calendar, a number of games, in addition to the now all-too-simple music player. And as a result, America has become a place that abounds with the now iconic white iPod earphones, and where every kid on the block owns an iPod (or two).

The September 12 event, titled “It’s Showtime,” was another attempt by Apple to satisfy consumers’ insatiable desire for more, be it more “new” features or more all-in-one gadgetry. This desire—or demand, as it is considered in the consumer market—for Apple products is steadily increasing. The company’s habit of announcing “all-new” products (a phrase used by Apple during the event was “completely remastered”) makes it difficult for the general consumer population to resist. The clever marketing by Apple coupled with the charisma of Steve Jobs (Apple’s CEO who gave Tuesday’s presentation) put the iPod-maker in a prime position in the market. This is not to say, however, that the secret behind Apple’s success lies solely in good advertising, where the masses are easily swayed into buying iPods, and where its popularity and hype spur even more buying, and more popularity and hype as a result. Rather, Apple products (specifically the iPod) are often considered sleekly designed, solidly built, and easy to use, all at competitive prices.

The “completely remastered” iPod product line up (though more evolutionary than revolutionary) now includes a video iPod with a 60% brighter screen, 75% more battery life for movie playback, and all-new earphones. The new iPod nano is now made of aluminum and is available in five colors (as opposed to the former white and black), has a 40% brighter screen, a 24-hour per charge battery life, and all-new earphones. The new iPod shuffle is also made of aluminum, is less than half the size of its predecessor to about the size of a large postage stamp and has a built-in clip. In today’s world where the iPod complements the cell phone when people leave the house to work, to school, to the store, etc., the ability to squeeze more functionality into a single device is very much welcomed. (There is even speculation among analysts that an Apple cell phone/iPod hybrid is in development. Then, the traditional cell phone will be unnecessary as well.) One might consider such an all-in-one device infeasible or even excessive. But as long as the demand is present in the American culture—a demand for “all-new,” “better,” and “more features”—there will always be a business for Apple and other companies like it.

The Apple iPod, once considered a luxury for Mac users only, is now available relatively cheaply to the entire scope of computer users. As such, it has become a commodity, where last year’s model would simply not do and the new one (announced on Tuesday) must be bought as soon as possible for the “all-new” features. Whether one in fact uses these new features or not is another issue, but the mere idea of keeping up with the times drives us all as consumers.

At the end of Tuesday’s “It’s Showtime” presentation, and after discussing Apple’s ultimate end-to-end media entertainment solution, Steve Jobs lists that “Apple is in your den” (with its media software including iTunes), “Apple is in your living room,” (with its new movie service), “Apple is in your car” (with 70% of 2007 model cars offering iPod connectivity), and that “Apple is in your pocket” (with the iPod). There is something to be said about Apple’s success with the iPod. When the iPod was first introduced, it was undoubtedly considered exotic, unique, cool and hip. Today, even with the iPod’s pervasiveness and universal appeal, Americans are not finding it dull or too mundane, rather the want for iPods remains, and more and more people are tied down to their multitudes of electronic devices, whether talking on a cell phone or listening to a music player or using their computers. With more “all-new” features available than ever before, Americans are finding the urge to throw down the old and buy the all-new; people are finding it increasingly difficult to live without it.

It's About Time

In this day and age, there is no doubt that most Americans have heard the adage that time is money at least once in their lifetime. While the mathematical proof of this equation is arguable, it seems that it is understood, especially among the student, businessman, scientist, and caretaker populations, that an extra wasted day would surely mean wasted productivity, wherein lies purpose and salary.

It is not surprising, therefore, to see that most people wear a watch—or at the very least, can claim to own one. It has become commonplace, finding its place beside the keys, cell phone, wallet, and eyeglasses, and it is among those things that one needs to have whenever one leaves the house. It becomes disconcerting when the watch is forgotten at home or lost; it is even more upsetting when the battery of the watch dies midday. The sense of time is lost, and, as a result, the sense of place is lost. In today’s growing culture of more and more and faster and faster, scheduling and knowing exactly when to be where is crucial.

Of course, having a clock is important, but the ability to watch time pass portably is probably more effective and practical. While a clock is a signifier of time (and sometimes, beauty), a pocket watch or a wristwatch is a signifier of wealth and a sort of time that is instantly accessible. At the end of the day, it is this fact that matters.

Whenever a person looks at his or her watch, it is almost certain that he or she is thinking about something other than the task at hand or about someplace he or she will have to be later. Sometimes, in particular circumstances, such as during a board meeting or in a class lecture, looking at the watch is a clear sign of boredom, or, at the very least, impatience—the impatience for the meeting or class to end and go on to do supposedly more important things. Spotting a stranger looking at his watch as he walks down the street suggests that he is important, productive, and is heading off to take care of some important business. Observing a seemingly bored woman who is constantly checking the time on her watch suggests that she is waiting (impatiently, even) for something more important and more productive than what she is doing presently, which is actually nothing. Today, the mere act of looking at one’s watch would signify that he or she is busy and aims to be productive. People are no longer occupied with the now; rather, they are pre-occupied with the future and the later. There is a growing sense of impatience among Americans today, notably among the younger generation.

Everybody today, it seems, is always rushing to get from place to place. People always seem to be running to his or her next meeting, always rushing to make one important phone call, always hurrying to make the necessary business deal. Being late for class, for work, or for an appointment, for example, is just unacceptable. In a society when taking it easy and catching one’s breath is now unnatural, people are always running. They often find that they look down on their watches and realize that they are still running out of time. We, in America, have gotten to a point in time when 24 hours in a day is simply not enough. The ironic thing, however, is that while people sleep less to do more work, they ultimately lose rest and lose productivity as a result of it.

Me, in Between Here and Here

As I wake up every morning, usually around six-thirty no matter what the occasion, I do not typically think to myself, “Today will be a good day,” or “Today, I’m going to do something productive.” Often times, I just do it. Others, I simply stick to my day-to-day routines without a fuss. Still, I would consider myself an optimist.

There are, I think, two reasons for this. Firstly, I think it is healthy being optimistic; it is better for the body and mind. Secondly, in a world where many people claim to be depressed and go about saying life sucks, I want to be different. It seems people want to feel like a part of a group, while, at the same time, be unique. Therefore, to be unique in a world of wanting to belong is to have a distinctive combination of groups. And while my combinations of groups (which I might claim to be unique) may be shared with this person here or that person there, it is the desire to be unique, and the means of doing so, that makes up the individual.

I would label myself a Chinese-American, though both my parents came originally from Taiwan. I would consider myself primarily American, though my family traces back to both Taiwan and China. Today, I belong to that group which is distracted and torn between the “old” culture and the newer, “American” one. On one hand, I am fortunate enough to have two parents that understand English to a degree they can take care of themselves for the most part and can take care of paying the bills without a problem; but on the other hand, I am cursed. Mandarin Chinese has become secondary to English in my home, partly because we now are so used to English, and partly because the Chinese abilities of my sister and me are embarrassingly limited. When I was younger, my dad had encouraged me and my younger sister (by only two years) to speak and practice our Chinese at home. Today, it is mixed. I speak with my sister and Chinese-speaking friends almost exclusively in English. Even my mother speaks with me in English now. Of falling into the American way of things—but more really, of falling out of the Chinese style—I hate it.

Inherent in American culture—a culture of mixed races and of people from lands far and wide—is a sense of, for the most part, a dual-culture. Here, in America, there is always a problem of whether or not to assimilate or to diverge from the immediate culture, of adopting and adapting the new in place of the traditional and old. And within this culture, we typically have two choices that speak more to our individual upbringing and, therefore, our individual preferences: urban culture versus rural culture, American cars versus foreign cars, Windows versus Mac OS, or contacts versus eyeglasses, etc. I, myself, belong to group of the urban culture of New York City, of the Apple culture of Mac, and of those that prefer Japanese cars, namely Toyota. With these choices, I am proud of my sense of belonging—especially belonging to the minority—which, I would like to think, further adds to my own enrichment and uniqueness. A few months ago, my family purchased a new Toyota SUV, the Highlander. (With my suggestion, we chose green; green was uncommon in the streets, and silver, though the color looks stunning, was becoming far too ordinary.) And since the day we drove our new car home, I became more aware of the cars on the street. Now, when I’m walking down the sidewalk, I pay attention to the “brands” of each car I pass. Sometimes, I tell my friends if we are walking together. They don’t care, but I find it interesting. I guess it is my way of becoming in tune with at least one aspect of American industry. I have become so adept at identifying cars that I can point them out merely by looking at their lit taillights. To me, it is like a game; to me, I have reached sort of Level Two.

And just like a player in a game, I am optimistic. I am optimistic that I may not only learn about the cultures and cults around me but also absorb them enough to balance my own sense of belonging and of uniqueness.

To Be One Well-Rounded Individual

In the perpetual crusade to be one well-rounded, well-composed individual, I have come to realize two truths. The first: the aspiration of being a well-rounded person of sorts is solely in the power of others and in their perception of the individual. For example, it matters not that I should not know—or do know—a fact or a subject so long as I am able to lie my way into knowing (e.g. confidently talking about a subject which I am sure my listener is ignorant of, or the traditional make-it-up-as-I-go routine combined with borrowing or taking others’ ideas in the vicinity). Along similar lines, one may, as I often do, study or review the intricacies of a custom or event (like, the rules of a game, or the proper manners at a party, for instance) the day before the actual occasion. In that way, one does not truly need to know—or even understand, for that matter—a given subject longer than necessary. This approach enables one to be exactly one step ahead of others, though true knowledge is limited to hardly anything at any given moment in time. While not fulfilling the want, or need, to be a truly well-rounded man or woman, it does enable one to appear so. And sometimes—and for some, most times—that is all that matters.

The second truth that I have come to discover, the one which merits more explication, is that the entire collection of human knowledge can be organized into categories or lists, however infinite. It can safely be assumed that the actual working knowledge that is needed by any one individual, however, may be sufficiently organized in a finite number of categories or lists. Giving no immediate mention to how encompassing any such categories may be, choosing which topics matter to the individual or which topics are essential to school or work, or both, is critical. A naturalist who does not care a wit about computers would certainly not consider wireless networking among his topics; a historical novelist might consider literature, language, writing, and American history among his topics, and the like. While this idea of topic differentiation and of the depth of established categories is subjective, it is logical. The underlying philosophy of filing facts and ideas into carefully constructed lists provides for a complete understanding (or memorization, at times) by an individual. The point to make here is to understand the extent of what one needs to know, firstly, and then what one wants to know besides. It is far more economical—and mechanical—for one to know exactly what one needs for work (i.e. to contribute to society) and nothing more (though it is in everyone best interest that this does not happen). Luckily, human interest does not permit this in the least bit. It is an everlasting challenge, as a result, to balance these two halves—the needs and the wants—in terms of what to know, but more importantly, what to study and understand.

It is ideal for everyone to study and understand what is needed of them (so that a group may interact on a commonality for work or for school) and at the same time for everyone to adopt individual interests. Not straying too far from the ideas of conformity and the non-conformist, it is optimal for each person to dedicate portions of his or her list to what is needed and to what is interesting to him or her. Thus, the well-rounded individual, outside the realm of prodigies, is merely an idea. It seems that it is a far-out ambition for many, and while it is an unrealistic reality more often than not, it is something some worth driving toward. So, one may either lie his or her way though every necessary situation under the guise of “knowing,” or one may strive for the long sought-after goal of knowing it all—of being “well-rounded.” It is the latter that I think will benefit the individual and profit society, and it is the latter that I shall choose to follow.