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May 18, 2006

Unnecessarily Hybrid Products Review

Hybridity is all the rage to the point of becoming passe, particularly in my field. It's also getting out of control: as far as I understand it, "hybrid" used to refer to something that was a biological mixture, but now we've taken it over and there's cultural hybridity, hybridity as a discourse, as a method, as a way of knowing, as a way of not knowing, and as a surefire strategy for generating incomprehensible scholarship. I am no less guilty of this than anyone else, and possibly more than some.

Faculty Advisor: What exactly happened in this paper? You started off making this one argument, but then you got turned around and started contradicting yourself.

Graduate Student: Um, it's hybrid? Like, it's sort of saying that one thing, but then it's also kind of saying the opposite in places? So it's like a hybridity of form?

Faculty Advisor: That is so smart!

Hybridity holds, evidently, not just the hope for me finding a job someday until this academic fad too shall pass. Or for environmentally friendly transport, despite Prius marketing so brilliant that it has evidently enticed many people to forget their basic math skills so they can't figure out that their gas savings won't make up for the expense and weirdness of their car until they've owned it 20 years and everyone else will already be piloting ethanol-fueled hovercraft by that time anyway. No, the hybrid craze is also holding out the promise of a more, well, hybrid consumer experience: simultaneously more exciting and more weirdly mundane. I'm talking about product variants so weird that they shouldn't exist, but at the same time so humdrum that I can't imagine why they were worth sexing up in the first place.

It used to be that if you were the sort of person who would take a perfectly good cup of orange juice and dump some salsa into it, you were either desperate for attention or had no sense at all. Now, your moment in the product development spotlight has arrived.

I bring you: Coke Blak and Vanilla Mint Listerine.

Coke Blak:

Product Premise: People who drink caffeinated beverages have two very popular options: coffee and Coke. One is typically enjoyed in the morning, and the other in the afternoon, except by weirdos who drink Coke for breakfast.

Identified Market Problem: Between coffee and Coke, one is owned by the Coca-Cola company, and the other is not.

Hybridized Solution: Coke Blak is equal parts Coke and coffee. It is to be served cold, like Coke, and is mildly fizzy, like Coke that has been cut with something non-carbonated, and is mildly sweet.

Product Experience: Weird, but not as bad as one might think. I was terribly excited about this product when I read an article about it being test-marketed in Europe, but that was mostly bravado and I became slightly more faint-hearted when it appeared in the US. It tastes exactly like you'd think. In flavor, in mouth-feel, and in the strange bemusement it triggers, it is precisely what would have happened had I ever thought, on my own, to mix equal parts Coke and cold middle-of-the-road coffee.

How Gross Is It? On a scale of 1 to 10, it's about a 4. It's kinda gross, but it's not make-you-barf gross. And the grossness it does possess is almost entirely offset by an almost magical degree of humorousness. I'd drink it again, if only to encourage them.

Was This Really Necessary? Not at all. Seriously, dump half a cup of coffee into a can of Coke, and you've just made the exact thing at home. Of course, then you don't get to drink it really conspicuously and gross everyone out.

Vanilla Mint Listerine:

No, really, say those words again. Vanilla. Mint. Listerine.

Product Premise: Most people go through waxing and waning oral hygiene cycles, which peak approximately two weeks before and five minutes after a dental check-up. When the squeaky-clean-teeth craze hits, suddenly people need to consume irregular dental maintenance products, like gum stimulators and floss picks. And mouthwash. Because this is happening on a fad basis, people are susceptible to flashy, weird, and intimidating products, on the premise that the more punishing their last-minute oral hygiene binge is, the more the dentist will praise them.

Identified Market Problem: If you're going to use mouthwash, it's probably going to be Listerine, because they've got the biggest name and the most bullying advertising. So they're sitting pretty in their market position, except for one thing: everyone knows what Listerine tastes like. And it's bad.

Hybridized Solution: Everyone may hate Listerine, but everyone likes vanilla. People also like mint. Hence, they have taken a regular bottle of Listerine and added a flavoring compound intended to approximate the experience (although not really the flavor) of inhaling a concentrated dose of bourbon vanilla extract. I note, however, that it is impossible to tell anything else about it, because the new ingredient is merely listed on the bottle as "flavor."

Product Experience: Deeply disturbing. It hits you in waves. At first swig, I thought, "My god, this is incredibly delicious Listerine!" and then was quietly shocked that I had thought such a sentence. However, as I swished and gargled for the prescribed 30 seconds, I realized that I had merely been prepared to think, "My god, this is incredibly delicious Listerine!" because I was so excited about the vanilla. 30 seconds with this stuff in your mouth is enough to confirm that there's not much vanilla about it. It definitely tastes like Listerine, with an added hint of what you get if you position one nostril carefully over the mouth of a bottle of vanilla extract and whiff up all the alcohol, plus a touch of -- what could it be? -- housepaint? With an added touch of sickly sweetness and that weird Listerine foamy thing. And I'm not sure how hybrid this really was, because there was no hint of mint about it whatsoever. I was fascinated by it, but I could not wait to spit it out.

And then the magic happened. It became amazingly delicious as soon as it left my mouth. Minimal lingering Listerine taste. Mostly a delicious suffusion of the feeling and flavor of having just had a big mouthful of artificial-vanilla-flavored sugar donut or frosting or ice cream or something. Plus a little excitingly tingly.

How Gross Is It? That's the thing. It's totally, totally gross. On a scale of 1 to 10, it's an 8. While I was swishing, I was making a mental note to send in the $2 rebate thing just so I could spitefully get back part of my money. But after 30 seconds of gross, it's amazing.

Was This Really Necessary? Oh yes. I hate mouthwash. I hate Listerine. But because I am preparing to make a dentist appointment and am therefore at a vulnerable point on my Dental Hygiene Cycle, I am prepared to go totally overboard and go gargle with this stuff again, just because of its bizarre ability to go from Gross to Sugar Donut in 30 seconds. This is brilliant!

What's Next:
I don't know, but I'm hoping for Vanilla Coke Listerine. Equal parts Listerine and Vanilla Coke. That way I get my clean teeth, my caffeine, and my gratuituous vanilla, all within 30 seconds in the bathroom.

Posted by katie at 12:35 AM

May 11, 2006

Put in place in the space as they were shuffled and dealt.

My first-ever apartment-hunting experience occurred, probably like everyone else's, at the end of my freshman year of college, when a friend and I decided to move out of the dorms together. I already knew her to be mentally unbalanced and so should not have moved in with her, but that's another story. The point here is that, at the tender and formative age of 18, I discovered that apartment searching in Berkeley in May or June is a knock-down, drag-out, hair-pulling marathon of chicanery, assholery and backstabbery that I had previously only associated with housing searches in, say, Manhattan. Or Communist Russia. "Look, bitch," said a girl to my roommate in the very first apartment we went to look at, "I'm writing a check to the landlord right now, so there's no way you're moving in here." She was, in fact, all talk, and she didn't get the apartment, but neither did we. I have approached every subsequent apartment search as though I would probably be killed in the process, and have therefore adopted a consistent set of tactics. For one thing, I start looking wayyy too early, so that I can pace myself: grim and plodding at the beginning, saving up my energy for the burst of panic and impending homelessness and fisticuffs (or abject begging) that will surely hit at the end.

It is important to note that, in practice, no apartment hunt has turned out as badly as I've expected. The worst thing that usually happens is that a landlord looks at me and says, "You're not moving until June 1st? But this is January! Why don't you chill the fuck out for 4 or 5 months?" The last two times I've moved, I've pretty much had a really nice place to live handed to me on a platter. Nevertheless, by my count, I have lived in 7 apartments in the last 10 years, and that includes two separate 3-year periods of staying in the same place. So that means it's also like I've lived in 5 apartments in 4 years. That's a lot of moving, especially when you own approximately 5000 books.

The point this time around is to find someplace I think I can stay for the next few years. That means (a) someplace I will be able to fit my stuff and the 5000 more books to come, and (b) someplace, unlike Terror Shack, where I will not go insane.

I've looked at four studios this week, not including Terror Shack. The majority of studios, I've discovered, fit into two very similar catergories:

1. A tiny square room with a bathroom and some size of kitchen stuck on.
2. A slightly less tiny rectangular room with a "kitchen area" incorporated into the room itself and a bathroom stuck on.

Mutatis mutandis, allowing for the presence or absence of such things as closets, carpets, and light, three of the four studios I have looked at will fit into the two categories above.

The fourth is much more interesting, and that is part of why I will be moving in there. Oh yes, because, one week after sheepishly announcing to my Delightful still-Housemate-for-a-few-weeks that I would in fact not be moving to Berkeley with him, I have been offered three places and am signing a lease on one tomorrow. Why do I persist in thinking that apartments are impossible to find? I mean, OK, I failed to find something right in the middle of downtown with 400 square feet of livable space for 12 dollars, but I bet if I was willing to keep looking for another week, I could have.

The place into which I will be moving has cunningly taken the normal elements of the studio apartment, listed above, and deconstructed them. Since I am a grad student in literature, a deconstructed apartment seems like a good fit for me. That was a joke, but not a very funny one. The one large-ish room has been taken apart into a tiny little front room (sort of like an ante-hallway) and then a tiny little back room (sort of like a bed nook very barely bigger than my bed). These are separated by a kitchen and a hallway, into both of which I can fit some bookshelves. Then the bathroom, which is my favorite part, is the only one I've seen where the three main components of the average functional bathroom (shower, toilet, and sink) have been taken apart and put into three different places. I have seen bathrooms split into two pieces before (toilet and shower, sink; toilet and sink, shower) but never three. One door leads off the hallway straight into the shower; another right into a tiny room with a toilet in it; and the sink is set into the hallway wall on the other side. I am so charmed by that.

A tiny little room, the size of a broom cupboard, with just the toilet in. Finally, I have a water closet!

I am attempting to upload my version of a floor plan, for the edification of all. This looks like a regular big-people apartment, but it's crafted in miniature, like a playhouse, and ends up occupying the same amount of space - or slightly less - than my current bedroom. I think part of the reason this tickles me so much right now is that my students have just finished reading Gulliver's Travels, and when the landlady was showing me through the apartment, I was having fun tromping around in it like big huge Gulliver in Lilliput.

Charmed, I'm sure.

Posted by katie at 11:32 PM

May 07, 2006

Nice apartment. Nice apartment to DIE IN.

I have just put myself into the rather stupid position of looking for a studio apartment in Santa Cruz in the next few weeks, before all the students have the chance to move out for the summer and open up some places.

Yeah, I know, I know. My grand plan had been to move up to Berkeley with my Delightful Housemate, partly in order to live closer to my Darling Baby Sister, and partly to live in a town big enough to live/work/date in, or at least meet people who aren't my students. But it's not working out, in part because I realized that with gas prices the way they are now, and the shitty mileage I get in my middle-aged Ford Motors product, my worst-case estimate is that I could end up paying an extra $300 a month just to commute back to the place I already live. Yeah, dumb, and also impossible on my grad student pittance. Oh, and if I do that commute, it will hasten the death of my car, and there's no way I can spend that much on gas and make car payments at the same time, whereas if I stay here I won't have to do either. Oh, and after my father's recent accident, all of a sudden a twisty mountain commute several times a week doesn't make me all that hot. And once I started pulling that thread out of my plan, a whole lot of the other ones came unravelled too: blah blah, blah blah. Insert the whole list of fifty reasons that this just isn't a great idea right now.

I'm bummed out about not living with my Delightful Housemate and around the corner from my Darling Baby Sister, but now that I've realized I need to stay, all of a sudden I really want to. I'm totally re-enchanted with Santa Cruz and how cute it is. I mean, OK, it's a stupid small town, but that does mean that all of my drinking buddies are concentrated at one bar and it's close enough to stumble home from. I've also realized that this is an opportunity to make another kind of really bad decision: I've never ever lived alone, for several really good reasons, but this might be the time to try it and see if I (a) go insane, or (b) get a lot of work done and really like having my own space. Although not much of it, from the studios I've looked at so far.

This approach clearly has its own list of 50 reasons it's a bad idea, two of which are as follows:

For one thing, I am incapable of dealing with my own spiders. Over Christmas when both of my housemates were gone for an extended period, I had to barricade a spider into one room of the house so it could stay in there until someone else came home to remove it, because I didn't think that my landlady would appreciate my calling her about it. However, I have recently noted that the Toys R Us in Santa Cruz carries bug vacuums: essentially a dustbuster designed to suck bugs into a detachable nosecone perfect for either (a) depositing them into a terrarium, or (b) flinging outside and then running screaming back into the house. A $20 investment that will allow me to impersonate a self-sufficient, cool-headed adult in the bug department.

For another thing, I am a total weenie in all other areas as well. OK, this reason and the last reason are basically the same. I get freaked out really easily, especially at night, especially when I'm alone. I can't even watch crap like the X-Files or whatever, which no one finds scary but me, because it gives me nightmares. Oh, and the prospect of going really and truly insane and inflicting terrible psychic harm on myself and/or others has always weighed very heavily on my mind. Fun fact: My most terrifying nightmares are not the ones in which someone else is trying to hurt me, but the ones where I turn out to have lost my shit and done something appallingly awful to someone else.

In light of the above, it was probably not a good idea that last night I let my Delightful Housemate talk me into staying up really late and watching What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? with him. I'd forgotten that this movie really scares the crap out of me. Why? Oh, because it's about people losing their shit and doing appallingly awful things to each other, that's why. So at about 3 AM, after I had broken the land-speed record for running through the hall from the bathroom, and I was huddling in my dark creaky bedroom with a pillow over my head trying to drown out the "I've Written a Letter to Daddy" song in my brain, I resolved that the only way I could possibly live by myself would be if I made a rule that I am never again allowed to watch a movie that features anything more disturbing than the worst Disney can cook up. The grub-eating scene in The Emperor's New Groove was gross, but it didn't keep me from sleeping.

It didn't help that my one model for what living alone might look like was the "apartment" I had gone to look at earlier in the evening. This was advertised on Craigslist as an $800 studio at one particular location, but once I got Juan, the property manager, on the phone, it turned out to be at another address in a crappier part of Beach Flats (not a nice area). I went anyway, because I'd already arranged for him to show it to me, and because I'm an idiot.

The place turned out to be a soul-crushing 8x8' hole in a terrifying labyrinth of run-down bungalows next door to the place a friend of mine moved out of last year because the location was so notoriously crappy she couldn't get a pizza delivered. To the "credit" of the "apartment" "complex," it turned out to feature a bona fide Faulknerian idiot man-child standing half-naked by the mailboxes with his mouth open and clutching a filthy piece of string, but the intrigue that guy provided was somewhat offset by the presence of the belligerent drunk guy with the Doberman that Juan had to maneuver around on the stoop to "let" me into the dimly lit cupboard that he persisted, strangely, in referring to as an apartment. Once inside, Juan whispered to me that he would have asked the guy to move but was a little afraid to pick a fight with him after what happened last time; he did, however, reassure me that the place might have a stove soon. I didn't speak enough Spanish to explain to him that I wasn't looking for a place to go insane or be raped & murdered in just yet, but that if I changed my mind I'd let him know, so I just thanked him and ran home. I stand by the call I made in conversation with my housemate this afternoon, though: I'd be willing to stake some serious money on the fact that Dirty String Man and the Belligerent Drunk were probably totally normal, functional people before they moved into that place. Maybe even grad students just like me. And that that was probably less than four months ago.

I'd stake serious money, I say, but not $800 a month.

On the plus side, the place I looked at today has 15' ceilings, which, although that means it officially has more vertical than horizontal space, does make it light and airy during the day, and comes with a built-in nightlight above the wainscoting. And although the washer/dryer were tucked into a slightly terrifying basement, the half-naked man with the piece of string didn't appear to be waiting down there for me. I know, because I insisted on checking every corner with the landlord right behind me.

Posted by katie at 08:10 PM