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Tomarken.com » The Litmus Test
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Tomarken.com > Ambivilen > The Litmus Test (07-05-05)
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The Litmus Test

Richie Zevin
06/28/05-San Francisco, CA

Gone are the halcyon days of 10th grade chemistry labs, and the pink/blue paper that analyzed the acidic or basic properties of substances that none of us would ever again encounter.

“Yes, Mr. Grant, we know that hydrochloric acid doesn’t have the same pH as the saline solution I put on my contact lenses,” I remember saying, while eyeing the shower contraption in the corner that would flush my pupils if my best friend Reid and I were as careless as usual in lab. I was tempted to pretend to splash some acid in my eye (or really splash some acid in Reid’s eye) just to see the lab shower in action. I had fantasies of it producing gallons of water per second, inundating the school and sending us home early for the day. It wasn’t that we were entirely uninterested in finding the pH levels of various chemicals that we only partially believed existed in the real world, but it simply couldn’t compare to our degrees of interest in:

-the new girl in class who left the top two buttons of her button-down shirts unbuttoned
-the vaguely menacing apple that would rise from a gigantic canister beyond the center field fence of Shea Stadium every time Gregg Jeffries hit a home run
-why Reid’s parents were getting a divorce
-when we would finally hit puberty and grow taller so that the new girl with the top two buttons unbuttoned would notice us

Recently, I discovered the relevance of those long-ago, seemingly arcane experiments. Much to the chagrin of those family members who wish I would secure a more stable grasp on my finances, I’ve not decided to apply for an advanced degree in biochemical engineering (in fact, I’m not even certain that I just spelled “biochemical engineering” correctly). What I have done is determined the priceless value and the unique nature of the Litmus Test.

I think it’s safe to say that we all have informal criteria for judging others. For example, if a new acquaintance says to me, “Oh, let’s go out for those precious cocktails with the umbrellas in them that the trendy new restaurant/lounge in Palm Springs now serves each night from 7:01 until 7:08,” chances are that I will think my new acquaintance has mistaken me for someone who cares for shit like that, and I will most likely do my best to avoid running into that new acquaintance ever again. Conversely, if a new acquaintance says to me, “Hey, let’s go listen to The Ramones and play pool at the dive bar in the Mission district that serves $1 PBR 24/7,” then I’ll probably cultivate the friendship. But we do not live in an ideal world, a world in which people strip off disguises and frills and show their bare-boned identities right away. We live in a world in which many people are complex, dishonest, manipulative, insecure, well-intentioned, guarded, and exhausted, often all at once. Therefore, judging others can be complicated and often fruitless, and therein lies the brilliance of the Litmus Test.

The Litmus Test can vary drastically from person to person, and it necessarily springs from an individual’s experiences and interests. For example, my Litmus Test for friends or girlfriends is a movie called Airborne, which I watched as often as possible when I was 14 years old and we had HBO at my house for a one-month trial period, which we did not extend because certain parties might say that I watched Airborne TOO often. Airborne is about a pacifistic, surfing-oriented teenager from southern California who must move to Cincinnati for 6 months to live with his aunt, uncle, and cousin while his parents conduct field studies of the Australian Wombat. Unfortunately for our protagonist, there are no waves in Ohio, and he must strap on his Rollerblades to prove to his new, hockey-obsessed classmates that he is worth his salt. I have found that this movie is a highly accurate barometer that helps me judge whether I should cultivate relationships with specific individuals-I have screened this movie to numerous acquaintances and friends, and I believe that it confirms (and occasionally alters) my opinions of them, for better or worse.

A good example of this Litmus Test’s utility came in the form of a girl I was slightly interested in dating several months back. I was attracted to her, but I was conflicted-she seemed cool and confident, but maybe she was actually aloof; she laughed at my jokes, but did she really understand them? I invited her over to watch Airborne, which I had ordered on video from a seller on EBay, as the movie seems to have gone out of print while simultaneously slinking into the shadows of collective memory. I studied her reactions to the movie as we watched it, and my fears about her intensified as I realized she didn’t find the movie as engaging as I and many of my friends do. “I don’t think this is funny,” she said, and I more confidently decided that she would not be called back to audition for the role of my girlfriend. Conversely, when I told my best friend about Airborne, she could not wait to watch it, and her delight and excitement upon viewing the film confirmed that, yes, she should be my best friend, and that she’s even cooler than I suspected.

Another friend of mine has decided that his Litmus Test might be the movie Class Act, starring Kid n’ Play. I eagerly await the results of his pending trials. The Litmus Test need not be limited to motion pictures from the early nineties, though. It can be a book (”Oh my God, you made it through the endnotes in Infinite Jest? Me too!”); an activity (”Oh good, you would like to scour the city for shops that sell Masters of the Universe shrinky-dinks? Me too!”); or even a food (”Oh man, you know that pulpo means ‘octopus’ and you still eat it every Wednesday evening? Me too!). The possibilities are endless and often unique, because every person’s predilections and proclivities are based on a set of circumstances that no one else duplicates exactly. The Litmus Test is not the single criterion by which I decide who to filter from my social sphere, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t influence my decisions. And when you get really good, you can simply judge people by whether you think they’d like whatever your version of Airborne is. That way, you won’t have to watch the movie, read the book, or do the activity for the 18,000th time, at which point you might begin to realize that you don’t quite pass your own Litmus Test and that it might be time to find a new one.


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