April 30, 2013

I Believe This Is What They Call "The Dominant Ideology"

From the New York Times: Who Says New York Is Not Affordable?

Regular readers may know that I have something of a love-hate relationship with New York—only without the love part. (And even regular readers haven't seen all the rants saved in my drafts folder that I deemed too vituperative!) I hate the inequality. I hate the pollution. I hate the selfishness. I hate the sense of entitlement. And most of all, I hate the cognitive dissonance that allows so many New Yorkers to live unequal, polluting, selfish, entitled lives, and still think they are the most liberal and cosmopolitan and amazing city in the world.

And this article pretty much encompasses all of those things.
New Yorkers assume that we live in the most expensive city in the country, and cost-of-living indexes tend to back up that assertion. But those measures are built around the typical American’s shopping habits, which don’t really apply to the typical New Yorker... Once you account for these different preferences, it turns out that living in New York is actually a relative bargain for the wealthy.
Oh, well, thank GOODNESS, Marcy! (N.B. The author of this article is named Catherine, not Marcy. Marcy is meant to be the stereotypical name of a rich New Yorker. I don't know if that's accurate because I can't afford to hang out within six blocks of a rich New Yorker.)

Sorry, I'm being told that for "rich New Yorker," I should be saying "average New Yorker."

Anyway, the first section of this article, as you have doubtless gathered, boils down to: thanks to market forces, your quinoa and caviar are actually cheaper in New York than if you were living somewhere else. So bully for you.

It then continues:
Of course, not everything that wealthy New Yorkers spend money on is cheaper here. Housing, after all, is absurdly expensive, even for the rich.
Yes, WOE IS THEM!, in those $27 million penthouses they're forced to buy! It's positively ghastly. Or so you might think. Actually, though, the next section of the article goes on to explain precisely why the outrageous rents are a good thing. See, "baked into" that high rent—literally!—is access to New York's fabulous amenities:
Those higher rents all but ensure that tenants will appreciate an amazing bakery or a fancy shoe store — and that retailers will have to lower prices to compete for their business... 
Professional-class workers who like to moan about the cost of living in New York — and I’m including myself in this group — don’t realize how spoiled we are by both variety and competitive pricing. Truthfully, things seem more expensive here because there’s just way more high-end stuff around to tempt us... We see a sensible shoe with a $480 price tag or an oatmeal cookie for $4 and sometimes don’t register that these are luxury versions of normal items available from Payless or Entenmann’s. The problem, in part, is that people tend to anchor their own expectations for what they should buy based on what their neighbors are buying, not what some abstract, median American buys.
I mean, good grief, I get exhausted just thinking about all the heady ideological rationalizing going on here:

1. Spending money is okay because it allows you spend more money. (i.e. It's okay that you pay $2,500 a month to live in Manhattan, because that gives you the privilege of spending $500 on a sock and $700 on a pizza.)

2. You might feel like you don't have enough money, but really you should be thankful at how many great opportunities you have to spend that money. (i.e. There, there. Eat some quinoa and caviar. You'll feel better.)

3. The problem isn't that THE ENTIRE ECONOMIC SYSTEM IN THIS CITY IS CRIMINALLY AWFUL, it's that the rest of the country doesn't spend enough money on the finer things in life. (i.e. Who are these poor dolts who enjoy Entemann's?)

Anyway, FINALLY, after 800 words telling us how thankful we should be for our high rents, we get to the "ominous flipside" of New York's demonstrable swellness: while all the grocery stores are falling all over themselves to get you the best deal on organic quinoa, a household living at or below the poverty line ends up having to pay up to 20% more for normal food staples. Plus they don't get federal assistance, half the time, because so many New York businesses pay them wages that are above the federal threshold for qualifying. (I mean, we're not MONSTERS. We won't pay you a living wage, but we certainly won't pay you minimum wage.) No, unfortunately for the poor,
it is impossible to unbundle apartments from all the perks that help drive up costs.
But we're still sure they're perks, right?

According to the article, the end result of all this is that the poor end up having to leave the city—which would be fine, except that they still have to come back into the city every day to cater to the rich people who are incapable of cooking a single fucking meal for themselves, or cleaning their own bathroom, or walking their own dog, or whatever. Indeed, commuting times in New York, according to the article, are now the longest of any metro area in the country. And sure, some of those commuters are equally rich people taking the train in from Connecticut—but basically, the gist is, the poor have to travel further so that the rich can have nice restaurants.

Now, don't get me wrong. The article does try to muster some genuine outrage about all this, in its last two or three paragraphs. But at the same time it also reassures us that "what's happening in New York is just part of a national shift." Um, well, maybe, but also: are you kidding me? You just spent the first 800 words talking about how atypical New York's economic situation is (Hello, hi! We were there at the beginning of the article too!), and now you want us to believe that the situation here is really no worse than... Chicago? San Francisco? What is the right comparison here, actually?

Again, to be fair to the article, it doesn't say that the national trend it identifies in diverging incomes is "inevitable." In fact, it offers a clear "third option," citing Houston as an example, where the local government deregulates the housing market to encourage the building of more (and more affordable) homes. Boffo. Except that earlier, the article already told us that such a third option was impossible for New York, because there's no more space to build anything.

So what's the solution for NEW YORK, New York journalist, writing in flagship New York publication? How do we escape the seemingly inevitable national trend here? Could it be, maybe, taking some real social responsibility, beyond voting Obama and driving your Prius and donating to Movember? Could it be demanding robust rent control, and raising the minimum wage to a living one, and, I don't know, considering the livelihood of the people around you as at least equally important to that great bakery on the corner?

Or should we just keep pretending that this city is great and call it a day?

April 28, 2013

There'll Be One Along Any Month Now

From Scotsman.com: Edinburgh tram shelters ‘inadequate’ say critics

Do we think the following is a misplaced modifier, or an editorial comment on the rubbishness of Edinburgh's trams?
PASSENGERS on Edinburgh’s £776m tram line will be left wet and windswept because of the “minimalist” shelters at stops, critics have claimed...

While the system boasts state-of-the-art trams that will speed people across the capital in just over a year’s time, those waiting to board will be offered little protection from the elements, it is feared.
Christ, how long would not-state-of-the-art trams take?

April 26, 2013

April 21, 2013

Panda-ing To The Lowest Common Denominator

From Scotsman.com: Edinburgh zoo panda artificially inseminated
THE UK’s only female giant panda has been artificially inseminated in the hope of making her pregnant.
That is generally why you would do it, yes.
Natural mating was not attempted between Tian Tian (Sweetie) and male Yang Guang (Sunshine) as scientists who have been monitoring them at Edinburgh Zoo decided that Tian Tian was showing signs that were not “conducive to mating”.
1. "I have a headache."
2. "I'm not in the mood."
3. "I have too much self respect to sleep with someone named Sunshine."
4. [Insert any number of other gender stereotypes here.]

A spokesperson for Edinburgh Zoo said that natural mating had not been attempted based on the advice of their panda mating expert. What was his name again?
“Natural mating was not attempted. Yang Guang had been interested and shown consistently encouraging behaviour, however based on his many years’ experience, our Chinese colleague Professor Wang felt that...she would not be conducive to mating."
SPLAWANGO!

April 19, 2013

April 16, 2013

For Boston

I've left Boston twice in my life: once in 2003, after spending my freshman and sophomore years at Emerson; and once in 2011, when I moved to New York, after another four years getting a Master's, and a wife, and a handle on the world. It was tough leaving, both times. But I've never regretted not being there as much as I did yesterday.

I should start with a confession: I never actually watched the Boston marathon while I lived there; usually, because of the long weekend, I was out of town. And yet one of my most vivid memories of the place is from the Sunday night before the race in 2006.

I was living in Montreal then, and had driven down with some friends for the premiere of an old Emerson dorm mate's first short film. We went out drinking afterwards, or tried to; I didn't have a U.S. license or a passport, so nowhere wanted to let me in. Until, finally, we got to the Bukowski's on Dalton Street, where I hopefully showed the bouncer my British license.

HIM [THE BEST BOSTON ACCENT YOU CAN IMAGINE]: Sorry, bro. Can't let you in on this.

ME: Please. Please. Look. I'm here with all my friends. We're going back to Montreal tomorrow. I'm driving. I just want one beer.

HIM: [SIGHS]

ME: Please.

HIM [LOOKS ME UP AND DOWN]: You ain't gonna start any bahroom brawls, are you?

ME: Are you kidding me? This sweater is from the Gap.

HIM: [LAUGHS] Okay, bro. You're alright.

So I had my one beer, and then I had another, and I made out with a cute girl. And then I drank two glasses of water and me and my two friends got back in our rental car to drive back to Weymouth, where we were staying that night.

The crowd barriers were already up for the race, and the BPD was beginning to close off the streets to traffic for the next day, too—but somehow, we made it through, and cruised down an almost empty Boylston Street, windows all the way open and WERS blaring on the radio, and I remember thinking (this is the vivid part): life is pretty good. And this is a fucking great town.

The first week I lived in Boston was the week of 9/11, and I guess that's the obvious comparison to make here, watching the news from afar just as I did with New York back then. But actually, even with the fighter jets overhead in Boston that week, the fact that it was all happening in New York made it seem unreal, somehow. Like something that didn't really affect me. Even when the BPD stormed Copley Square on 9/12, searching the hotels for signs of the hijackers, I watched it all from the big screen in the Emerson dining hall and it didn't really feel like it was happening.

Instead, here's a better comparison, and another of my most vivid Boston memories:

I'm sitting in my first ever apartment, a tiny nest on the "cheap" side of Beacon Hill. Again, it's a Sunday, the morning this time, and instead of dragging myself to campus to check my email, I've fired up my trusty old modem and am crawling through the internet. And there, on the front page of the BBC, was the headline: "Edinburgh fire 'could last for days'." A blaze had started in a nightclub in the historic city centre, and whole stretches of it were now destroyed. Bars. Homes. University buildings. Fringe venues.

I still get sad thinking about that day, about how terrible it was to watch from so far away as somewhere I care about—somewhere I think of as home—got so devastatingly gutted. I wanted to be there so badly, to go down and stand by the cordon and breathe in the smoke, not so that I could say I'd been there, but just so that I could have been there. So that I could suffer with everyone else. Because as good as TV and the internet are at broadcasting pictures and videos and words about events like this, they still can't communicate those intangible things, whatever they are, that let you grieve with friends and with the community at large. Those things that make you feel, no matter how little you're actually doing, like you're doing something.

And yesterday, ten years later, watching Boston suffer on TV: fuck. It felt—feels—exactly the same way. It feels painfully real, and painfully, laceratingly distant, and I wish I could do something other than sit here blogging about it. Part of me wants to hop on a Bolt Bus right now. Part of me wants it to be that first week in September again, or my first week back in 2007, or my last week there in 2011 when so many years of friends came out to see me off, just because those are the times when the city came into sharpest focus for me; the times when I really experienced Boston. All of me, though, wants it to be before yesterday, again and forever.

But then again, if yesterday hadn't happened, I wouldn't be able to watch over the coming days and weeks as Bostonians do what they do best, namely, go about life knowing that they live in the greatest town in the world, with such fanatical conviction that anyone else observing can't help but start believing it themselves.

Because you're going to get better this month, Boston. And you know what? Even from afar, it's going to be inspirational to watch.

April 12, 2013

April 11, 2013

Five From The Fire

Yesterday, on the Ploughshares blog—with which I have, uh, a modest affiliation—Rebecca Makkai had this to say:
I have favorite books. And then I have favorite books, as in, the objects themselves, the ones made weird and irreplaceable by the extra markings in or on them—the annotations, the inscriptions, the love notes.

When people ask for my “favorites,” this is the list I actually want to give.
And that got my thinking about the five books—books-as-objects, I mean—that I'd rescue from the fire:

1. My high school yearbook. Yeah, okay, it's totally nostalgic, but isn't that kind of the point of the exercise? I loved that thing. So many in-jokes. So much history. One, hand-scrawled message, written while so drunk that to this day neither I nor the writer can work out what it says. How could you leave that behind?

2. At Home by Bill Bryson. This is actually one of the annoying British airport editions that I hate—they are hardcover-sized and released simultaneously with the hardcover, but are in paperback so that it's (marginally) lighter for carrying on the plane—but it is PERSONALLY DEDICATED TO ME BY BILL BRYSON. I had him do it at the Boston Book Festival a few years ago. He made a joke about how awful the Red Sox were; I told him, in a vain attempt to impress him because he had been my literary hero since I was twelve, that he should go see the New England Revolution (soccer, i.e. British, i.e. relevant to his interests), which also happened to be what I was doing that night. My (now-)wife snorted at my pathetic toadying. Ah, memories.

3. Don Quixote, a special illustrated edition with colour drawings by Salvador Dali. I found this while clearing out my grandparents' attic a few years ago. I have still never read it, nor have I even actually read Cervantes in any edition. But it seemed like too kookily beautiful an object to get rid of; if nothing else I figured I could use it for hipster cachet at some later point in my life. Prophecy fulfilled.

4. Now We Are Six, by A.A. Milne. This was my (other) grandmother's. It has some cryptic in-joke inscription inside the front cover, which my dad tried to explain to me once but even he was kind of spotty on the details. [Edit: actually, it's House at Pooh Corner that has the inscription; all four of the classic Milnes are on my shelf.] It got passed down to him when he was a kid, and then to me, and now it's so tattered and falling apart you can't even look at it without a piece crumbling off. Most recently my dad read from it at my wedding—the poem "Us Two"—and brought the whole damn room to tears. So, yeah. Holding onto that one.

5. The Corrections by... oh, forget it. This book, when I read it at 21 years old, was the first time I really grasped the transformative power of literature; it genuinely changed my perspective on my life and (then-)relationship—I would say for the better. It struck me so much that I recommended and lent it to a string of subsequent girlfriends/girls I was dating/girls I wanted to date. Now it is a joke among my friends that if I recommend you read The Corrections I am trying to sleep with you. So—no offense—but I am not recommending it now; I'm just telling you that the original copy I read back in 2005 is still with me, all those girls later, dog-eared to death, and I will keep it as long as I can.

This will be the most personal information you ever get out of me on this blog.

[Fin.]

April 08, 2013

Happy Monday

From the New York Times: The Slow Death of the American Author
LAST month, the Supreme Court decided to allow the importation and resale of foreign editions of American works, which are often cheaper than domestic editions. Until now, courts have forbidden such activity as a violation of copyright...

This may sound like a minor problem; authors already contend with an enormous domestic market for secondhand books. But it is the latest example of how the global electronic marketplace is rapidly depleting authors’ income streams. It seems almost every player — publishers, search engines, libraries, pirates and even some scholars — is vying for position at authors’ expense.
Still, at least we have Amazon under control these days.
An even more nightmarish version of the same problem emerged last month with the news that Amazon had a patent to resell e-books. Such a scheme will likely be ruled illegal. But if it is not, sales of new e-books will nose-dive, because an e-book, unlike a paper book, suffers no wear with each reading. Why would anyone ever buy a new book again?

Consumers might save a dollar or two, but the big winner, as usual, would be Amazon. It would literally own the resale market and would shift enormous profits to itself from publishers as well as authors, who would lose the already meager share of the proceeds they receive on the sale of new e-books.
Greeeeaaaaaaaat. But... But... We still have each other, right, authors?
For many academics today, their own copyrights hold little financial value because scholarly publishing has grown so unprofitable. The copyrights of other authors, by contrast, often inhibit scholars who want to quote freely from those works or use portions in class. Thus, under the cri de coeur that “information wants to be free,” some professors and others are calling for copyright to be curtailed or even abandoned. High-minded slogans aside, these academics are simply promoting their own careers over the livelihoods of other writers.
Now look, I didn't get into the writing game thinking it would make me rich—except in my most bracingly self-delusional moments—but this is too much. If writers aren't even going to buy each others' books, we might as well give up now.

That might seem glib, but I really do believe it. I've had too many conversations with otherwise liberal, intellectual, ethical non-writers, who "love literature" but read exclusively from the library and share each other's New Yorker/New York Times e-subscriptions, that I've stopped expecting most people to pay for writing. I mean, why would you, right? HuffPo is free. The internet is free. Besides, anyone can sit down and string a few sentences together. Writing costs nothing to produce, so it should cost nothing to consume.

This is a silly argument, of course. First of all, writing on the internet is not free—it's more like Netflix. You pay your ISP fifty bucks a month and in return you get access to all the text you can find. If you instead took that fifty bucks a month and spent it on magazine subscriptions, you could probably still read the same amount of content per year, only you'd be guaranteed better quality and would and still have money left over. (Though you would, admittedly, miss out on a whole lot of funny tweets.)

It might seem naive to suggest that people give up their internet connections for print magazines, and I don't really think it's the solution. But I do think it's important to realize how successfully the ISPs have made consumers believe that content should be free, while delivery should cost. Maintaining the infrastructure of the web ain't cheap, of course, but that doesn't mean the providers should be the only ones getting rich—it's like a major coffee chain charging four bucks a coffee and paying farmers four cents a pound.

The other reason why it's silly to believe that writing should be free to consume is that it's manifestly not free to produce. You think those Macbooks on all those coffee shop tables are cheap? Hell, even the coffees cost four bucks! And that's assuming you can even afford to spend all day sitting in a coffee shop instead of holding down a day job to pay the rent that your writing won't. A good New Yorker profile can take weeks if not months if not years to produce from start to finish. Do you really believe Adam Gopnik could write 4,000 words about 3D speaker systems if someone wasn't paying?

Yeah, well: the sad thing is, most people do. They think Adam Gopnik and the rest of us should be happy to share our thoughts and words just for the glory. That's why they're on WordPress, after all. And if you've ever tried to convince a non-writer otherwise, well, you'll understand how hopeless and thankless and fruitless it is. Even people who read the New Yorker—online, using their friend's borrowed subscriber password—balk at the idea it should cost money.

All of which to say: knock it off, writers. Our copyright is all we have. Let's protect it.

And please, buy my book. I'll buy yours.

April 05, 2013