Monday, December 19, 2011

An American Christmas




As we celebrate this holiday season we might well contemplate some less than joyful facts. More than 46 million Americans are living in poverty. That was the official count by the U.S. Bureau of the Census for 2010, the most recent data available. Nearly half of all Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 are below the poverty line. One out of every two! That alone accounts for why so many have been forced to live at home with their parents or with roommates years beyond the time when my generation moved into our own homes. And here’s the most disturbing figure from the Census: One of every five children under 18 in this country lives in poverty.

What exactly does “living in poverty” mean? According to the Census, a family with two adults and two children earning less than $22,113 per year is in poverty. A single adult age 65 or older who makes more than $10,458 per year is not in poverty. Really? My rent alone is more than double that amount. Admittedly I live in New York which is notoriously expensive, but still. Can you imagine living anywhere in this country on less than 11 thousand dollars?

There are lots of theories floating around as to why poverty is at an all-time high and continues to rise. The recession obviously plays a major role. There is simultaneously a heightened awareness, largely due to the Occupy movement, of the increasing divergence between the wealthy and everyone else. Conspiracy theories abound to explain this trend. But as everyone knows, the real culprit is the lack of jobs. Good jobs. The kinds of jobs that pay the 50, 60, 70 thousand dollars a year or more that it really takes for a family of four to prosper. Those jobs have disappeared and barring something dramatic, they are not coming back.

Why aren’t they coming back? The answer is stamped or printed on just about every Christmas or Hanukah gift you bought this year. Made in China.

It’s almost cliché to bewail the export of jobs overseas and perhaps a little too easy. I’m not sure I believe some of the usual excuses. For example, are the high costs of transportation really offset by lower foreign labor costs for some three dollar piece of extruded plastic crap for sale at the Dollar Store?

American manufacturers are at a disadvantage for a variety of reasons. In this country we regulate pollution, worker safety, product safety, energy consumption, and much more. As we should. As a result, we close our plants and import products from countries which make no attempt to regulate industry and which seemingly have no regard for their people. This needs to stop.

At the risk of irritating free trade advocates, I ask a simple question. If it is defensible to regulate American industry, is it not reasonable to expect the same standards from industries we import from? Obviously it is. We can’t do it by legislation since the offending industries are not under our jurisdiction nor has it proven effective to try to persuade foreign governments to adopt tighter standards. We can, however, control what gets imported into this country.

It’s time to get serious about banning products which have not been manufactured under the same stringent standards that we apply within our borders. But won’t this drive up prices, further harming our beleaguered economy? To some extent it might, at least initially. But the impact can be softened by phasing controls in gradually, starting with those products that are still available from American manufacturers and adding additional products according to how quickly their production can be reintroduced in the U.S.

As to the impact on the economy, how bad could it be to add millions of high quality, high paying jobs at almost no additional cost to taxpayers? Would it not be a more joyful season to see “Made in the USA” on those gifts as you wrap them?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Florida


I almost moved to Florida this week. Like most New Yorkers, I have a love-hate relationship with The City. I have a nice enough apartment, large by New York standards. It has a real kitchen, not a fridge/stove/sink slapped along one wall of the living room, and a nice balcony, big enough for a couple of chairs and a grill. I even have a parking space in the basement. But I’m not in Manhattan. Anything remotely resembling my apartment would rent for at least four thousand a month in Manhattan  and that’s just not in my price range.

And now it’s winter. Cold, grey, lonely, depressing winter. It’s still summer in Fort Lauderdale. That’s where I am right now, sitting by the pool at the guest house. The rents are cheap down here. I found a really nice 2-story townhouse with two bedrooms and two full baths that rents for $200 less than my one bedroom apartment in Queens. The kitchen is beautiful – all granite and stainless steel and recessed lighting. The best part about this townhouse is the large multi-level private deck which fronts on a canal. It’s a five minute walk to all the action on Wilton Drive. I could really see myself living in this townhouse. I could really see my cats spending a lazy afternoon fishing in the canal.

But picking up and moving from New York to Florida involves a lot more than real estate decisions. As I stood on the marble floor of my prospective new living room trying to decide if I should take the plunge or not, I realized that this was one of those moments when you have to confront who you are. Am I a New Yorker? What does that mean? Would I be any happier here than I am currently? What about my friends? What about the summer? It’s unbearably hot and humid in Florida in the summer. On the other hand, I’ve found myself in a rut lately. Sure New York has a lot to offer, but I rarely take advantage of it anymore. Couldn’t I just as easily sit around doing nothing in Florida? For far less money? And have a really nice home in which I enjoyed doing nothing?

The agent waited patiently for me to say something. I had to get off the fence. I had to make a decision. To my astonishment, I heard myself say that I’d take it. I felt good that I was about to start a new chapter in my life. The next few weeks would be hell of course. So many details to take care of. And moving. Who enjoys packing and moving? But I made the choice and now it was time to set things in motion.

Or so I thought. The next day the agent called to inform me that despite having signed a contract and making a substantial deposit, the owner had decided to rent to someone else. I was annoyed. I was relieved. I had come so close to saying goodbye to New York. How could I have contemplated such a silly thing?

It’s a beautiful day in Lauderdale today. Sunny with a few puffy clouds. Warm, but a delicious breeze singing through the palm trees. I fly home tomorrow. Back to the Big Apple. It will be cold. It will be grey. It might be depressing but at least I won’t have to pack.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Teacher Cries


When I was a boy in high school, I was usually shy and quiet but sometimes, given sufficient encouragement, I could be a real brat. It happened once in my Spanish class. Our teacher, Miss Beardsley, was a stern woman of indeterminate age. She wore her hair in a tight bun which accentuated the angularity of her face. I don’t recall ever seeing her smile. She was also a very strict teacher. From the first day of class, she never uttered a word in English. She was not well liked.

We students were an undisciplined lot, and on one particular day some of the boys began openly heckling her.

“Hey, Mrs. Beardsley,” called out tall Eric, the basketball player, “Oh, sorry, I mean Miss Beardsley.”

Hoots and cheers followed. Several other boys joined in the game.

“Hey Miss Beardsley,” chimed in fat Tom. “How come you aren’t married?”

Caught up in the frivolity of it all, and sensing a chance to score a few points with the popular kids, I blurted out, “Oh, come on, who would ever want to marry a horse face?”

The class erupted into laughter but a red-faced Miss Beardsley hurried to the back of the room and through a door that led to a storeroom behind the class. She quietly closed the door. For a moment we fell into silence but soon the boys, and even some of the girls, took advantage of the lack of supervision to begin general mayhem, wadding up paper into balls and throwing it at each other and similar childish outbursts.

After a while, I went back and carefully opened the door to the storeroom. I don’t remember why. I doubt that I had any legitimate business back there so I must have grown curious as to why our teacher had left the class and was gone for so long. Maybe I was afraid.

I saw Miss Beardsley sitting on a chair, crying. I was stunned, and terribly ashamed. I wanted to hug her and apologize but of course kids didn’t do those kinds of things with their teachers. When I returned to the classroom everyone wanted to know what she was doing. I told them she was grading papers.

Nothing more was said about the incident. The rest of the semester went on. At the end of the year I took my yearbook around to my friends and all my teachers for signatures. I don’t remember what anyone wrote; I don’t even remember most of the people. Except one.

Miss Beardsley wrote, in Spanish:
“Even the smallest blade of grass casts a shadow.”

Great teachers teach us lessons that have a profound impact throughout our lives. Miss Beardsley was a great teacher.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Hair


Last night I stood on the oppressively warm platform at Union Square station waiting forever for the train home. It was unusually crowded for after midnight, a sure sign that there was a problem. A gaggle of twenty-somethings frolicked nearby. I was especially fascinated by two young men who were chattering away, obviously enjoying a night on the town. They laughed at each other’s jokes, often touching, and gazing into each other’s eyes. So young, carefree, and in love.

They were cute. Cute, as in diminutive. Everyone in their group was small. No taller than 5 foot 6 or so and with amazingly narrow hips and tiny little waists. The happy male couple probably had a combined weight less than mine. I often wonder about little people. How do they fit all their internal organs in such a tiny space? Do they have a little half-size liver? Mini-kidneys? Wasp size lungs?

Being much taller, I observed that the boy with the great mop of bushy hair had a small patch on top of his head were the hair was beginning to thin. I felt sorry for him. I developed a bald spot in my early twenties. After I discovered it, I became obsessed with it. I was certain that I might otherwise have been an attractive man. I might have been popular, happy, had lots of friends, a lover, gotten married, moved to a house in the suburbs, bought a riding mower to cut the grass every Saturday, inhaled the aromatic mix of gasoline exhaust and fresh cut grass. But  I’m terribly allergic to fresh cut grass and I’m bald.

I tried everything to hide that little hairless island on top of my head. I grew the rest of my hair very long. It hung down in rivulets of red curls. But there was an empty spot on top. I looked like Ben Franklin. I wore hats before it was fashionable to wear a baseball cap at all times, even while working out at the gym. Finally, in desperation, I had a hair piece made. Actually two hair pieces. Due to the constant need to maintain and reconstruct hair pieces, one of them is always in the shop. At that time, all human hair wigs were made from Asian hair – long, straight, black Asian hair. (Presumably the Asians voluntarily surrendered their hair for the greater good of humanity.) I had decided that as long as I was transforming my appearance, I may as well go all the way. I decided on an Afro, but red.

Unlike a wig, a hair piece does not cover your entire head. It’s not a hat. Rather, it is custom made to exactly fit the bald area. A mesh is cut to size and technicians weave the Asian hair into the mesh. They subject it to a toxic chemical stew to curl it and color it and cut it to the proper length. Then a stylist must blend the new hair with your own hair so that it is undetectable. So once a week I returned to the salon where the stylist would first work on my real hair. Even though my hair is naturally wavy, against his better advice, I insisted on having it set into tight little curls. Then a matronly technician would emerge from a back room bearing my newly restored hairpiece on a platter. It was rather like a coronation. The stylist would apply it to my scalp with double sided tape and tease it and fuss with it and blend it with my hair for at least 15 minutes, spraying Aqua Net at frequent intervals. Finally he would hold a big mirror up behind and above my head so I could see that perfection had been achieved.

When I left the shop I looked great. I had a full head of luxurious hair, in a great Afro bubble. It was impossible to tell it wasn’t all real. At least for the rest of the day. But I had to remove the hair piece before bed. It wasn’t a hair weave or a transplant.  It was more like daily contact lens. Off at night, back on the next morning. And that is where the whole system began to break down.  Without an expensive, hour-long session in my stylist’s chair, I was left to try to recreate the magic on my own. I would confuse the front from the back of the piece, stick it down in the wrong place, fail to blend it around the edges. It looked fake. I would get exasperated and start to sweat. Then the tape wouldn’t stick. I watched the clock tick towards being late for work once again. To make matters worse, the Asian hair was always trying to revert to its natural state: not curly and not red. Some mornings I was sure the front edge had curled up just enough to expose the underlying mesh but I was too frustrated and too late to care. Besides, nobody ever said anything negative. The first few days, all my colleagues told me I looked great; then they just didn’t mention it any more.

But I wasn’t so sure. One evening at one of my neighborhood bars, I thought I heard two guys making fun of me. I walked past to hear what they were saying. One of them was singing a made-up jingle. “I used to be bald, but now I have hair.” And they both broke into a fit of giggling. I’m just being paranoid, I thought. I’m hearing things. But my confidence was shaken.

The breaking point came the night I had a date with Blake. He was a waiter but I knew him from a performance he gave at the Gay Community Center. He played acoustic guitar and sang his own original songs. I’m not usually a fan of folk music, but his voice was so clear and compelling and he sang about struggling to establish a masculine identity in a gay world. I was in love.

When he responded to my personal ad a few months later, I’m sure he didn’t remember me from all the adoring fans in the audience that night. I made a special appointment with my stylist. I told him I had to look better than ever. He worked on me and my Asian hair for an hour. His magic worked. I looked great.

When Blake arrived, we had cocktails and chatted, sitting close together on the sofa. He kept looking at me strangely. Oh my god, I thought in panic, he can tell.

“I remember you from the Community Center,” he told me. “I’ll never forget the nice words you said to me after the performance.”

I relaxed. He wasn’t staring at my fake hair. He remembered me. All would be well.

“But I don’t remember you having all this hair. I thought you were balding on top.”

Panic returned.

“No offense, but are you wearing a hair piece?”

Disaster.

“I mean, it’s just that I have a thing for balding men. I know it’s weird but it turns me on.”

It took a moment for his words to take any meaning. I asked him if he was serious. Did he really like balding men. He assured me he did.

“Hang on one moment.  Just stay here.” I raced into the bathroom and ripped the Asian hair from my head and tossed into the nearest place to hide it, which just happened to be the waste basket. I quickly removed the residue from the tape and flipped a comb around, took a deep breath and returned.

“Oh, much better,” Blake smiled and slipped his arm around me as I sat down next to him.

I won’t tell you about the rest of that night other than to say it went very well. I’ve never worn the hair piece since.

I thought about all this as I gazed down at the thinning spot on top of the small young man on the subway platform. I smiled. It’s nice to be older and wiser. It’s also nice to be taller. He couldn’t see the top of my head.



Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Road Trip

I'm on an extended road trip through Pennsylvania and New York with Penelope PopUp and Ranger Rudy. My two cats, Osito and Brindie, are along for the ride. Our first stop is Hillside Campground in northeast Pennsylvania. Here's what our site looks like...

video

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

David Brooks on the Edge


I admire David Brooks, the editorial columnist for the New York Times, and I often agree with his positions even though he is a “conservative” and I am a “liberal”. What I like most about him is his intellectual integrity: He gets the facts right and his positions are built upon solid logical progression. But he really blew it this week.

In his article, “Tools for Thinking”,  he attempts to summarize the results of a symposium that explored scientific notions which could improve human thinking. First up is John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, who dismisses those who lament the devolution of the English language brought about by technology. McWhorter points out that there is nothing inherit about email that prevents someone from writing in the literary style of the nineteenth century if he or she wanted to. He states that it was the lessening formality of language in the sixties that accounts for the change. That’s nonsense. Nobody is bewailing the loss of the flowery literary style of the nineteenth century, at least not in emails; what we miss is the informal (but comprehensible) style of the last decade which has given way to LOL-speak. (See my article, “The Loss of Language”.)

He also states that the QWERTY keyboard was invented to slow typists down so that the keys of mechanical typewriters wouldn’t jam. Everything I’ve read says that the design was meant to do exactly the opposite – speed up typing by arranging the keys according to the most prevalent letter combinations in the English language. Brooks should know this and should not have passed along incorrect assertions.

He then quotes Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University who says, “When you focus on education you neglect the myriad of other factors that determine income.” True, but when you focus on income you neglect the myriad of other benefits of education.

To be fair, Brooks does us a favor by introducing some of the ideas that emerged from the Edge symposium. Supervenience, the Fundamental Attribution Error, Emergent Systems, and the like are fascinating concepts, none of which I had ever heard of before. Understanding why we think the way we do is always a useful pursuit. But Brooks above all is a political commentator, and when he suggests that political polarization, rising health care costs and bad marriages can be understood if we just see them as emergent systems, I suggest that he not write his columns so close to the deadline.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The New Media


Quick. Where did you first learn about the demonstrations in Egypt? While you ponder that question, let me ask you another: Is there anything particularly significant, or out of the ordinary, occurring in Tibet today?

I’m willing to bet that most people learned about the strife in Egypt because they heard it on the news or read about it in the paper. I’m equally sure that most of you know there is nothing particularly important happening in Tibet today because there isn’t anything in the news about it.

But what a minute. Aren’t we in the brave new world of electronic information distribution? I’ve been reading for several years now how the traditional media – broadcast news and printed newspapers – are relics from the past. People today get all their information from the online social networks.

To test this theory, I just surveyed several of the social media to develop this list of the day’s major events:

  • Hulk Hogan has made a new rap video. 
  • Rosie Huntington ate some falafel. 
  • A whole lot of people have recently checked in at Starbucks. 
  • Overweight cats are still falling from window sills at an alarming rate. 
  • Men are pigs. 
  • It’s a great day for cashmere. 
  • Here in New York, the MTA is intentionally screwing people by making trains late. 
  • Everybody is discussing sexual intercourse with snow. 
As I review this list I can’t escape a vague feeling that I’m still missing some of the more important events of the day. I think I’ll stick with the traditional media a little while longer, gate keeping and all.

In other news, Rupert Murdock has launched a revolutionary new venture. The Daily is the first exclusively electronic newspaper and will be available as an app on the Apple iPad. But, again, wait a minute. Haven’t paper and ink newspapers been searching for a way to go electronic for the past five years? Most of the major papers already have an online edition. Some are free; some require a subscription. So what’s new about Murdock’s edition?

A newspaper on a screen is a website whether you call it a website or you call it an app. As far as I can see, there isn’t anything you can do on an iPad that you can’t do on any website except, by making it an “app”, you can limit it to a small subset of users (small in comparison to the total number of people with access to the internet). So what’s the point?

It isn’t the technology that’s revolutionary here. It’s how the money is collected. None of the major players has yet figured out how to make a dime publishing online news. By loosening it’s prohibition against subscription services in the App Store, Apple gets to grab a whopping thirty percent off the top. Murdock presumably gets to ride the wave of popularity of the iPad and the ignorance of its users. They will think that reading a newspaper on a computer screen was not possible until their magical device hit the stores. But once the novelty wears off, are people any more likely to pay for their news than they have been in the past?

Stay tuned or tweeted, as the case may be.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Writing


Writing is hard work. Many of us picture a writer as someone happily sitting at the keyboard in his studio in a New England country home dashing off page after page of perfect prose. I suppose it is that way for a handful of acclaimed novelists, but for everyone else it is moments of inspiration connected by hours of drudgery.

Until I became a writer myself, I had no idea just how hard it is. Thousands upon thousands of hours go into writing a novel. Endless writing and rewriting. Sometimes it is necessary to discard huge volumes of completed work because it isn’t working well, or doesn’t fit into the larger picture. Sometimes a project seems so overwhelming that only the most disciplined, dedicated, or hungry writers keep slogging away at it.

Writing is also very personal. Writing can not be done in a vacuum. All of the best stories you have read were based on the writer’s own life – his or her experiences, feelings, personality – as well as the people in the writer’s life. Sometimes this is obvious; sometimes it is subtle. They may be creating fictional characters but those characters are based on bits and pieces of real people.

Jennifer Bell, the author of Going Down, told her students that if you are not ready to offend the people you know, if you are not ready to lose some of your friends, you are not ready to write. The needs of the story have priority over how people will feel about the way you have portrayed them.

But even more than how your friend’s play into the work, the writer’s own psyche is exposed for all to see. When we put our words out there for others to read, whether it be in a published work, or during a critique in a workshop, it is not just our writing that is set up like a giant target to be torn to shreds; it is our very souls that are on display.

There have been times that I had to fight to keep from shaking while my work was discussed. I’m not the only writing student who has felt that. I have seen some students burst into tears – not because of anything that was said about their words, but because they had written about things that opened old wounds, things that dredged up deep emotions from their past. Now these things were layed out for all the world to witness.

I suspect that the best writers are those that can keep going, wounded and terrified, filled with doubt, to somehow finish their work. Anything less would result in a compromised story, one not worth reading.