Wednesday, August 10, 2011

London Burning

I'm torn about the riots in the UK, on one hand I wholeheartedly believe that they have a lot to be mad as hell about (and so do we in the UK). With the rates of unemployment and high cost of living, I'm honestly surprised that there wasn't rioting during the ridiculous spectacle/waste of taxpayer money that was the royal wedding. And much like the Sean Bell case in New York (which there surprisingly wasn't massive riots over), police shootings or possible police misconduct can be a tipping point especially if there's a larger unrest.

And while it's hard to know what's really going on from 3,000 miles away, it seems that the looting and protests aren't necessarily about government or police mismanagement or crimes, or even bread necessarily from the hopelessness of prolonged unemployment and poverty. While the may have been the catalyst, it seems more like it just about destruction which gets the entire lot labeled as thugs and discredits the real reasons for uprising in the first place.

Two opposing views that both have validity:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bad Words

The upcoming publishing of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer with the words nigger and injun removed has been all over the news this week. The publisher (and professor and Mark Twain scholar) explains the change as a catering to 21st century ears that (rightfully) are offended by the word and schools that (wrongfully, in my opinion) take the book off curriculum because of the word.

There’s a lot of discussion swilling around it: Those like myself view it as 1984’s history revision come frighteningly to life, and those that are made so uncomfortable by ugly things that they’d rather pretend they don’t exist all together.

One of the main arguments is that it’s awkward for white teachers to say “the n-word” in front of black students. But the undertone of this sentiment is troubling— if they would be fine saying it in front of a class of white students or calling women bitches and whores when out with the boys, that reveals more about their true thoughts than their refusal to say it in “mixed company.”

I’m disappointed to hear English teachers on the side of revising literature in order to avoid an awkward classroom moment. If you can’t guide a class of high school students in understanding the language, history and themes in Huck Finn, you shouldn’t be teaching high school English. And if you are a high school student or parent of one who can only have an knee jerk reaction to something without attempting to understand the context, then you lack vital critical thinking skills essential to the kind of education that we should want for students.

Aside from the point that Mark Twain was no hack, that he knew what he was writing, and isn’t alive to protest the revision of his word, changing the word changes the meaning of the book and the historical context.

As The Washington Post points out: “To remove it from this context is to strip it of its power -- and to needlessly whitewash a period that deserves no whitewashing.”

White people did a lot of really fucked up shit to people of other races in our history, to tiptoe around it doesn’t do anyone a service, nor does pretending that they used more polite words while they did it.

I’m reminded of my other favorite George (Carlin). In his famous 7 dirty words he said: "There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions, but no bad words."

Nigger is a “bad” word because we made it bad, we invented it and used it to mean horrible hateful things, but if we pretend that we didn’t, if we just don’t mention it, it doesn’t change the thoughts and intentions of the people who use it. I fully understand how uncomfortable it is to hear hateful words and I would never advocate slurs in modern communication, but rewriting the language of history to mollify our 2011 enlightened PC ears is a worrisome precedent. It’s double plus bad.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why I’m Happy to be a National Novel Writing Month Loser

As you may remember, a while back I proclaimed that, after years of putting it off, I was going to participate in National Novel Writing Month. Part of my “I’m going to use turning 30 as an excuse to take up a lot of projects.” Well, today is December 1st, and I’m in possession of a 30-page, 17,899-word document titled “a novel idea.” Which means, by official standards, that I’m a loser. A National Novel Writing Month loser that is, as for being a loser in life, well…that’s kind of still TDB.

I knew from the start that writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days would probably not happen for me. And true to most things in life when you decide that you probably won’t reach a certain goal, you probably won’t. Reaching that exact number of words in the exact amount of days though was never what was really important to me, even though at many times it seemed to be the only thing that was important in the official NaNoWriMo company line –which was where I found the idea of the project a little failing.
Allow me if you will, to break down the pros and cons of my first experience with National Novel Writing Month.

First the good:

The biggest and best thing about this whole project is that I wrote every day (except Thanksgiving). Every single day, even if I had a shitty day, or a freelance article to write, or social plans, I made myself sit down and write. I didn’t pound out the suggested 1,677 words a day (most days it was more like 500). But for someone who spends 9+ hours in front of a computer working with words, sitting down in front of my computer at home every night and writing for an hour is a pretty big accomplishment.

I attended one of the New York City write-ins which was an interesting experience—imagine being in a room with a hundred other people all writing a novel, it’s kinda cool. And that’s the other good take away from this month and the whole idea of this project: feeling a lot of support and yes even that over used word—community from other writers. It’s always said that writing is such a lonely job (which is part of the appeal—as Mark would testify, I preferred to be alone in dim lighting with sad sack music playing when I write), but when you are part of NaNoWriMo, it’s like a month long pep rally of “you can do it!” with weekly pep talks in your inbox from actual published authors and forums filled with commiserating and idea sharing.

The other part of NaNoWriMo that really worked for me was the permission, or even commandment to just write, and stop thinking about it so much. I make a living as an editor, it’s my job to think about how things sound and question and correct. So a decree like this made the daily writing more liberating. “Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.”

And now, the bad:

I guess I get that there needs to be an official goal to make it a cohesive project/idea. But the whole theme of “winning” seemed a little unnecessary to me (spoken like a true loser). You don’t actually “win” anything other than saying that you typed 50,000 words in 30 days. I appreciate the motivation, encouragement and permission to not over think, but the constant chatter around just seeing how many words you can produce was a little grating.

At the write-in they conduct “word sprints” where everyone is challenged to write as much as they can in 5 minutes, and there’s a “winner” (the person at the one I attended spewed out 750 words). On the forums people discussed “tricks” for inflating their word counts like not using contractions or spelling out numerals. As my old boss used to say: “that’s not writing, that’s typing.” And I have better things to do than participate in National Typing Month. On your author/participant page a running tally of novel stats tells you how many words behind you are –how much you should be writing. If I wanted a guilt trip I’d call home, thanks.

But none of it really matters anyways, the whole thing is indulgent, and no one walks away 30 days later with a best seller—even those who blow off all their commitments still have a lot of work to do to make a good book out of all those words. But to me it was worth it because it was a kick in the pants, and because I’m going to keep writing and imagining and being creative and creating. I didn’t write a novel in a month, but I did start writing a novel and I didn’t give up, and I’m not going to stop now just because it’s December.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In which I rant about commuting and attempt to fix transportation in NYC

What’s wrong with commuting in NYC? The short answer: a lot. The long answer: it’s complicated. But with the third fare increase in as many years, it will now cost $104 to get to work each month, on increasingly crowded and late trains. A post of what’s wrong with the mismanagement of the MTA could easily run thousands of words and just scratch the surface but the fact remains that there is no way of schleping to and from your small overpriced apartment that is without its flaws.

Driving to work in the city is incredibly expensive, inconvenient, and impractical. Unless you live within a mile or two of your office, walking to work isn’t realistic. And biking in the city has it’s own set of problems:

Regardless of the miles of bike lanes that have been added in the last few years, New York City can still be a very unfriendly place to bike. A study last week of only 11 of Manhattan’s bike lanes showed what nearly everyone in the city knows: over 1,700 violations in 22 hours-- double-parked cars, delivery trucks, pedestrians and even police and city vehicles are clogging up the bike lanes, opening car doors forcing cyclists to swerve into traffic, and riders going the wrong way on way streets, or blowing through red lights, and though it all only two tickets issued.

Cops don’t care about cyclist safety—they are blocking the bike lanes – and drivers and pedestrians are hostile to cyclists and cyclists are hostile right back. Every cyclist has a story of a near miss with a car, but conversely every pedestrian and driver has a story of a jerk cyclist.

So here’s my solution to all of the city’s commuting woes:

1. Driving: Put congestion pricing into place—its main effect will be the final straw to force many people to not drive into the city during rush hours, making the streets less clogged and if it people still drive in the revenue can help improve the subway. Oh and save a few million by leaving inaccurate font on street signs and keeping the names of bridges.

2. Mass Transit: Make the subway and buses better. You can raise the fare without losing riders or pissing everyone off if people feel like they are getting what they pay for. Use the money from congestion pricing, cover everything in advertisements, then take the money and add more trains and buses to so it runs more regularly and isn’t so unbearably crowded at rush hours. What we can live without: wifi and cell phone service on the trains. What’s totally essential: electronic signs at on every platform that tell commuters when the next train in coming. The tube in London has it, the metro in DC has it, it is for me the most glaring common sense thing lacking in the NYC transit system. (it’s in the works for 75 stations currently, but it’s needed in every station and the city is decades behind on this)

3. Cycling: Everyone not on a bike stay the fuck out of the bike lane and all drivers and passengers, look twice before pulling out from a parking spot or opening a car door. There’s not two ways about it—it takes 5 seconds and ensures you won’t kill or hurt someone. If you ride a bike in the city, don’t be a jerk. When you are on a bike you feel like an odd cross between a vehicle and a pedestrian, and sitting for the duration of a red light when there are no cars coming and you know you you’ll likely get stuck behind a bus or other obstruction within in a block is frustrating. Most cyclists aren’t going to obey all the traffic laws (few drivers do and not all traffic laws are valid for cyclists), but if you are on a bike, you should at least do the following: a) wear a helmet b) have lights if you ride at night c) treat every intersection at least like a blinking red light; stop and look both ways—for cars, people and bikes-- before crossing d) have a bell but use your voice – so many times the polite “ding ding” work, so many others require a loud “HEY!” to be heard e) ALWAYS pay attention.

4. Pedestrians: Walk only on the sidewalk (see above re. stay out of the bike lanes), if you need to text/greet a long lost pal/look at a map/take a picture/read a book, etc. move to the side. Do not walk more than two people across, and look before jaywalking.

Yours truly,

Curmudgeonly commuter

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Something Something Detroit

I’m wary of sweeping trend pieces like the one in the New York Times a few weeks ago that described Bushwick in Brooklyn as having a “bohemian vibe” and tout that it’s at the heart of some sort of artistic revolution. A co-op or two does not a revolution make, and sure there may by a group of young white people making art and sharing stuff in part of Bushwick, but the last thing I got from the Bushwick in the past two years that I visited the neighborhood frequently was a “bohemian vibe.”

And that’s the problem with any urban area – there’s no one story. Detroit is the easiest example, and has been used as such exhaustively over the past couple of years. As Vice pointed out in it’s 2009 story called "Something, something, something, Detroit: Lazy journalists love pictures of abandoned stuff," Detroit’s decay became shorthand for all that is going wrong in American during the recession and abandoned buildings are as beautiful to photographers as sunsets (hell I love photographing abandoned buildings too). Of course there’s a lot of crime, tons of poverty, and LOTS of abandoned houses. But it’s not the whole story of Detroit and also far from one that should be used to illustrate the economic collapse of 2008-present day. News by definition should be NEW and there have been abandoned buildings in Detroit for decades.

And then there’s the other story of Detroit, one of its “creative renaissance” and this video is so interesting and encouraging, and such great PR for the city that needs it so badly. I’m glad they spoke to people who live there rather than just about them, but still why does Detroit need effing Johnny Knoxville to come in and tell the world about it? Yes there’s stuff happening in Detroit, but just like Bushwick, I don’t know that it can really be labeled as sort of trend in the same way that it’s not accurate to label the whole area as abandoned and hopeless. Both, as a woman in the video calls it, are “pick and choose journalism.”

Of course perpetuating a narrative of an artist utopia isn’t nearly as harmful as perpetuating one of hopeless blight, but my point is that neither is accurate, and that an urban area is complex and can’t be boiled down to a trend piece as simple as “Hippies now in Bushwick” or “Stuff is abandoned in Detroit.” To do so is just lazy journalism.

Complex reporting isn’t short and easy to digest, nor is it cheap and fast to produce, and no one benefits from some New Yorker dropping by a few abandoned buildings or hipster bars and proclaiming what a city he spent 12 hours in is all about. The last thing Detroit or needs is another journalist who is looking to make it a metaphor or someone like me who left for greener pastures dropping back in for a quick byline and then ducking back to an overpriced neighborhood on the East Coast to education everyone on what’s happening in the flyover states.

Those most qualified to tell the world the real story are the journalists who stayed –some of the reporting at publications like Metro Times Detroit and The Detroit Free Press is among the best I’ve seen. Let’s give them national attention rather than treating the city like an easy trend piece.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Commitment, Risk Taking, and Writing a Novel in 30 Days

It’s clichéd to freak out about turning 30. But now, halfway though my 29th year, I am realizing the much about life is a cliché and rather than try to pretend that I’m above it, I’ll embrace it. So I’ve decided there’s a few things that I’ve long put off as “someday” projects that I might as well tackle this year. Will I still have a mini personal crisis in April? Probably. Oh well.

It’s with this in mind I mention that I have decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month this November, which is basically a project that gets a bunch of people to sign up to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Of course some of the basis of it goes against my editor nature, to wit:

“Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.
Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.”

The other thing holding me back: I don’t really have a solid idea and while writing a novel is something I’ve wanted to do since I was six years old, it doesn’t seem like something I’m qualified to do yet—I’m not experienced enough, smart enough, talented enough, worldly enough. The real reason: I’m not disciplined enough.

Sure I want to write a good book (OK I want to write an amazing Pulitzer winning book) but I think what’s important right now is that I stop making excuses, putting everything in the vague future and give myself a deadline to actually get shit done.

I have written 10 pages of a screenplay, I have started work on stand up and storytelling acts, I listened to my “Learn Italian” tapes once, I have a million art projects and ideas that I’ve given up on. It’s time for some follow through.

Ps. All of this is a long winded way of 1) saying I’m going to be blogging a lot more in the next month to get in the habit of forcing myself to write even when I don’t feel inspired. And 2) making myself a little more accountable to finish since I’m announcing it to “the world.”

Friday, September 10, 2010

Your voice is only as loud as the lazy media who covers it

So there’s some crazy pants minster in some small church in Florida who wants to burn the Koran tomorrow. This isn’t news, or at least it shouldn’t be. But bigger and bigger spotlights have been pointed at Terry Jones in the past weeks and he’s been given a more and further reaching microphones.

The New York Times points out the he and other nut jobs have tried similar stunts in the past with little to no media coverage, and blame this partly on the end of summer slow news season/ 24-hour news cycle.

But I call Bull Shit. There’s no such thing a slow news days/season. Sure, there’s times when huge earth shattering or catastrophic events aren’t happening, and more people are on vacation. But newsworthy stuff is still happening—and this ladies and gentlemen isn’t it. This guy is no different than the religious wackos on the someway screaming about how the end is near. But we don’t put them on the Today Show, the President isn’t issuing statements about them. We recognize them for what they are: possibly in need of medication, but not worthy of debating or trying to reason with.

A person’s message is only as powerful as the platform it’s given. My platform is a blog that’s read by 3 people and the guy on the street who said “Preach it! Fight the good fight!” when he overheard me complaining last night. If anything Terry Jones should be preaching about it’s PR.