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.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Potatoes, Racism, Mad Men and the “Ground Zero Mosque”

It’s amazing how many forms a thing can take. Potatoes can be al gratin, baked, boiled, fried, mashed. The versatility of this starchy wonder is what makes them such a dietary staple. Potatoes are delicious, but their versatility and staying power is a trait that they share with something not so tasty—racism.

I’m in the middle of reading a book of historical fiction about the South in the 60s, filled with “respectable” white people who degrade their black help in ways both conscious and unconscious. And even though people of my generation and younger are aware of the kind of violent, overt, disgusting, senseless racism that prevailed during that time, it’s still chilling to be reminded of, even if it’s something we didn’t live though and will never be able to fully comprehend. And it’s easy and comforting to be self-congratulatory and view racism as a thing of the past. But that’s so far from the truth -- it’s here, it’s widely accepted, its just taking different forms.

Take for example the new view of “separate but equal” that is being debated in New York right now, and even the language used to describe the controversy conveys the bias: “The Ground Zero Mosque.”

First, the flaws in the argument:
1) It’s not a Mosque; it’s an Islamic Cultural center.
2) It’s not on “ground zero” (which is an odd term to begin with) it’s two blocks from where the world trade center used to be on the “hallowed ground” of a closed Burlington Coat Factory store one block from a strip club. (Although the WTC itself was built on a slave grave site, so hallowed ground argument has some weight just not the weight the argument makes)
3) There is absolutely no correlation to this building, or these people to 9/11.
4) There is a similar prayer room at the Pentagon (one of the other 9/11 sights) that no one seems to care to protest.

Those protesting the building aren’t simply wrapping themselves in the flag to justify their racist inclinations, they are helping to set a dangerous precedent: politicians (both democrat and republican) are fanning the bigotry for their own ends (many of them are the same people who voted against health care benefits for 9/11 first responders, btw). And everyone is leaving Muslims out of the conversation.

Whether the controversy has been manufactured as an election year tactic or not, the visceral hate and bigotry was all too easy to whip up. We’d like to think that we are a cosmopolitan and progressive city far from the backwoods lynching mentality of the South in the 60s (many comments on recent stories about the 51Park project have tried to dismiss protesters as being from “out of town”), but when you hear of cab drivers getting stabbed because they are Muslim , and a deluge of hate crimes all over the city it’s hard to maintain that bigotry is either a thing or the past or a practice exclusive to those in “fly over states.”

Viewing this community center’s construction as an affront to 9/11 victims (some of whom were of course Muslim themselves) is the equivalent to labeling all black men as criminals after one steals your purse. And proposing that it be built further away is equivalent to building a separate bathroom for the help.

On Sunday night’s episode of Mad Men, cosmopolitan Roger Sterling used his role in WWII to justify his unwillingness to work with the Japanese. He asked, “Since when is forgiveness a better quality than loyalty?” Of course, his internal conflict, just like this one isn’t one of forgiveness, or loyalty. It’s a matter of perspective. Because a country filled with this kind of hate, violence and bigotry is a huge terrorism threat.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Does Life in Fact, Go On?

My book club had an interesting discussion about Zeitoun by Dave Eggers last week – a book focusing on the story of one family in New Orleans during and after Katrina. Aside from the rage about how our government can be so incompetent and how everything we believe about justice and law can be thrown out the window in a crisis, there was an overall feeling of amazement of the conditions and treatment that people endured.

We all saw the images of people floating down dirty flooded streets or sweating, crowded and hungry at the Convention Center in New Orleans, or the people trapped in rubble in Port-au-Prince, but that kind of devastation seems abstract when you are far removed—even though Louisiana is in America, once it’s not on the news everyday it’s not as urgent when you still have food, DVDs and AC and clean sheets.

We’d all like to think we could survive or even be heroes in a crisis, but very, very few can—most of us simply couldn’t make do. Perhaps more frightening then the very real chance that a disaster of some kind will strike much closer to home is the idea of living with the aftermath.

My BFF’s sister just started her year of doctoring in Haiti (amazing right? makes me feel like I’m not doing anything with my life). I know this blog post doesn’t have much of a point on my part, I really just wanted to share this snippet from her blog:

“With approximately 5,000 people, the GHESKIO camp is small relative to some of the other camps spread throughout Port-au-Prince but it was still overwhelming to see such density of misery and community in crisis and the unshakable boredom that comes with being fenced in on all sides. Tents are packed one on top of one another. At the far end of the camp, there’s a line of port o’ potties and outdoor showers, and a stagnant stream of filthy water carves out the spaces between individual domiciles. People were . . . going about their lives. Cooking, playing cards, sitting at the entrances to their tents. You could almost accept that for many of these folks life in the city would simply normalize, inevitably, given a long enough time scale; and you might even be able to imagine yourself making a stoic go of it under a plastic tarpaulin for nearly 7 months. But there’s no normalizing this bizarre and untenable situation on any time scale that doesn’t include the end of human civilization, itself. And, no, you’re not that much of a badass”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

In Which I Rant About Garbage and Attempt to Save New York City

The big event in my life right now is that my boyfriend is moving into my apartment August 1st, and my longtime roommate and good pal is moving out. With a move always comes the purging of many belongings from clothes and books to furniture and household goods and many things in between.

But what to do with all of this perfectly good stuff?

A) Spend the time and effort to hold a stoop sale hoping to make a little moo-la and find loving homes for your stuff
B) Donate it to a charity that will put it to good use
C) Put it all on the curb and hope someone takes it before it ends up in the trash
D) Throw it all away— the planet is already screwed and they’ll figure out how we can live on the moon soon enough!

At first I thought (A) was a good idea, but we are so hectic with the move, plus there’s not a lot of space or foot traffic on our street so I’d probably waste a lot of time to make $5 and still be left with tons of stuff. So I decided to opt of (B), which should be an easy enough thing to do right? Not in New York City.

Back in Michigan (and I’m sure in many other car-centric places in the US) when we wanted to donate things, we’d load up the car and drive to the local thrift shop where they’d always gladly take it. And here in the city there are plenty of places that will take your stuff but most New Yorkers don’t have a car (which is a good thing, right?!) which means in order to donate in person involves lugging bags and boxes of items and/or furniture on the subway or renting vehicle to haul it – both unlikely and totally cumbersome options.

So I searched for an organization that would come and pick up all of our great stuff. There were woefully few. I finally found one—the Salvation Army—after two days of trying to get through, I attempted to schedule a pick up for July 31, only to be told they are booked until the end of August.

Which means I’ll have to opt for option (C), which according to the city really amounts to option (D) in most cases. I hope that if someone does come to take our stuff they aren’t driving, because as came to light this week it’s illegal to pick up discarded items on the sidewalk if you're driving a vehicle at the time because once something is set on the ground it becomes city property. This has been in the news this week after a man is Queens was fined $2,000 and had his 73-year-old Aunt’s car impounded for attempting to take an AC some one was throwing out. Even the MAYOR of the city didn’t know about the law and thought it was insane.

(Image from NYT “freegan” article)

Recycling is not only mandatory in NYC because it’s good for the environment; it’s actually a revenue source for the city. And yes there’s a list of places to donate useable items on the Department of Sanitation’s site but again, good luck getting someone to pick it up.

And yeah there’s special events/locations/days when you can recycle un-useable hazardous things like electronics/light bulbs/batteries. But how realistic is it to expect people to store a bunch of old light bulbs and batteries for six months in their already cramped apartments and then remember which day and location to take these things?

Mandatory recycling is such a beneficial idea for all involved. (Speaking of Michigan, 95% of the people I know there don’t recycle because it’s not as easily available)
Sure people in NYC still throw out tons of easily recycled stuff, regardless of how required or easy it is to put glass/plastic and paper in separate bins. It’s impossible to make everyone responsibly dispose of items they no longer need, but the lack of options for passing along perfectly good stuff is a glaring opportunity for the city.

So here, free of charge, is my solution:

Once every other week, deploy a fleet of trucks to pick up useable unwanted items. Residents would put them on the curb just as they do now, but instead of the things that don’t get taken by passersby ending up in the landfill (which is totally costly for the city), they’d go to locations in each borough where they could be distributed to non-profits.

The same could go for hazardous/non-traditional un-useable items: every month (say on the 1st) there could be a collection of these items. Both of these options involve additional cost and infrastructure, but I think the benefits outweigh the costs, and with the right investment could turn into a program just as lucrative as the recycling program has been. Otherwise I’m just going to have to open that store that sells their neighbor’s garbage to yuppies that I’ve been talking about for years…

**Update: I put a bunch of clothes, jewelry, books, etc. out on the curb this Saturday and within an hour everything was gone, I was joyful...until I opened the garbage can and found all of my lovely and totally usable belongings covered in smelly trash--thrown there by the insufferable woman who lives in the front apartment of my building.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Best Friends For Now

There’s a story in the New York Times today about how some parents, teachers and “experts” have decided that it’s unhealthy for children to have one best friend. It causes exclusivity, and could lead to bullying they say. Ugh. There are so many actual problems that kids have in school, and bullying can be one of them, but forcing close friends apart would just cause hurt feelings, isolation and resentment. Did these “experts” ever consider that close friendships might provide unpopular kids with an ally? Cliques will happen is schools and they can suck, but they also happen at work and in life in general. Sure, you should encourage kids to be open minded and relate to people they might not think they share interests with, but generally those kinds of things happen more organically.

As the article points out, “Many psychologists believe that close childhood friendships not only increase a child’s self-esteem and confidence, but also help children develop the skills for healthy adult relationships — everything from empathy, the ability to listen and console, to the process of arguing and making up. If children’s friendships are choreographed and sanitized by adults, the argument goes, how is a child to prepare emotionally for both the affection and rejection likely to come later in life?”

I question the motives of these best-friend busting adults in many ways, one of which being that they might not really have what even they believe is the child’s best interest in mind. It might be that the child’s choice of best friend isn’t what they would have chosen, that the BFF is undesirable in some way.

Anecdotally, I experienced some attempted Best Friend busting myself when I was in 3rd grade. My pal JJD (kind of her real name) and I were very close for many years, at one point we even invented our own code so if our notes were intercepted my teachers they would be indecipherable. But I suspect that I wasn’t viewed as the most upper-crust kid in town (remarkably I was the only one with divorced parents for the first couple years of elementary school) and JJD’s family was involved in town goings-ons and well-regarded. So one day our teacher held all of the girls in at recess and gave us a very pointed talk (as in she might as well have used our names) about how it’s good to have a lot of friends and not just one best friend.

That was all that ever came from it though, and our friendship continued much the same. We grew apart a bit through the years like kids do, and while we aren’t BFFs anymore we are still in touch. And we’ve both gone on to have other close friends (including my BFF since high school whom I remain close with) and relationships. I’ve had many close relationships in my life, some lasting for several years and some for less, and I’ve had many acquaintances. I’m grateful for all of them, but it’s the people who are both fair and foul weather pals that have contributed the most richness to my life, and I’m glad that some snobby teacher didn’t ruin that.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Another Victim of the BP Oil Leak

The ongoing BP oil leak has many victims—the hundreds of dead animals, the lost of business for the already hard-hit Gulf Coast, the destroyed and polluted beaches, the devastating environmental toll. Add to the list BP gas station owners.

BP sold off its retail gas business, which means the people who own the 13,000 BP gas stations are generally independent franchisees. So the calls for BP boycotts and demonstrations outside of BP gas stations are misguided and end up hurting independent business owners who are locked into contacts with BP. Besides, as Consumerist points out when you choose another gas station over BP you may be giving your money to a wholly-owned BP subsidiary.

But what to do to show your disgust? It’s difficult as a consumer to take an action that will have an impact on the evils of the corporation and not the employees who are likely getting screwed over already. A single person’s boycott is just a drop in the bucket (I refuse to shop at both Wal-Mart and American Apparel because of their business practices as I’m sure many people do—yet not enough to make a noticeable difference in their bottom line).

A huge shift in public sentiment however (like seeing constant footage of spewing oil and sad dying animals) tends to motivate a more urgent need to take action. It’s a difficult line to toe, by no means should we sit idly by when corporations make huge mistakes and act poorly. Consumer boycotts sometimes do make a huge difference and force corporations into action. And voting with your wallet is often the best and easiest way to make an impact to a company, but we’d all be wise to use a more thoughtful approach to who is going to be most impacted by our actions and what better ways there might be.

This kind of limited thinking can be found at work in overtly brainless ways like boycotting Arizona Iced Tea (which is produced in New York) over Arizona’s eff-ed up immigration law. Or in misplaced good intentions like Michael Moore’s approach to shaming corporate criminals and fat cats.

The cornering and public/on camera dressing down of men like GM’s CEO Roger Smith would provide audiences with satisfying schadenfreude. Instead too often Moore goes for the easy showiness of storming the security guards at corporate headquarters (blue collar working dudes) These guys would probably be on his side of the issues, but a job’s a job and they don’t want to lose theirs so they follow orders and turn Mike and his cameras away and look like the bad guys while the criminals never have to leave their offices. Not that mid or entry level employees at evil places are without responsibility, it does raise questions about personal integrity, choices, and selling out, but these days it’s difficult to criticize someone who likely is grateful to have a job at all.

But like the ending to most of Moore’s movies, I don’t have the answer. Doing nothing isn’t good advice, boycotting BP and putting more small business owners out of work will hurt the wrong people, and pressuring law makers to regulate and penalize companies like BP seems like the best if not most frustrating means of action. That, and giving time and money to companies who are doing good and demanding more transparency and asking the right questions about the places you spend your money are probably the best actions we can take.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Cougar Question

Yes I will probably see Sex in the City 2, and I'll probably roll my eyes a lot and find many problems with it just like I did the first movie and about half of the episodes of the show. But whatever, I also watch awful shows like Tough Love Couples and enjoy eating ramen noodles, no one has "good" taste in everything.

That said, I clearly don't love everything about those four ladies and certainly not their characters. Kim Cattrell is really not a good actress and Samantha I could take or leave. But the recent hub-bub about a "significant magazine for women over 40" that pulled her as their cover model when she refused to pose with a cougar has made me like her a lot more as a person.

I've made mention of it before, but I am really irked by the prevalence of women over 40 being called "cougars" or "MILFs", but more so I’m annoyed by how much women not only accept it but embrace it—want to be called one of these horribly demeaning names or call themselves it.

I mean I get that getting old is scary and feeling like you are losing your sex appeal can be devastating for a lot of women. But instead of agreeing that you have to try to look like some 50-year old alien version of a 22-year-old, why can’t women get the hot older person labels that men get—“silver fox”, “distinguished”?

So kudos to Kim Cattrell (or her publicist) for not perpetuating the cougar label. As for the Women’s Mag the pulled the cover? I’d really like to believe there was more to the decision, magazines for women have so much potential and so many just need an editorial voice that isn’t condescending yet is still titillating and relevant (hee hee, titillating). It’s not rocket science and readers aren’t the crazy vapid creatures that many editors seem to think they are.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Graduation Advice I'll Never Get to Give

Since I didn't get into grad school, there's a strong chance that I might never take part in a graduation ceremony as anything more than a spectator. But ever since I auditioned (and didn't get selected) to be a commencement speaker for my high school graduation I've harbored the dream of one day being successful enough to be asked to speak at a graduation. I don't know if I'll ever get there, and there are certainly a large amount of celebrities and other notable persons who speak at college commencements and put graduates and families to sleep. (I don't remember a word of what my college commencement speaker said, let alone who he even was).

Some students are lucky though, (like my alma mater a few years before I graduated) get Presidents or other memorable persons to give a little value back to all that money they just dropped on a diploma.

If I ever become successful or notable enough to be asked to bestow wisdom and advice to 20-somethings in funny hats, I hope I can write a speech as perfect as the one that Rachel Maddow's to Smith College. It's a refreshing view, especially to graduates that "personal triumphs are overrated, and that some dreams are bad dreams." The idea being that instead of viewing life as short, and that you should try to live everyday, that hopefully life is long and you should endeavor to live a complete life that is worth bragging about instead of a selfish one that saw the most personal fame. To hear someone (given who is famous herself) denounce the value of fame and instead advise that people be "intellectually and morally rigorous in their decision making and surround themselves with people that do the same.

It's advice that's not really fashionable or popular, that you make wise decisions that may ensure you remain a small player that lives in obscurity rather than a big personality, decisions that may mean you are never rich, and never famous, and never get asked to speak at a college commencement, but that give you something to be proud to tell your grandkids you took part in. Maddow says to choose glory over fame, but in making the right and moral decisions, it's completely likely you'll never get either, but she's right in that you will be a better person to those around you and not bear the burden of having to justify your actions to anyone, most importantly yourself.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"Choosing" to be Homeless in Hawaii

Today's NPR story about whites from the Mainland coming to Hawaii to soak up the benefits of being homeless in paradise misses the point a little. The story points to how cushy the homeless in Hawaii have it because of statewide free healthcare and $3 stays at shelters with free meals. The argument is that these non-native residents are putting a strain on taxpaying Hawaiians as evidenced by the state's
$1.2 billion budget deficit.

It's a fair point, but I think there needs to be a little bigger picture thinking. Rather than blame the homeless for finding a state that offers the best resources (the two men they interview in the article were homeless in other states, and while "enjoying" the benefits in Hawaii work at either collecting cans or minimum wage jobs), why not turn the criticism to the other 49 states that don't offer any resources to the homeless.

In the story, the director of a homeless shelter in Honolulu suggests that there be different sets of laws for those that are homeless by choice vs. misfortune. While it's less painful and deadly to be homeless in a warm climate, this logic that people are choosing it seems a little off to me and the life of a beach bum may be romanticized a bit too much here.Besides, how can you really prove the circumstances of a person's homelessness, and aren't Hawaii's systems (like shelters and free health care) in place for this reason?

Rich white people from the mainland are a bigger problem to native Hawaiians than homeless white people; they buy huge expensive vacation homes drive up property values without contributing to the local economy and make homeownership for Hawaiians too costly. But yes, let's target the guy living on collecting and recycling cans for 5 cents a piece.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Getting Crafty

I put together this photo puzzle tutorial last fall for photojojo. It ended up not getting published, so I decided that rather than just let it sit in a folder on my computer forever, I will share it with the world. It takes probably an hour to complete one puzzle (depending on the size and amount of pieces). I've given them as gifts and stocking stuffers.

Photo Puzzle Tutorial

I always love a good rainy day activity, and puzzles are a classic. But a 1,000 piece windmill puzzle isn’t exactly my idea of a good time. Instead of putting together a puzzle, why not spend a rainy afternoon creating your own photo puzzle?

What you’ll need:

  • Blank puzzles (available at craft stores, in a variety of sizes with large or small pieces)
  • Printed photos (8x10 and 5x7 work the best)
  • Rubber Cement
  • Scissors
  • X-acto knife
  • Pencil and a marker

Step 1

Pick your photo to puzzle-ize, if it’s not exactly the same size; trim it to fit your puzzle. If your puzzle is bigger than your photo, mark the size of the photo on the puzzle and use the x-acto knife to cut off the extra puzzle. If you don’t want to trim your photo or puzzle, you can add a boarder with construction paper.

Step 2

Once your photo matches the size of the puzzle, flip your blank puzzle upside down, take one row of pieces out at a time and trace them with a marker. Continue until you have all of the pieces traced.

Step 3

Cut along the lines with the x-acto knife, and glue each photo puzzle piece to its matching puzzle piece.

Step 4

Mix ‘em up, and let your friends and family assemble the puzzle to discover your photo.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Big Girls Need Love Too

Childhood obesity is a topic I keep coming back to and a topic discussed exhaustively in all forms of media right now. And while some lip service is also given to the super skinny skeletor models and the eating disorder other end of the spectrum, the obesity epidemic is still the most talked about problem. And yes lots of kids are too fat and lazy and eat junk and watch too much TV/play too many video games/never put down their cell phones, but what about the flip side? Especially for girls the message that they aren’t skinny enough is often the strongest and while it’s coming from magazines and TV and all that in a big way, for many girls being critical of your appearance is something they learn at home.

Peggy Orenstein pointed it out in her article in the New York Times magazine recently— while middle class and affluent parents obsess over organic healthy foods especially for their children, there’s also a strong possibility that they are giving them horrible body image issues at the same time. She uses the president and first lady’s public remarks about their daughters’ weights as an example. But it’s not the same for sons, like most things appearance related this seems to be the territory of girls only.

“Daughters understand that early: according to a study of preschool girls published in the journal Pediatrics in 2001, those whose mothers expressed “higher concern” over their daughters’ weights not only reported more negative body images than their peers but also perceived themselves as less smart and less physically capable (paternal “concern” was associated only with the latter). The effect was independent of the child’s actual size.

A 2003 analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, meanwhile, showed that mothers were three times as likely to notice excess weight in daughters than in sons, even though the boys were more likely to be large. That gave me pause. It is so easy for the concern with “health,” however legitimate, to justify a focus on girls’ appearances. For organic-eating, right-living parents whose girls are merely on the fleshy side of average, “health” may also mask a discomfort with how a less-than-perfect daughter reflects on them. “ ‘Good’ parents today are expected to have normal-weight kids,” says Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of the book “The Body Project” and a professor of history and human development at Cornell University. “Having a fat girl is a failure.”

Orenstein’s first solution was to opt out completely and have her husband be responsible for feeding their daughter, which isn’t a solution really—while mothers may pass their negative body image on, fathers and men in general aren’t outside of blame. There’s no question that there’s a huge beauty double standard, but an even bigger fat double standard. Unless a guy gets really big, a few extra pounds here and there are not even blink-worthy on men, let alone cause for most women to reject them. But over and over you hear the “no fat chicks” mentality coming even from fat dudes, helped none by the reinforcement that hot ladies go for slubby guys.

There is something totally off base when a gorgeous woman like Tina Fey is believable as a nerdy food-obsessed lonely heart and Kevin James can get a hot wife.

The conclusion to the article is that she decided to just not talk about looks or food in front of her daughter (of course a difficult feat) and while it would be ideal for weight and appearance to be as much of a non-issue for women (or at least a smaller issue) as it is for men, she acknowledges that her daughter will just get the messages elsewhere, which means not talking about it doesn’t really solve the problem. I realize that it’s an over-arching and vague statement but more than moms just pretending that they aren’t terrified of getting old/fat/unattractive, maybe we all should be more concerned with consuming good food and being cool with how we look, not criticizing women for things we tolerate in men. Pretending that the double standard doesn’t exist won’t make it go away, it will just make it grow.

Sidebar: My (15 year old) Little Sister keeps telling me that boys tell her that she must be having sex (she’s not) because she’s gained weight. Where did this flawed biology lesson come from, is this kind of teasing something kids have been doing for a while?

And another thing: Everyone needs to stop with this whole “cougar” and “MILTF” trend; 50 year old women should look 50 not 20, it’s just creepy.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Fair State of the World

It’s birthday week for me, and as such (especially since I’m unemployed) I’m trying to do something fun each day.

Today I biked from my apartment in Park Slope to Flushing Meadows Park in Queens (and back). The round trip was about 24 miles, but it was a beautiful day and although Google biking directions lead me astray a couple of times in Queens and a driver almost killed me in Brooklyn, it was a great trip.

The main appeal of visiting Flushing Meadow Park for me was to see the panorama of New York City (built for the 1939 World’s Fair) that includes (almost) every building in the city in tiny form (it’s updated from time to time), and the Unisphere (built for the 1964 World’s Fair). The Unisphere was cool and the disrepair of the New York State Pavilion was also worth seeing, and the park itself was beautiful and had a lot there (I saw a Bear at the Queens Zoo without even having to pay to go into the zoo!) Unfortunately the Queens Art Museum that houses the panorama was closed today. I’ll defiantly be back to see it, but in the meantime if anyone is searching for last minute birthday ideas for me, you can adopt a building in my name!

Visiting this former World’s Fair Site, reminded me of the other former World’s Fair Site that I’ve been to—one of the most beautiful man made spots I've ever been: The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Although World Expos (as they are now called) kind of still exist, the grandeur of the World’s Fairs especially from the Industrialization era where new technology and inventions (like electricity) were first shown off holds a certain excitement that can’t be matched today were everything is (and yes I am aware of the irony) blogged and tweeted and facebooked to death before it is even released. World’s Fairs of the scale that once existed aren’t practical in today’s world, and it might not even be something worthy of being nostalgic for (truly there were a lot of not so great moments) But it’s an interesting part of history to visit on a lovely spring day.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

On fake meat and hexane

If you read Food Babies, you probably also read other food-related things, or the news. And boy oh boy has the whole "veggie burgers are filled with toxic chemicals" story been all over the news in the last couple of days. It's great ammo for meat eaters to tell vegetarians to get off their health-conscious high horses. But I don't think everyone should be so quick to panic, and I especially don't think it should be reason to call it quits with soy all together. Yes, fake meat isn't the best for you food in the world (it is after all still a processed food with lots of preservatives, and processed foods are a little removed from being real food even when they aren’t pretending to be a “beef” burger or a “pork” hot dog.

First, the soy that’s in these veggie burgers is isolated soy, which processed in a different way than the soy that’s in soy milk or tofu which is whole soy. Whole soy, btw can actually be very good for you. Also, it’s unclear if hexane cooks off, or if the amounts in the products are large enough to be harmful or not.

I think there needs to be a whole mess of change and regulations in how our food (of the meat and non-meat variety) is produced. But I don’t know that raising the flag of panic around fake meat is necessarily a good way to go. For a lot of people just starting out with vegetarianism, or life-long meat eaters who need to cut their cholesterol after a heart attack or other life-threatening illness (like many in my family), fake meat can be an easy and tasty alternative. Not that we should tolerate anything hazardous in our food, but I’ll still take trace amounts of hexane over life-threatening amounts of e coli any day.

Mother Jones on the topic

Gothamist on the topic

(cross posted on Food Babies)