The great Walmart debate

Let’s start with a confession. I am not unequivocally anti-Walmart.

I expect this comes as a surprise to some of my friends. My politics are pretty left-leaning. I garden and compost. I’m the sort of person who entertains myself making jam, pickles, and chicken broth from scratch. I drive a Civic Hybrid. Indeed, were it not for the fact that I’m allergic to patchouli, I might be in danger of being mistaken for a dirty hippie. Add to that the fact that I grew up in rural Wisconsin, where the nearest town got its Walmart in the late 80s.

It was recently announced that Walmart is intending to open one of their neighborhood markets (a smaller scale store selling only groceries) within walking distance of my house. There’s been a great deal of discussion in the comments on altadenablog (for example here and here). It seems to be basically a done deal, but some members of the community are mobilizing against Walmart anyway.

I’ll admit that in the grand scheme of things another grocery two blocks from the existing Super King is probably not exactly what the neighborhood needs. On the other hand, the site is a building that’s been abandoned the entire seven years I’ve been visiting/living in the neighborhood. At a certain point I think you can make an argument that anything in the space is more productive than nothing.

Of course the Walmart opponents don’t agree. At the same time, though, the opponents don’t seem to recognize the difficulties involved with economic development on the west side of Altadena. One of the organizers is quoted as saying “I don’t think that no one else wants [the building] — if you look at yourself as the ghetto, that’s what you’ll be.” Let’s ignore for a moment the invocation of the G-word, which strikes me as incredibly problematic (but also par for the course when discussing this side of town). I have to wonder where all the someone elses that might want that building, that corner, have been for the past three quarters of a decade.

I’m relatively new to the neighborhood. I’ve only lived here for five years. In that time, though, I’ve watched unfolding drama surrounding the Lincoln Crossing development, just South of the proposed Walmart site. Phase one of the project was to house a 24 Hour Fitness, a Bank of America Branch, a grocery, and an assortment of local businesses. The local businesses have had a hard time of it. The first grocery store closed and was replaced with the Super King, which has been quite successful (but is not an Altadena-based business) Phase two of the project was supposed to be built across the street, but seems like it will never materialize. That history makes it pretty clear that filling in the vacancies along Lincoln with local businesses is a bit easier said than done.
Continue reading “The great Walmart debate”



The fourth of July, Independence Day, is not my favorite holiday (ok fine, I’m a curmudgeon who doesn’t care much for holidays in general, but I have more problems with July fourth than most). At a certain level I understand patriotism. Loving the place you’re from, or the place you’ve chosen to live, makes some sense to me. But the history of this country, the history of freedom, isn’t one that leaves me entirely comfortable waving a flag and cheering. Of course, it would be absurd to argue that if a country isn’t perfect you can’t celebrate it. Still, the particular flavor of patriotism that seems to be the norm today is something I have difficulty swallowing.

As a pacifist I also balk at the strong militarism that seems to come out in these celebrations. Sure, the celebration is related to war in a certain sense. But it should, if it’s a celebration of war at all, be a celebration of the end of the war that brought our independence from the English. In my mind, though, ideally one would see it more of a celebration of philosophy, of the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence. I’m not entirely sure how the jets that seem to fly over any municipal celebration of any size play into that.

I’m also, I’ll admit, not big on explosions. I like professional fireworks displays well enough, I suppose. Shiny things in the sky are pretty. But the number of people setting off stuff in my neighborhood makes me nervous. I suppose if I were the sort of person who watered every square inch of my landscape multiple times a week (which is, by the way, a violation of current water restrictions) I’d be a bit less nervous about fire. Even then, though, there’s still a fire risk. Not to mention the fact that all the noise keeps freaking out the cats.

Since I’m so not fond of the holiday, it’s an interesting twist that I made one of the biggest decisions of my adult life on July fourth, 2007. I woke that morning and worked some on the outline for my dissertation proposal. From my department’s perspective I was already way behind schedule and was in danger of being asked to leave the program if I didn’t get my proposal written and approved by fall. I’d been spinning my wheels for a long time, but had finally gotten much of my anxiety under control to the point where I was convinced that I could actually write a dissertation, that I could get my proposal finished in time to not get kicked out.

Later that afternoon I went to a barbecue at a friend’s house. Sitting in her backyard with her family and some mutual friends I found myself wishing that my life had more down-time. I found myself wishing that I had more time for people, for hobbies. I thought “I wish I didn’t have to write a dissertation.” And, slowly, I realized that I didn’t have to write a dissertation. I realized, sitting there with a beer and watching the conversation fly by, that I didn’t have to be an academic. Even if I wanted to do research, I didn’t have to be the primary investigator. Moreover, I realized that I didn’t really want those things. And if I didn’t want to be on the career path that a PhD would take me down, why get one? It was a surprisingly fast decision. Almost as soon as the thought of leaving the program entered my head, I was sure it was what I wanted to do.

Looking back I’m convinced that I’m happier than I would have been had I finished grad school. I do sometimes get a bit wistful. There are things I might like to do career-wise that the lack of a doctorate makes more difficult or impossible. On the whole, though, I’d characterize leaving grad school as one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Right up there with going to grad school in the first place. And so, even if I’m not particularly keen on fireworks (and am particularly unkeen on the chaos in my neighborhood right now) today is still a day of personal celebration for me.

Let’s hear it for the pursuit of happiness!

Flirtatious fish and wasted lives

Driving back from a camping trip in the desert weekend before last I noted a hand-written sign along the side of the 395. It read (approximately):

Coy – Goldfish
Available here
Need a Home

I was turning to Brad to ask “what do you suppose makes a goldfish coy” when suddenly it dawned on me that the sign was intending to advertise koi and goldfish. The image of the coy goldfish caught me fancy, though. I imagine a goldfish rendered sort of cartoonish, with a bow on its head, and big fluttery eyelashes. It left me thinking a bit about this piece of Stephen Fry’s where he argues that language should be enjoyable and that pedantry is mostly pointless because we know what people mean even when they say it wrong. (If you prefer the written version, the video is excerpted from this, which I’ll confess I have yet to actually read in its entirety since his use of language appeals to me more when read with an actual British accent rather than the poor substitute in my head). I’ll note that in this case I actually didn’t know what the Coy Goldfish sign meant until far enough down the road that if I’d been looking for koi I might not have bothered to turn back. But still, I take his point. Delighting in the notion of a flirty fish is more fun than railing against spelling errors.

Then last week I was flipping through The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, which I recently picked up off paperbackswap for sentimental reasons. My mother has a large collection of Idries Shah’s books and the Nasrudin stories lived on the side table by the big chair I used to regularly sit in to read. So when I was out of books or otherwise bored, I’d read those. I read them more for entertainment than with any eye to their meanings as teaching stories. And, honestly, I think I picked up this volume with the same intent. It’s a comfortable and entertaining reminder of home more than anything. Nonetheless I paused when I came to a variation of this parable (the text of which I have taken from here):


Nasrudin was ferrying a traveler across a lake. As they spoke on various subjects, Nasrudin made a minor grammatical error.

The traveler remarked, “You who wears a turban and calls himself a Mulla-have you ever studied grammar?”

“No,” Nasrudin admitted, “I have not covered that subject in depth.”

“Well then,” the traveler replied,” you have wasted half of your life!”

Several minutes later, Nasrudin turned to the traveler and asked, “Have you ever learned how to swim?”

“No,” the traveler responded.

“Well then,” Nasrudin replied, “you have wasted all your life-for there is a hole in the boat, and we are sinking!”

There are numerous things one could take from that story. The ISHK website offers the explanation that this story shows Sufi rejection of the purely scholarly approach. As someone whose life takes a pretty scholarly bent, I’ll admit I chafe at that sort of interpretation a bit. I think I’m more inclined to read it as an indictment of the sort of thinking that supposes that one sort of knowledge is always essential and should be pursued, even at the cost of other sorts of knowledge.

Aside from that thought–and an additional reminder that I would do well to let go of some of my language pedantry–it took me in the direction of thinking about how to live a life that isn’t wasted, a life with purpose. For many people the work they do for pay is both the thing they spend the most time on and the thing that they hang much of their identity on. I’m fortunate to be able to do work that I think benefits the world a little. I know “statistical programmer” doesn’t sound like a world-changing career path but I do feel like the project I’ve been working on and the ones I’ll be starting on shortly do have the potential to inform public policy and potentially play a part in small changes. It’s not much but it feels more meaningful to me than, say, marketing research. I also happen to enjoy my work a great deal, so on the whole I feel pretty lucky. My work could be more “important” in some sense but it makes its small difference and is challenging, interesting, and leaves me sufficient time and brain power for the rest of my life. In short, I like my job a lot and I am happy.

But sometimes I wonder if that’s enough. I wonder if I am doing enough to make the world a better place. I wonder if I am using what skills I have in useful ways. Leaving graduate school, and my aspirations of academic life, has given me a lot more time to develop hobbies and interests outside a narrow intellectual focus. I feel like, in terms of the story above, my current life gives me room to learn both grammar and swimming (as an aside I’m mostly self taught in both areas, but have amassed enough skill in both to survive most pedants and boats sinking in gentle water ). The problem is that, having relatively recently chosen a life that involves a great more leisure time than the life I once aspired to, I’m selfish with that time. I’m doing the things that I felt like I didn’t get to do while I was in school. And I’m enjoying living, figuring out who I want to be. That’s not a life wasted, that much I know. The question is whether it’s a life that’s insufficiently generous.

That I’m even asking the question, I think, is an indicator of my answer. I don’t feel generous enough. I feel like even if I’m shaping my little corner of the world into a better place, but that doesn’t extend beyond my walls. Sometimes I think it doesn’t even extend beyond the boundaries of my skull. And it should. But I’m not sure where to start, what I want to do given that my energies are limited and I’m, frankly, greedy with my time.

One solution I’ve considered is going back to the church I was once a member of. There’s a new minister and some things that troubled me while I was there seem to have changed. When I was there I was deeply involved with the leadership of the congregation but not with anything else outside the church. Still, being tied to a community where the notion of social justice was important is something that I miss and if I went back I would work harder to find ways to also improve the world outside the walls of the church. I’ve written here about the process of leaving. The reasons I left are complicated and many. Some of it was simply time. Brad and I had started spending our weekends together and since that’s the only time we saw each other I was loathe to take time out of my Sunday. Plus I was exhausted due to my various roles in the church and what my involvement on the board meant in terms of how I experienced the years of institutional churning the church was going through at the time. Both of those things are problems that time has, essentially, solved. There were other things, though, that made me leave. One was feeling like my presence there was appreciated for what I could do rather than who I was. Much of the rest had to do with my ability to navigate certain types of personal relationships. When I was there I was one of the only (if not the only) women under 30 in the congregation. It made me a lightening rod for a lot of interactions I am generally poor at dealing with. Even just playful flirtation is a dance I don’t perform particularly gracefully, when it takes any sort of creepiness my abilities to cope are pretty taxed. Of course since I’ve left two things have happened. I’ve aged (though at 32 I doubt I’ve come even close to aging out of any sort of creepy attention) and other women under 40 have joined the congregation. So many of my reasons for leaving have at least lessened in their importance. There are still, though, pieces of hard hurt in my heart that I’m not sure I can see around.

The years I was there were hard years for me, emotionally, academically. The friends who meant the most to me during that period in my life proved themselves repeatedly unreliable and having to face the various complications that came with my place in spiritual home left me battered and bruised both emotionally and spiritually. I am unsure ultimately whether going back would help bring catharsis and healing or whether it would be a source of new pain and hurt. It is clear to me, though, that the walls I built around myself in those years need to start coming down. I need to open myself more to the friendships I have built since then. I need to find a way to feed the spiritual parts of me that have largely atrophied in the five and a half years since I started cutting my church ties.

Part of me thinks I would be infinitely better off finding someplace to volunteer that is wholly unconnected to that old life but the idea of building new connections is intimidating to me, as is the idea of finding a place that I feel fits me. On the other hand, the idea of starting fresh has its attraction. Of course, there are also other Unitarian Universalist churches closer to where I live now and clearly I could start looking there for spiritual fulfillment. Still, my old church was my home and there is a part of me that longs to go back. I like the new minister a great deal, and when I look at the service schedules I often find myself interested in his sermons. I miss that particular community, even if there were aspects of my relationship to it that were problematic.

I’m still not sure what the answer is but I’m pretty sure I need to be branching out with my energies, reinforcing the connections I have to my current communities, and building new connections.

Swimming lesson might not hurt either. There are, I think, worse things to resemble than coy goldfish.

The prison of soulmates

Saturday was September 11th. Early in the day I saw a comment from one of my facebook friends that made me realize that I really had no interest in actually hearing any news coverage about the day. Fortunately, since my plan for the day already involved spending a large portion of it at a barbecue, instituting a media blackout for myself was fairly easy. However, in the early afternoon I turned on NPR in the kitchen while cooking. While this didn’t expose me to any of the hatred and ignorance around the 9/11 anniversary that I feared, it did expose me to a tidbit on Off-Ramp that annoyed me enough to actually turn off the radio and finish my food prep in silence.

The segment asked people whether they believe in soul-mates. Now I realize that this perhaps make me hopelessly unromantic, but the idea of soul-mates depresses me. I live in a metropolitan area with over 14 million people. Let’s assume for a moment that your soul-mate always magically resides in the same county as you do. My chances of meeting him or her would still be less than nine million to one. Obviously even if you cut that in half to take into account people’s gender preferences and then reduce it again to limit it to a reasonable age band (I’m just going to assume that by this point in my life my soul-mate* is at least a legal adult) there’s still an overwhelmingly small chance of meeting your one true love. And keep in mind, I’m assuming for this exercise that my soul-mate lives in Los Angeles County. Remove that assumption and the math becomes even more far-fetched.

*before anyone asks: no, I don’t consider Brad my soul-mate but that’s just because I don’t believe in soul-mates.

So they ask a number of people about whether they think there’s one person out there for everyone. The interviewer ends up talking to a nineteen year old girl whose love is in prison for three more years. And this is the part where I start to squirm. I’m mostly content to let people believe in fairy tales, even if they are mathematically impractical, but if we’re going to bolster some people’s fairy tales it feels only fair to me to apply the same rules to everyone else. The interviewer met this young woman’s description of who she considered her soul-mate with “you’re serious,” in a tone of voice that belied both disbelief and horror. Then the interviewer asked the next woman she talked to about whether the guy in prison was the nineteen year old’s soul-mate and the woman said no and another cute guy would come along who wasn’t a felon. Because of course soul-mates are always perfect, right?

Let me be clear here, I don’t think a nineteen year old in love with a man who still has three years left in prison is in a good situation. And since I don’t believe in soul-mates obviously I can easily dismiss him as not her soul-mate. But if you believe in soul-mates then you have to acknowledge that perhaps, just maybe, he is her one true love, criminal record and all. And I think the tendency to laugh off these sorts of complicated situations with “another cute boy will come along” is something that pushes women in non-ideal situations to stay in them, to try to prove the doubters wrong.

But that wasn’t what made me turn off the radio. What made me turn off the radio was that dismissive tone of voice. That sound of horror and disbelief. I’ve heard that tone. Indeed, if you knew me when I was nineteen there’s actually a chance that I heard that tone of voice from you. Because when I was nineteen envelopes stamped “this letter sent from the Wisconsin Prison System” regularly landed in my mailbox. It was a different situation, in that what I felt for the man on the other end of those envelopes was not romantic love. And I wasn’t waiting for him to get out of prison so we could be together. But still I cared for him deeply (and still do, I might add) and I used the word love to describe that caring. Any time I told the story, ultimately there would come a point where whoever I was talking to would get this strange look in their eye and ask “how did you come to know this guy again?” I’d sigh and say “he was my next door neighbor” and I’d try to explain that just because he’d made some really dumb decisions that lead him to be where he was, it didn’t mean he was, at the core, a bad person. It was a hard sell, though.

In the end I maintain that I was right and my doubters were wrong. He is, after all, one of the only people from my childhood besides family that I keep any regular contact with. But it is also the case that, generally speaking, I don’t tell the story anymore. I don’t talk much anymore about how we came to know each other, about those five years of letters, of what he meant to me then, of the five years we were out of touch after his release and how bad I felt about allowing that to happen. Perhaps that is because I don’t need to tell the story in the same way I did then. I think, though, part of it is that I don’t like to give people the opportunity to respond to a part of my life that was incredibly important to me with “really? You’re serious?” in that grating tone. And Saturday I resented that little piece of radio that seemed to me to be trying to invoke that exact tone of response from its audience.

What's fair. And when does it matter?

I have a horrible confession to make. I am addicted to the comments on articles and blog posts on the LA Times website (and note that more and more of the coverage linked off the main page is in the form of blog posts). I fully recognize that these comments are not a representative collection of the opinions of LA Times readers, but they are a fascinating glimpse into the sort of things that get people angry enough to post and how some people think about social issues (hint: posts about immigration get lots of comments).

One tidbit that’s got a lot of commentary last week is a What do you think blog post titled “Should L.A. ban food trucks from parking on city streets? Tell us what you think.”. The post itself doesn’t offer much info on the proposed bans. The only real information is contained in this paragraph:

One proposal from Councilman Tom LaBonge asks city staff to study what other cities have done and to look into prohibiting trucks from parking at metered spaces in commercially zoned areas. The other calls for a report on the creation of specially designated catering-truck parking zones.

One of the repeating themes in the comments against food trucks is that food trucks are unfair competition for brick and mortar restaurants because they don’t have to pay rents. Another theme of the comments is that food trucks are a major public health problem because they’re unregulated. In theory this latter point is simply inaccurate and irrelevant because food trucks are permitted and inspected by the county public health department. In reality there almost certainly are a fair number of trucks out there that aren’t inspected so it’s not actually a crazy concern. However, I believe that food trucks display their permit so spotting an unpermitted one should be doable.

The fairness theme, though, is a fascinating one to me. The argument seems to be that it’s unfair to established restaurants in an area that the food trucks come in and lure away customers. On the surface–assuming that the trucks do follow the same food safety procedures as restaurants–the fairness critique strikes me as almost comically misguided. If I open a restaurant and am doing well until another restaurant opens down the street is that unfair? Of course not, it’s business. It may be personally tragic if my restaurant fails because the new one lures away my customers but at no point would it actually be reasonable for me to argue that all new restaurants should be banned because their competition is “unfair.”
Continue reading “What's fair. And when does it matter?”

Lead, follow, or get the $@#& out of my way already. (learning the zen of discourtesy)

I know it’s said that nobody walks in LA (or alternatively, only nobodies walk in LA). If that were true I’d probably be a great deal happier given that one of the main things that irks me about living in LA is how oblivious people seem to be to other people. This is true, too, when people are enclosed in their little plastic, glass, and metal boxes, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me much then. On foot, though, it drives me crazy, leaves me seething.

I went to college in Madison, WI, which has a huge pedestrian population. It is, however, also very orderly. In fact, as a sophomore I wrote an argument for anarchy in my political theory class that basically made the case that centralized government wasn’t really necessary because social norms (and their accompanying societal sanctions) could achieve the same ends. I cited as examples the orderly progression of students up and down Bascom Hill (which has two main sidewalks and is incredibly crowded but mostly avoids pandemonium because on both sidewalks there’s two streams of students who avoid colliding by keeping right) and dorm elevator behavior (don’t you dare take the elevator to the 3rd floor unless you’re crippled or sick to the point of near death). The point was less that these were important examples than it was that these were totally self-organizing example. It was sort of a silly, simplistic political argument, but for a 19 year old who was absolutely NOT an anarchist, I think I made a reasonably solid case, particularly given that this class was my first experience in arguing for things I didn’t actually have an emotional attachment to. I have since realized, however, that the argument worked only because I was a sophomore at UW. Had I been a UCLA sophomore I couldn’t have possibly argued that self-organization leads to outcomes nearly as orderly as rules imposed from the outside, no way, no how.

I really do love a lot of things about LA but I spend a lot of time out in public grumbling to myself “why don’t these people get out of the way. One could argue that this is merely the shock of moving from a small midwestern city to a large over-crowded metropolis. And I’m sure that to some extent that is an explanation. However, in Madison I lived in the extremely dense downtown area and I’d hazard a guess that my daily experiences there actually brought me into the presence of way more people than my daily life in LA does. Even Target on the weekend can’t really hold a candle to the UW campus between classes. The truth is I think the difference is cultural. I think people in LA simply don’t pay attention. I think many people here think they’re entitled to walk through life without taking into account other people’s needs. In short, I think people here are RUDE! And it annoys me. A lot.

Take for instance one morning last week when I walked into the office kitchen to rinse out my coffee cup in the sink. The kitchen was crowded with a group of people waiting for the conference room to open up. Our kitchen has a large table in the middle and to get to the sink requires walking around the table. A woman was standing at the table directly in front of the sink. “Excuse me,” I said. Rather than scooting down the empty table far enough that I could stand fully in front of the sink, she shifted slightly to her right. “Oh well, at least I can now reach the handle on the faucet” I sighed to myself and set to washing my cup, while leaning slightly to actually be holding my cup over the sink (and then leaning more dramatically to reach the pile of paper towels to dry it). Then I turned to leave, only to discover that another woman had filed in behind the table such that my way out was completely blocked. Fortunately the table is just far enough from the wall that two people can pass comfortably. That is, they can if one of them makes an effort not to be standing directly in the middle of the available space. I walked toward the woman. “Excuse me” I said as I reached the point where I had to pass her. And she responded by swaying ever so slightly forward. She did not move her feet to step forward so I could pass. She did not step around the end of the table so that I could pass without even having to turn sideways to do so. Simply put, she did not get out of the way. I squeezed behind her as best I could, thinking the whole time “really? really you feel so entitled that you cannot bother to step forward six inches to make someone else’s life easier?” One might argue that she was so engrossed in her conversation that she did not hear my “excuse me.” I would respond to that by pointing out that a) being so absorbed in your own stuff that you don’t notice your effect on other people is itself rude, rude, rude* and b) she did respond, ever so slightly, to my entreaty, just not by getting out of my way.

(* yes, of course, I also find myself frequently in situations where I have lost track of my surroundings and accidentally put myself in the way. It’s an unavoidable thing in a crowded world. The difference, though, is that I realize it when the other person gets within excusing distance, at which point I apologize and I MOVE)

If this were an isolated sort of incident I would not make sweeping indictments about the courtesy levels of my fellow Angelenos. However, the days I work in the office, I walk about four blocks from where I park my car to the office. That’s 4 blocks, twice per day, 3 days per week (plus a walking to lunch on days when I don’t bring my own or go to the burrito place half a block away). The sidewalks in Westwood are wide but have many trees. This means that practically speaking much of the sidewalk is only two people wide. As result I find myself frequently stepping aside when I get to tree because I am being approached by people walking two abreast who show no sign of dropping back to single file so that I can pass without being knocked aside into the break in the sidewalk where the tree is. Never is this met with an “excuse me,” a “thank you,” or even a simple smile. It is as if it is perfectly natural to people that I would stop walking, and step aside to accommodate their passage. I can forgive this for tired mamas wrangling strollers and toddlers. But hear me, self-absorbed twenty-somethings walking with friends: you do not get a pass. You are simply being rude.

Continue reading “Lead, follow, or get the $@#& out of my way already. (learning the zen of discourtesy)”

Still in Hollywood (well, within 20 miles of hollywood, close enough)

People sometimes ask me what it is that I like about living in L.A. (usually in conversation where I have just admitted that I thought I’d hate it here when I moved but quickly came to love it). Of course there is one obvious answer. It’s about 68 degrees today and while it is hotter in the summertime than some other places in the country it’s also less humid. So when you sweat it actually evaporates and cools your body off the way it’s supposed to.

There’s more to love about LA than just weather but it’s sometimes hard to convey. I have long likened feelings for cities to romantic relationships. Along those lines one might describe LA as the brilliant, interesting, and kind boyfriend who somehow can never hold down a job and is always leaving his underwear on your floor and his dishes in your sink. Your friends can’t understand why you don’t kick him to the curb but you can’t imagine how you’d live without him. Sure things would be cleaner and you’d have more money if he were gone, but life would be less interesting and exciting.

This analogy came to me a week or so ago as I was coming home from work, sitting in stop and go traffic on the 405 coming out of Westwood into the valley. The 405 is one of those freeways that you can pretty much guarantee will throw a monkey wrench into your commute. It’s the metaphoric equivalent of a moldy bowl that probably once contained cereal festering in your sink. Usually I forego the freeway in favor of the slightly less direct–but often faster–Sepulveda Boulevard. Sepulveda is a lovely drive in its own right, meandering slightly with hills rising off to one side. The 405, though, is a beautiful sight, if you can just let go of your frustrations with traffic long enough to appreciate it. One of the reasons this particular stretch of freeway is so crowded is that it’s one of the few routes through the Santa Monica Mountains. At 4:30 in the afternoon in January that means golden light of a sun about to set lighting up the hills rising on either side of you as you creep toward the top. And when you finally crest the hill you are greeted by the spreading vista of the San Fernando Valley.

I have heard people complain that Los Angeles isn’t green. I will acknowledge that this is probably somewhat true of the less prosperous neighborhoods but in general I find that my complaints tend to run the other way (too much of the city is falsely green due to heroic efforts to keep turf-grass healthy in an environment not suited to lawns in the least). Aside from my ire about the constant use of sprinklers, though, I have to say there is something magical to me about the view from freeways (or the view from a landing plane) of city stretching out in all directions until it is checked by the hills. The city is nestled within the confines of the geography, having started as a small pueblo along the LA river (which I am lead to believe once actually contained water before it was lined with concrete and fell victim to the water needs of the city). No one in their right mind would have planned such a large city on such unfriendly terrain. But yet here we are.

And I think sometimes what I love most about LA is the improbability of the whole thing. It is a city built on shifting ground, punctuated by two mountain ranges (and plenty of other hills), with very little fresh water and almost zero precipitation for seven months of the year. At the same time it is a city where you can hear three languages while waiting for a bus or standing in line at the grocery store, a city where you can find food from almost anywhere in the world (though I’m still on the hunt for authentic Puerto Rican, having gotten a taste of what I’m missing on the east coast a few years back).

I think it is fair to say that Los Angeles embodies everything that is wrong with our society: the lack of foresight; the careless assumptions of human superiority and invincibility; the divisions among the haves, the have-less, and the have-nots; the tendency toward selfish individualism. But at the same time the city is a monument to the hope, ingenuity, and folly that characterizes our species. I think what I love most about LA is the way that it constantly reminds me how small we are, and how big we are, all at once.

The mathematics of politics: US is always greater than THEM

I would like to preface this post by noting that some of the people who know me in person might suspect that this was inspired by a recent very emotional conversation that followed a similar thread (well, to the extent that it followed any threads at all given my state at the time). In fact I began writing this post weeks ago, though the recent conversation did inspire me to try to actually finish pulling my thoughts together. This is, however, still a very general set of ideas I’m trying to flesh out, not a response to any one particular conversation, comment, or experience.

Ah, it’s time for another presidential election, and with it come my least favorite parts of politics: the name calling, the self-satisfied claims of superiority, the rancor. No, I’m not talking about the political ads, though there’s enough of all of the above coming from the various campaigns to fuel its own rant. I’m talking about the mudslinging done by ordinary citizens toward anyone who doesn’t believe the same things they do. It’s no secret that I’m extremely liberal so you might assume that I’m specifically talking about the trash-talking done by conservatives. But I’m not. I’m talking about the hate that spews from liberals and conservatives alike. I am simply sick to death of hearing how one side is so much better than the other. How anyone who votes for the other candidate is either stupid or just plain evil. I’m going to talk here specifically about the things I hear from fellow liberals. This is not because I necessarily believe that liberals are worse about their mudslinging but because as a liberal who travels in pretty liberal social circles (both in the flesh and online) I hear a lot of things that make me sad, angry, and a little sick.

I will be the first to agree that a lot of political decisions are made with too little information, or information that is just plain wrong. But let’s be clear that just because one is ill-informed or poorly educated does not make one stupid. Many liberals are quick to paint broad swathes of the country with the stupid brush. I’ll admit that when you watch the various cherry-picked videos of idiocy on youtube it’s very easy to think that perhaps stupidity is the explanation for all the nation’s woes. Of course since the formulation is generally put forth in the form that some THEM out THERE is STUPID, it does leave one wondering a bit about how stupidity became so geographically concentrated. Perhaps the non-fluoridated rural water is to blame?

Formulating the problem as ignorance manages to side-step the question of how some sort of inherent stupidity might have such a dramatic geographic component (without even having to throw in words like “in-bred,” which yes, I have heard at least once this fall). Pointing to THEM and saying THEY are IGNORANT allows the blame to be spread to culture, to education, to the environment that surrounds THEM. To a certain extent I am willing to accept an argument about the perils of an ignorant population. What I’m not willing to accept is the formulation that suggests that WE are knowledgeable while THEY are ignorant. The skills involved in weighing evidence and using it to come to logical conclusions are not easily learned, nor are they the focus in much of the education system. If you want to argue that politics are negatively influenced by the state of our education system I’ll gladly agree with you, as long as you recognize that the problem doesn’t just affect the people who vote differently from you.

There are those, though, who do not think that ignorance and inability to reason is an affliction that crosses demographic or political lines. And it is with them that I take issue. Continue reading “The mathematics of politics: US is always greater than THEM”

Good fences make good what now?

Some time last winter the fence at the back of our yard disappeared, leaving nothing between our yard and the yard of the neighbor behind us. Notice how this story starts with a very firm assertion of private property? It’s the nature of fences, I think. They bound where you are from where you aren’t. I’d like to say that I’m against fences. I feel like I should be, that fences impede the formation of community, of common interest. But if I said that I’d be lying, particularly since I spent a small portion of my afternoon yesterday talking with a fencing contractor about the logistics and material involved in rebuilding the lost fence. After a bit more than a year sans back fence I am looking forward to a fully enclosed yard.

Why am I so eager to finally bet the fence repaired? I’ll give you a guess, just one. Yes, the neighbors. I want to be neighborly, I want to believe in community, I want to not lock myself up in a walled property. I mean theoretically I want those things. Realistically I desperately want a fence because the neighbors are driving me nuts. It started with the dog. Smokey, the little yappy dog who obviously can’t recognize property boundaries without a fence. As far as Smokey is concerned, without a fence our yard is his yard, and he has every right to raise the alarm when we tread upon his territory. If it were just the dog, I might feel differently about our fence contractor. If it were just the dog I’d probably not look upon this man as a savior instead of just a craftsman.

Continue reading “Good fences make good what now?”

The Ivory Tower, Bastion of Privileged Ignorance

Once upon a time I was an idealistic undergrad with great intellectual curiosity who longed to spend her life in the academic realm. At the time I hated the term “ivory tower.” I hated the people who implied that academics were locked away from the world and clueless about the lives of real people. I have since changed my mind. I still think the common sense vs. book smart distinction that comes up so often in anti-intellectual critiques is a crock of shit. But frankly, I can’t argue with the tower metaphor. Not all academics are clueless about the reality of the world, of course. But enough are that if you invoke the broad-brush generalization I no longer feel any need to correct you. Perhaps the problem is less pronounced among less elite academics. But that poses little threat to the ivory tower image since the “ivory” part implies the very eliteness of the institutions in question. My experience is with academics in the big research universities. Indeed my experience is with academics in the big research universities who study inequality. And I will say without batting an eye that in nearly all cases they have absolutely no clue whatsoever what it is really like to be outside the realm of the well-educated elite.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t claim the problem is limited to intellectuals employed in the academic domain. Arguably the vast majority of the world’s economically privileged have no real clue what it’s like not to hold that privilege. Indeed, the vast majority of the world’s privileged have no clue whatsoever what it might be like not to hold whatever aspect of privilege it is they hold. So why do I feel a bit betrayed that the academic elite, taken as a group, seems to have no clue what it is like to be a have-not? Simply because I think they should know better. In particular I mean that if you are a sociologist or an economist who studies families, or inequality, or really anything other than the white upper-middle class, you really ought to have some clue about the subject at hand. I don’t mean you should be able to volley around statistics. I mean you should be able to bend your mind in such a way that you can actually see what life is like. And the image you get should not be some sort of Picasso-esque distorted tangle in which your frame of reference is the only right one and everything else is seen as inferior or weird. Apparently I was foolish to think that the research community as a whole had moved significantly away from the old anthropology attitude of studying the curiously strange native.

My first year of graduate school I took a class on forms of capital. We studied human capital, social capital, and cultural capital. The professor made a big deal about how important social capital and cultural capital were in reproducing class status across generations. More than once he made claims about the amount of social and cultural capital we had access to. His evidence for our privileged status was our presence in his classroom. Of course if we were well-educated, with strong social networks, and lots of cultural knowledge pertinent to middle-class life that must mean that the same was true of our parents. If our parents weren’t well-educated, with strong networks, and cultural knowledge there’s no way we could possibly be pursuing PhDs at UCLA. At the time I chalked his attitude and explicit assumptions about our privilege up to individual pomposity and ignorance. Since then, though, I have come to understand that though the assumptions are not phrased as directly as he phrased them in that classroom, the assumption is still there.

It is painful to feel that your background makes you alien. It is painful to experience this feeling of difference that you must choose constantly whether to mark or ignore. But more painful is the rampant and often offensive ignorance about the realities of day-to-day life for people with whom you strongly identify. I’m going to focus on the concept of poverty, because it is most salient to me. But I think what happens in these discussions happens elsewhere too. I don’t think the “othering” that occurs is particularly unique to the economic realm. It just feels most like a punch in a gut to me personally when it is focused on economics. There are two ways of thinking about poverty that I find particularly repugnant. The first I will call the romanticization of poverty. The second, I will call the fallacy of impossibility. I encounter examples of both all too often. And as the examples of each pile up higher and higher I become angrier and more disillusioned. I become more convinced that the tower is real, and maybe even intentional (after all, god forbid “they” try to interact with “us”).

In the case of romanticizing poverty, certain aspects of day-to-day life are drawn on to highlight how great being poor must really be. Here the simplicity of being poor is exalted. Poverty is equated with rejection of consumerism. Poverty is equated with strength and resilience. Being poor gives you something that you just can’t get if you have money. Not having money helps you realize that money doesn’t matter. Being poor makes you strong and noble and creative.

The most grievous example of offensive ignorance I have yet to experience from an academic falls into this category. I was at dinner gathering with a group of faculty members from a number of universities and disciplines. (I’m not going to go into specific details of what the dinner was, or who was there, as I would like to keep this anecdote and the players as unrecognizable as possible) A sociologist was talking to an economist. Let’s, for simplicity call the sociologist S and the economist E. S told E that she had grown up in Ohio. E asked her if she grew up in Appalachia. She said no. He asked if she was sure, since sometimes the boundaries of Appalachia were weird and some very wealthy zip codes ended up being counted as Appalachia. She insisted that she was quite sure that she did not grow up in Appalachia. E then commented that S seemed like she could be “white trash.” S was, understandably, somewhat taken aback by this comment. E assured her that he meant it as a compliment. He explained that he had once had a student who took great pride in being white trash. She was even born in a trailer. She was very vocal about her background. She was very proud of it. I interjected at this point and noted that your choices were either to proudly proclaim your background or to hide it. My comment was virtually ignored. E then went on to say how great he thought Appalachia was and how much he enjoyed going there. He insisted that the people there were just so ingenious. They took old car tires, filled them with dirt, and planted flowers in them. He extolled the virtues of this, noting how amazing it was that they could take something ugly and make it beautiful.

I could forgive E for his ignorance, his wild-eyed innocent “oh gosh being poor just makes you so strong and creative” though patterns if it weren’t for the fact that he is an economist in a powerful position in a good university. Even then, I could probably forgive the ignorance if he studied something unrelated. But, given that one of the things he studies is the economics of Appalachia and another is welfare use, I can’t help but think he should damn well know better. At the very least I would think that he could be counted upon to be smart enough to know that “white trash” is almost universally not a nice thing to call someone.

The other side of the coin from the “oh ain’t it great to conquer adversity” romantic image of poverty is the “oh it must be impossible to be anything but miserable constantly” school of thought. In this case the poor are persistantly “other.” This is very much like the school of thought that decrees that all mothers on welfare are lazy good-for-nothings that deserve their fate. The difference is that this line of thought is less negatively value laden. The thoughts aren’t framed as “the poor choose to be poor.” Rather the thoughts are framed as “being poor is horrible, miserable, all-consuming, and virtually inescapable.” Essentially the thought is that any life besides the middle-class life is really no life at all.

My most recent example of this fallacy of impossibility is framed almost literally as any life besides the middle-class life is really no life at all. I was at a talk given by Katherine Newman. The focus of the talk was on a follow-up study that she had done on the lives of the fast food workers in Harlem that are featured in No Shame in My Game. She described what happened to the original research participants over the years after the time period covered by the book. Though fast food work is seen as a dead end, she showed that a sizable number of the workers actually were able to find stepping stones to better things. She reported some of the incomes of the respondents. Many of the success stories she cited were making around $30,000 per year. During the question and answer session a member of the sociology faculty who studies income inequality raised his hand and asked “do you really have any success stories here; after all, what kind of life can you live on $30,000 per year?” I give Newman a lot of credit for responding “what kind of life can you have on $30,000 per year? A lot better life than you can have on $12,000 per year, I’ll tell you that.” She then put the numbers into a bit of perspective. For a family of four, $30,000 is about 150% of the poverty line. This, of course, assumes that there is only the one income. Many of her respondents were able to become more economically secure through marriage or cohabitation. She points out that the respondents with income in the $30,000 range had an easier time meeting their basic expenses. They could pay the rent. They could buy food.

It is useful to put numbers into perspective, to recognize that at $30,000 a year a family is far from fully economically secure. Nonetheless it angers me to have someone who studies income essentially put forward the notion that you can’t lead a happy life on $30,000 per year. It is important to remember that a $30,000 a year job does not solve all the problems of these Harlem residents. But to imply that getting from a minimum wage job to a job that pays more than twice is not success, to my mind puts too privileged a lense on success.

In college I had a classmate once say “you can’t raise a family on $30,000 per year.” I wanted to drag him to the side of town where people regularly do just that. I wanted to respond “funny, my parents did.”

Being poor does not make you strong and noble and creative. Being poor also does not doom you to unrelenting, inescapable misery. The truth is a much more nuanced something in between. And if you need a tired, disillusioned graduate student to point this out to you, then maybe you need to get your ass out of your protective tower and actually talk to someone whose name is not followed by a string of letters. Either that or you need to start calling yourself an “expert” on something else entirely. Because tires with flowers planted in them don’t make everything all better. And are you really willing to pay enough for the services you consume to pay all those workers more than $30,000 a year to support your privileged lifestyle? The fact that my parents pays all their living expenses for less money than some of you pay for your children’s private school tuition does not make them better than you. But it doesn’t make them worse either.

As a final note, to put my anger at E’s comments about Appalachia into a bit more perspective I will offer a few details of my own background. My mother’s family comes from the hills of Ohio, which is to say Appalachia. My family tree is populated by genuine hill-billies, not the quaint, struck oil and now live in LA kind you can see in reruns. Plus, growing up my grandparents (who I always saw as the very archetype of middle-class since they owned a house with a swimming pool) had at least two tractor tire planters in the back yard.

Let’s just say that, a year later, I still can’t find the words for how I felt sitting in that conversation. I remember trying to find the words to answer the things that he was saying. I remember spending the rest of the night wondering if I should pull him aside and explain to him that nowhere is “white trash” a compliment. And I remember crying the entire drive home because it hit me during the course of that night–while eating fancy catered food in a house nicer than anything my high school self could ever have imagined affording, in a neighborhood where houses cost more than my father will have made in his entire work history–that I will likely spend the rest of my life making the calculations I made during that conversation. Can I afford to challenge this? How do I explain the degree to which I am offended by this without seeming rude, reactionary, or otherwise unprofessional? Ultimately, someone tactfully changed the subject before I could offer a rejoinder. Notably everyone else in the conversation seemed uncomfortable. But no one challenged E on his statements. In that night it became clear to me that the off hand problematic comments I heard and the offensive assumptions about the poor that are dropped into talks and sometimes even into research papers weren’t just idiosyncratic pieces of personal ignorance. In that night it dawned on me, much the way that the pain from a punch in the gut dawns on you, that what I was looking at was a trend.