28 October 2008

Country vs. City

I'm just returning from an unexpected trip to a rural area of the East Coast - aka "Real America" - near the state line of Maryland and West Virginia, and I wanted to share some observations that I made while I was there.

First off, I am impressed with and amazed by the connection to the land that the people who live there forge. Really you don't have a choice ... if you grow up there, or if you make the choice at some point in your life to move away from civilization, you are confronted with the trees, animals and earth nearly every time you step out of the house. It is breathtaking. And you have to improvise as well. Every time we wanted to go somewhere, we had to cross a one-lane wooden bridge over a large creek that many people I know would simply balk at. But there it was, and it even had a toll booth.

That said, I feel a little wiser for the experience. What troubles me about these rural inhabitants is that no one is truly disconnected from the grid, and drawing resources so far out in the middle of nowhere, I feel like many of these dwellings are doing a disservice to the landscape. I wish I had seen a house that was really integrated with the land, that used solar power or wind for energy, that collected and filtered its own water, and that had its own thriving vegetable garden for food. Unfortunately I did not see such a house, and few of the homes I did see were actually attached to farms. I don't think I could ever live so far away from civilization without making my home completely self-sufficient. We have infrastructure for a reason and until we can figure out how to make these types of self-sustaining homes, the fringe-dwellers are only stretching our already-thin resources.

I come back to my idea of living in the city then (as if I had ever left). And I love cities, many of them, for reasons such as those presented by this article in the NY Times, which discusses an "an election contingency clause" presented by the owners of two condo developments in Manhattan which allows buyers to back out of contracts signed between now and Election Day if Barack Obama fails to win the presidency. No, I'm not kidding. Does anyone else think this is brilliant? I mean, fair play to their marketing department for getting themselves free press in the New York Times, not to mention facing reality.

So upon my return from the "Real America", where I did see many McCain-Palin signs, but also many Obama-Biden signs, I thought I would give a shout out to all of my people in "Fake America" who know that life will get better for ALL Americans if Obama is elected. Seven days before the most anxiety producing election I have ever known, my fingers are crossed.

The Awesome Obama HQ in "Real America", aka Cumberland, MD

21 October 2008

Sea change

sea change –noun
  1. a striking change, as in appearance, often for the better.
  2. any major transformation or alteration.
  3. a transformation brought about by the sea.
I like that last definition. I think we can change it to read "a transformation brought about by the sea of people".....

I wish I could vote today. This Presidential election has gone on entirely too long, and caused me entirely too much anxiety. Especially when I'm in the middle of trying to complete a Master's thesis. For someone as interested in politics as I am, the excitement of this campaign has been a heady distraction from my thesis work.

But it has also awakened the country from its complacency and exhaustion after 8 years of enduring an incompetent Commander in Chief. And it's caused me to put some things in perspective:
  1. For a long time, I've been having a lot of angst about the generational gap in the U.S. I look at Bush, Cheney, and that whole band of loonies and think, "my goodness, their generation ruined everything...and what it didn't ruin the first time, it's trying to ruin now." And I've been thinking that my generation has been trying to make things right again all by ourselves. But that discounts my own parents, who are good, hardworking, sensible people; and, although they have never aspired to the presidency, I think that they could have run this country a hell of a lot better than the current administration. They, like many other sensible parents, are looking forward to sea change in this country.
  2. This campaign has also caused several of my friends who previously had no interest in voting or even talking about politics to both register to vote and to talk about politics. Imagine my surprise when I'm having political conversations with those close friends who have never breached the subject with me before! They, too, are looking forward to sea change in this country.
  3. What disturbs me most about these final weeks of the campaign is the ugliness and latent hatred that is starting to come out on the other side. It's also made me realize how glad I am that I know so many good people who reject this type of hatred. The "win at any cost" approach is pretty much the opposite of what this country needs right now as it faces down economic turmoil like we have never seen in my lifetime. And because of this economic challenge, the country desperately needs a sea change.
All of this leads me to reiterate that which Jon Stewart mocked so freely in last night's Daily Show: the idea that somehow, some parts of this country are "anti-America" because they do not support the McCain-Palin ticket. Governor Palin's comments last week, coupled with the lunacy of Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann declaring that members of Congress should be investigated as to whether they are pro- or anti-American, and McCain's top advisor Nancy Pft-whatever-her-name-is saying that southern parts of Virginia are "real Virginia," are completely and utterly disturbing. Not only are they divisive, the last flailing desperate remarks of a campaign that has watched all of its other cynical campaign tactics fail, they are dangerous. They suggest an America divided and hearken back to the passion that I imagine was felt on both sides of the country during the Civil War. Those of us who support Barack Obama and Joe Biden do so out of a hope that this country can be repaired, re-energized, and rebuilt, and comments like this threaten not only our hope, but they threaten us personally. If I'm anti-American because I've sacrificed a few dinners out so that I could give some of my meager graduate student's budget to support the best hope of my generation to make this country better a better place, then so be it. But the truth is, I'm not anti-American. My thesis, my life's work for the next year is dedicated to teaching people - in America - about how to save energy in their homes. And no, I'm not dividing the information between people in some parts of the country and people in other, "more real" parts of the country.

The truth is that the McCain-Palin campaign is spiraling into a pattern of fear-mongering, latent racism, and divisiveness that we, as a country, need to put behind us, once and for all. The U.S. is not only ready for a sea change, it is hungry for it. One needs only to see the staggering $150 million that was donated to the Obama campaign - during the month of September alone - to understand that.

So these are just things that I've been thinking lately and I needed to get them off my chest. I will leave you with a video of General Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama which I found to be eloquent and inspiring. That is not stopping the lunatics on the other side from using racist remarks to smear the General (a 4-star general, for god's sakes), but it's worth watching, nonetheless.

If even a decorated war hero, formerly of two conservative administrations, is ready for a sea change, I think it's time.

Update, 3 November 2008: Even MSNBC agrees with me ... sort of.

16 October 2008

Taking off the rose-colored glasses

Los Angeles is such a strange and funny place. A year ago, my internet buddy Geoff wrote an ode to Los Angeles that I love, but that I have come to disagree with to a certain extent. To be completely honest, I don't think I would have moved here on my own, on purpose, had it not been for graduate school, and the school that I ended up in was not my first choice originally ... until I visited and discovered USC was pretty great.

And so I did move here, over a year ago now, and it was such an exciting journey. I got to see so much of the country that I had not seen before, with a good friend and my cat in tow. It was tough but really wonderful, and the rewards have included not only going back to school and finding so many new opportunities, but also realizing that I have another great friend - in addition to some existing really awesome ones - that I can rely on.

This is where the "but" comes in. BUT ... now that I've been here a year, I feel like I have some perspective. There is something to be said for first impressions, and while they are not always appropriate, my first impression of LA, on my first trip here in 1999, was that it was a massive, dangerous, and generally unpleasant. And of course the city has changed so much since then, with new development, improvements in public transportation, and real inroads into making the city a more sustainable place. But, the longer I live here, the more I start to see evidence of that first impression creeping back.

The thing that I find most amazing, in my own experience, is the similarities between LA and the city that I left behind, Cincinnati. On paper you might not find a clear comparison. But on paper, you might not find a person that has lived years in transitional Downtown areas of both of these cities, as I have. Cincinnati, like LA, had race riots, and both cities struggled to heal from those tumultuous times. Cincy and LA have both recently seen efforts to resurrect the residential districts of their Downtowns that suffered greatly after "white flight" to the suburbs decades ago. Both cities have intense vehicular traffic and public transportation systems that should be functioning much better than they currently do because of their reliance on the automobile. And both cities are trying to remedy that, each with its own version of resistance.

The part where it gets amazing is when you look at the scale of these cities. Cincinnati is a city of around 350,000 with a metropolitan area of 2 million. Los Angeles is a city of 4 million with a metropolitan area of 15 million. So the problems that I saw in Cincinnati are multiplied, theoretically, by a factor of roughly 7 in Los Angeles. And the thing that troubles me the most in this scenario is in the issue of evolving race relations. Cincinnati still has lingering issues with race relations, more than 7 years after its race riots. The primary source of conflict, in my opinion, was the distrust of the urbanized and typically less-well-off African-American population by the middle-class, suburban white population. There were good people and many misunderstandings on both sides of this debate in Cincinnati when I lived there. Most of what I saw had to do with perception and misconceptions.

I wish I could have brought some of the trees from my old street in Cincinnati with me to LA. It's too dry here for them, I think.

Fast forward to Los Angeles, and my life a few blocks away from Skid Row. The thing that troubles me here is that there is not just one cultural group that may experience conflict with one other group ... it's that there are so many cultures, and when you increase the number of cultures, you increase the potential for conflicts. The way NOT to handle this, I would say, is by insulating yourself from other people who are your neighbors, as the Latino community did last weekend in Downtown LA. Regarding this event, Blogdowntown wrote "And if I am allowed to dream on a long weekend; in a city that boasts cultural diversity, why isn’t there a parade that gives everyone a chance to be represented on one day, on one street? Parades are segregated. There is no Cultural Diversity March that has, say, two entries from the best of L.A.’s ethnic and holiday parades." I don't know why this particular situation struck such a chord with me, but it led me to write this post, and I think it's indicative of the state of cultural relations in this city. And this is where I start to really have problems. Because even Cincinnati - little, sometimes backwards Cincinnati - knew how to throw a parade, and a festival, and a block party that included everyone.

Over-the-Rhine, just north of Downtown Cincinnati, threw darn good block parties.

So I know this is really super long and kudos if you are still reading, but this has got me thinking a lot lately. I could be wrong but it doesn't seem like other major cities in the U.S. experience these issues, or if they do, they deal with them a lot better. It just seems to me that if Los Angeles wants to survive and not render itself functionally obsolete, it needs to encourage its citizens to live with each other, not just next to each other; to work together, not apart. And in return, these citizens need to learn to take care of their community, and eventually give back. Since LA's problems are multiplied by a factor of 7, it's got a lot more at stake. Geoff Manaugh writes in his ode, "... the huge irony is that Southern California is where you can actually do what you want to do; you can just relax and be ridiculous." But how much longer can LA continue on its current path before even relaxing becomes ridiculous? I may just be asking the question now, but LA needed the answer yesterday.

12 October 2008

Back from hiatus

In my last post I talked about things that keep me up at night. It turns out that wasn't even the tip of the iceberg. Today I'm going to talk about things that keep me away from blogging, or, "where I've been the last two weeks."

So, I had this birthday. It was a milestone as far as birthdays go - 30. I've been waiting for it for a few months, most of my friends are older than me so I was prepared. They tell me that I am now allowed to do whatever I want and my excuse will simply be "because I'm 30." I am fine with this.

I am able to forgive those of my best friends who forgot my birthday because they were probably too busy watching the stock market tumble off a cliff. A year ago on my birthday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit an all-time high - over 14,100. Two days ago it was below 8600. That's a loss of 40% of its value. I believe that they said this translated to a cash loss of trillions of dollars.

And as far as the market goes, I'm sure we all took a hit somehow. The same day it closed below 8600 I received a piece of paper from the financial firm that manages my 401k. Thinking it was my new statement, I opened it, and expected to see losses. What I didn't expect was a bunch of negative numbers and a zero balance. Turns out that my account was transferred to a different company (they forgot to tell me about this) and this terrifying piece of paper was simply a reflection of the money being transferred. My 401k is still there! Smaller, but still there. Thank goodness.

Meanwhile at home, my cat has been sick. Sorry, this is probably a totally bizarre thing to discuss in the midst of a financial crisis, but coming home every day to the question of "did she or didn't she pee on my bed" will have an effect on how you live your life. It wouldn't have been so bad but she lost a lot of weight and that was a little scary. In fact, like the stock market, my cat lost 40% of her value. She went from 10 pounds to 6! I think she is now on the road to recovery. Jury is still out on the "pee" question though.

So the cat has me worried, the state of our economy and our future in the world as a result has me worried, and oh by the way, a generation-defining election is in its last rounds right now. Has anyone been watching the debates? Of course you have. My mind was made up so long ago that they have done nothing for me but I am amazed to see that people are still deciding and that these debates have an effect. I am also glad to see that many people are starting to come around to what I said when she first appeared on our TVs six weeks ago....

Last but not least, I participated in an exhibition on Friday with an idea that I have been working on that is tangential to my thesis work. I blogged about this on Archinect so I won't repeat myself but I will point you to that post. It was a beautiful day and I got a lot of great feedback, and who knows, I may be turning it into something sometime soon.

ANYWAY ... I'm still here in Southern California, just trying to get through the year. Drop me a line when you get a chance. Cheers.