Are you bored with the site so far? Yeah, so am I. I definitely feel like I’m going through the motions, but I thought that was to be expected. I mean it’s getting back into the swing of things isn’t it? Some of that is writing for the sake of writing, for exercise as it were. But it doesn’t feel that way, it still feels forced, which is a bit demoralizing. I was rather hoping for the old, familiar feeling to return. The inspiration, or outrage, to take over and leave me shivering in a pool of my own sweat wondering what had happened and finding a fully formed post in front of me. Sort of automatic writing meets lycanthropy, which is a little bit like it used to be. Alas, nothing yet. In the meantime, I’m bored with my writing, with myself, with reading. So I am sitting her trying to make something from nothing.
If you live in the SF Bay Area, you’ve no doubt seen the “Google Bus” or one of it’s clones serving a rival company. They coast up and down the major freeways, carting company employees from the main campuses of the tech giants to the neighborhoods in San Francisco, Oakland, etc, where those employees live. At first glance it seems like a good idea, and a way to keep the already congested roads from getting more congested. However, you do start to notice that the buses and their drivers – somewhat ironically – muscle their way into carpool lanes and drive as they please.
The other, perhaps more pernicious thing, is the effect that this has had on real estate costs in the area. The well-paid tech company employees are no longer limited by considerations of proximity to work, and so they move to the desirable spots and live there, driving up the costs of rent, and mortgages. Look here to see how much that ends up being. This has lead to protests, blocking of the buses and a general backlash against the tech workers, and, to a lesser extent, their employers. This is the local face of the currently widening gap between the wealthy and everybody else. However, it’s a spurious face.
In the Bay Area, there are a good number of financial firms, banks, brokerages etc. However their employees are few, they choose to live where “rich” folks live (mainly in the N. Bay) and they are unobtrusive. They don’t have the easily identifiable features that the tech workers being disgorged from their buses do, but they have a similar effect on real estate prices. There’s also the fact that the tech workers are pretty much doing what young people have done for the last 40 or 50 years: hear about how awesome SF is, decide to move there and do what they love. They only difference is that they’re employed in well paying jobs. So why should they get a bad rap? It seems to me that the real issue is that the gap just keeps getting wider, with less opportunity to move up. The City, County and State no longer depend on business to pay a fair share of property taxes (thanks Prop 13) and so it falls squarely on residents to shore up the tax base. You can guess who they’d rather have living here.
So what can we do as engaged residents (full disclosure: I work for a tech firm, but we don’t have a bus or any sort of awesome perks beyond getting paid more than the median)?
1. Almost 20 years ago (my God, has it been that long?) I was sifting through a box of old papers that my mother had. We had a lot of boxes still sitting in a disused room, not from our most recent move, but from the move back from the UK when I was a toddler. I liked to look through them because I’d find all sorts of things: old pictures, books to read, that sort of thing. This time I found an envelope and in it were all sorts of notes on pieces of paper of various colors. I looked through them and found limericks and other short verse. When I took them to my mother she told me that my father had written them back when they were newlyweds. The verse was light, and the sentiments contained in them was evocative and sweet without being overpowering. Mom looked wistfully at the paper and then looked up at me silently. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking (which is nothing new), and for a moment wondered if she was mad at me for poking around. Then she smiled and said Dad had been more romantic then, but was just tricking her. She smiled some more, crinkled her nose at her own joke and went back to doing what she had been doing, keeping the papers next to her. I left the room and thought about my Dad. Jocular, sarcastic, gruff; these were all words I could associate with him, but romantic wasn’t one of those words. What else didn’t I know about Dad?
2. In the improbable cultural desert of Mesa, Arizona, I got into slam poetry. This wasn’t an overnight situation, a 24 hour fever of words and performance, but sort of like a slowly spreading cancer that went full blown before getting wrestled into submission. Graduate school was a time of words for me. I worked in a library and a bookstore before I started doing research full-time, spending most weeknights shuttling around fiction, shelving, re-shelving and surreptitiously perusing the back covers of books. It was one of the few pleasures of working there, in an affluent suburb of Phoenix, populated by former trophy wives, underachieving private school kids, and red faced sides of beef in bermuda shorts and polos. I’d always loved books and read somewhat compulsively, but time constraints and lack of opportunity had slowed down my appetite. Here I could graze, digesting synopses and occasionally borrowing a book to read on my break. I found myself writing more as well, behind the barricade of the Information Desk, jotting down story ideas, pithy phrases and snippets of verse on the scrap paper kept behind the desk for noting down which Oprah book was being requested by a customer. I started to write full fledged short stories, epic poems, notes – all on these 4 by 5 inch scraps of paper – and taking them home at night. I eventually bought a notebook and transcribed my work into it, editing as I went, throwing things out that were embarrassing in the bright light of day.
I don’t recall how I stumbled on the slam poetry scene, but it was an eye opener. It was poetry that wasn’t lame, or ancient, or rhyming. It was raw and funny, awkward like a diary entry, and seemed familiar to me. This was doable. So I started scrawling behind the counter at work (and also at work), and throwing it away, and rewriting, and some of it wasn’t half bad. It wasn’t half good either, but I tried to make up for it with performance (which works in slam, totally works). It was so much fun playing with words, trying to squeeze some humor out of childhood slights, adolescent loneliness, and stress. I got to put my wonder on paper. I learned a lot about myself.
3. I’m approaching middle age and words escape me a lot of the time. I like to joke that I’m old, but honestly I’m still on this side of 40, so what gives? I’m out of practice I guess. You fall out of the habit of writing and suddenly it’s just difficult, doubly so for poetry. I haven’t written a line for a long time, and don’t feel like I could get back there easily. But remission is deceptive, the disease sits dormant in your bones, in your cells. It’s not that far away, right?
I find myself on El-Face far too often for my own liking. A large of the dislike is part of my own deeply seated character flaws, wherein liking something that everyone else likes is anathema; but some of the dislike is a result of El-Face’s antics. Whether they’re selling my data to the government, or using it to foist terrible games on me, it always seems a heavy handed “aren’t we all having fun, guys?” manic-ness that guides them and it’s irritating.
Most recently they decided to commemorate their 10th anniversary by having a naked display of their knowledge of our lives. That is to say, they made a slide show “movie” of significant (most liked) activities and images, all set to a tune not out of place in an iPhone commercial. I guess the gesture was lovely and all, but it felt oddly forced (as in, forced to have an algorithm aggregate my images and activities without my prior consent), as well as being, in the end, quite generic. Everyone had the same song, the same format. “Well what do you expect, you gloomy Gus?” you might ask, “Did you expect them to get Scorsese to direct a short film for you?” To which I answer, no, I expected them to do nothing. I expected them to have their own little film of their own employees and founder and campus and whatnot, and to leave me out of it. I’m only here for the baby pictures and the amateur political commentary, not to be roped into the world’s least fun office party.
I also realize that I could stop using El-Face at any time, but I think you know the answer to that. It’s currently how stay connected to the more far flung parts of my social universe. Thankfully, now that the blog is back up, it need no longer serve as the place where make myself heard and known.
I was commuting down to work with my colleague/boss the other morning listening to the news of the State of the Union address when I was suddenly struck by the fact that we might be living at a historical inflection point. To be fair, I frequently wonder about that sort of thing, and frankly it’s a silly question. After all, you can rarely tell what history will say about a moment until you look back at it. But I digress …
In the State of the Union, the President had mentioned the need to address economic inequality in the country. It got me thinking about the last hundred years in the US, and what had happened. Were we fooling ourselves into thinking that the “American Dream” is something achievable for the majority of the population? What had made it achievable in the past? It seems to me that in a globalized world economy we have seen the outsourcing of manufacturing (the backbone of the post-war economic boom, and the path many Americans took to the middle class) which, among many other factors, has made the path to prosperity much less accessible. It’s also made the economy as a whole shakier in my opinion. With this in mind, I was surprised to see this article in the NYTimes when I arrived at work.
The article discusses the book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which posits the inevitability of inequality as a result of free market capitalism. In essence, inequality is always going to happen, unless government action (in the form of market regulation, or tax structures, or what have you) put the brakes on it. This is less and less likely due to the fetishism of deregulation and small government, as well as the global nature of capital now. The fact that we even had a period where this was not inevitable was due to the historical and economic shocks of the World Wars and the Great Depression. That behind us, we’re living in a country much more similar to how it was in the 19th century than what it was in the 20th. Do we have the stomach to change it, and if so, are we even able to make those changes? Time will tell but I am not confident. We may be seeing a future with much more unrest like the less-funny-than-it-sounds Google Bus Riots of a few weeks ago.
But who knows? I could be wrong.
It’s been a long while since I’ve put my thoughts down in a coherent way in a non-professional capacity. With this new platform adding to the complication, I definitely have the sense of a man lost inside a large building where he used to work. I’m wandering from room to room, trying to remember what I used to do there, or looking for things that I left in that room several years. It’s a little disconcerting …
Having said that, it’s good to be back. I have been feeling constrained by the currently popular methods of opinionating. Your Twitters and Facebooks just don’t give me the room for long winded bloviating that I had grown accustomed to. The twee layouts; the juxtaposition of profound statements on inequality with cute cat videos; it just gets you down, you know? I won’t deny that my own instinct to swim against the stream and rage against current fashion is a significant driver here (a friend once remarked that as a story structure my life was best described as “man against his environment”), but I’d also like to retain my individuality. I’d also like to keep my data from being as easily mined as it has been – but I’ll talk more about that later.
Anyway if I seem like an absentminded museum curator from a 50’s film, please excuse me. I will be getting more dynamic as I find my feet and voice again.
Or a return anyway… sorry it’s taken so long to get back to this. I’ve changed blog software and so my archives are stored on my hard drive at home. So it may be awhile before they’re available again. In the meantime, I’ll be blogging about the new things in my life so stay tuned.