Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Workaday Anomie

So, I’m headed back to the weekday grind after our annual three-day weekend celebration of all things ‘Murica and I’m having my typical internal struggles readjusting from the insulated slack of domesticity to the raw, exposed tensions of public life in the Imperial City.

Everything is an irritating hindrance to me on these mornings: the firefighters goofing over lottery tickets as I wait behind them to buy my first cigarette of the day; the punitively exorbitant price of said cigarettes; the precarity of dodging auto traffic on my bike as I roll to the ‘L’ station; the young man, obviously homeless and troubled, who smells so bad I have to switch cars immediately; the lady playing games on her cell phone with the volume way up; the fact that I’m running late again, as usual; in sum, the typical garbage complaints that'll prompt me to vacillate between hating the world for creating these situations and blaming myself for some more or less obvious degree of complicity in them.

Each weekday morning kicks off another such round of mentally wrestling with and untangling these unwanted involvements in social dysfunction, until Friday rolls around again and I land on “Fuck it!” as the weekly provisional solution. And then I let everything else slack until next Monday morning, just trying to enjoy every minute I can with my wife and daughter before I have to go out and re-earn that modest privilege, time and time again.

I wish that I could just stay home and earn my family's bread as a writer or luthier or something autonomous, artisan and above all, home-based, and so now I write this down instead of percolating the Bad Thoughts to discharge, worthless, into the ether of Shoulda-Coulda-Woulda wishful thinking and social media.

So in the few hundred words and 15 minutes I have left on today's journey, let's talk about wishful thinking. Of all our savvy judgments about how others can manifest better success from their circumstances, or at least avert tragedies, it’s important to keep an internally clear view of the normative assumptions that (mis)inform those judgements.

Case in point: I was skimming through Reddit this morning (so there's a mistake on my part right off the bat) and came across an unfortunate story about a young man who was murdered and left his mother with over a quarter million dollars in student loan debt, which the State of New Jersey does not see fit to write down. The sad tale, as related in a Sacramento Bee article reprinted from NYT, was terrible enough in its own right, but the comments were just as exasperating. (Axiom: If you want to stay reasonably happy and sane in online discourse, never read the comments!) Indeed, it seemed that the more credit the commenters gave themselves for being rational and discerning, the more obtuse and purblind were their remarks.

For instance, several hollered “Misleading headline/clickbait!” -- never mind that the story’s particulars were every bit as depressing and systemically unjust as the copy editor’s gloss proclaimed. A handful more helpfully pointed out that since the mother had cosigned for her late son’s onerous and almost certainly insurmountable debt, that squared things just fine in their P's O.V.: because the Law is the Law and a Contract is a Contract, (in)human consequences be damned.

Also appearing: a small chorus berating the deceased as “stupid” for racking up such exorbitant debt, even by college tuition standards (“I only [sic] owed $30k when I graduated!”) -- again, assuming all other background elements were ethical & normative business-as-usual in the marketing and financing of higher ed degrees; no-siree-Bob, I didn't get taken because I got a scholarship/studied Engineering instead of Humanities/refi’d my loans and ate peanut butter for 10 years until I was debt-free/etc. How clever & enterprising, bully for you, society's "winners!"

So two things pop out as I review the general tenor of the blockheaded yes-buts that afford this sage audience the luxury of saying, Sorry, but life is unfair and that young man was a fool -- so just maybe Mom sorta deserves to live out her remaining years as a de facto debt slave, having raised a fool who not only spent more than anyone can reasonably afford on a college education but also managed to get himself killed before he could start earning anything near sufficient to redeem it.

First, all these sophomoric yokels are obviously grasping at any straw in this sorry tale that allows them to reassure themselves, “Nothing like that could ever happen to me or my family; I’m way too smart for that.” As if God, the Fates, or our nation’s all-powerful network of credit rating agencies and bill collectors give a withered fig how smart or hard-working or [insert laudable human quality] one happens to be, you stupid marks! We are nothing but numbers to them, a flock to be fleeced, and ‘there but for the grace of God’ go we all. If there is any real lesson to be gained from this unfortunate story, I think the OP’s implied point -- that we are ALL fucked by our country’s systematically predatory college financing debt-indenture racket -- easily withstands your parsimonious false moralizing. I mean, wow, if Nietzsche really thought the Christian culture of his day imbued a "slave morality" in the masses, he'd have been fucking blown away by the normalized deviance, internalized oppression, and craven boot-licking exhibited by this post-2008 American debtor class. Europeans of his day would've been rioting in the streets over such blatant and heartless depredations (some still do), while instead we proud, wise and free Americans respond with a collective shrug and say, "Meh, not my problem -- caveat emptor, dude!"

Second, I have to be wary of any inclination I might harbor to think that I’m more wise than these callous, narcissistic idiots. After all, I got taken for about $40k too, merit scholarship and all.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Ten Books

Lessee, "Ten Books That Have Shaped My Life," eh? Gonna make a quick, gut-check run of it, sans filter. Forgive any titles that seem cliche -- it's the books' fault for making me who I am!
1.) On The Road by Jack Kerouac. In retrospect, a terrible novel and even worse as a formative influence, but Dean Moriarty (nee Neal Cassady) is the epitome of the restless, American-dreaming hustler. The trick to any useful reading of OTR is to recognize that Dean is the villain and Sal is just a hollow enabler-narrator, like Gatsby's Nick or Ahab's Ishmael (see #6 below also). The rest is just kicks.

2.) [TIE] To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Two YA-targeted titles that gave me my first really rich experiences of story as emotional transportation. I don't care if you think TKAM is a maudlin fluke, or call foul on shoehorning an extra pick into a Top 10 with a tie; they're both undeniable exemplars of beautifully lyrical, moving prose.

3.) The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. There's not much I can add to what I've already said about it elsewhere, but if you want to understand where, how and why American architecture & city planning went completely off the rails -- plus some solid leads as to everything else amiss with our national way of life, from Ferguson to Iraq -- then you'd better read it. It's also really, fumingly, acidly funny. READ IT!

4.) Technics and Civilization by Lewis Mumford. Like everything else in Mumford's oeuvre, an epic, sweeping work of narrative social history. Charts the past, present, and still-possible (albeit increasingly dicey) future of Western industrial civilization. Originally published in 1934, I'm still encountering prescient wisdom in it even as I re-read today.

5.) The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Because cities are for people -- ALL the people! -- you Prada-shopping, car-worshiping idiots.

6.) Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. The definitive proof that dead white male Anglophone bravo literature DOES have something timeless and relevant to convey about the human condition -- if you can just table your post-modern hangups and addled attention span for long enough to actually engage with it.

7.) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson. Everybody and your mother knows all about the drug-fueled, wacky hijinks of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- because sure, why not, it's a scant 100-and-some-odd pages of fictionalized mayhem that your own youthful benders can be measured against in the game of "Lemme tell you how fucked up I got this one time." (Not to mention the faithful film adaptation starring Johnny Depp, because screw reading anyway, right?) But that's just the Intro to HST text, junior: this is the gnarly, down & dirty, inside-the-sausage-factory stuff about how a modern, major-party candidacy is actually concocted, written with the pith of a grizzled cynic and the savvy of a fast-talking horse-bettor who consistently out-sharps house and rubes alike.

8.) Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches From the Dumb Season by Matt Taibbi. A worthy redux of HST's "Boys on the Bus" bit (see #7 above). On the 2004 campaign trail with the Dems' risible patsy, John Kerry, Taibbi argues pretty convincingly that nothing about Watergate, Iran-Contra, 9/11 or any other benchmark, soul-searching moment in the dark night of the American dream has altered or reversed the hollowing out of our so-called republican democracy for a vainglorious, theatrical sham we call "election season". The bits about the quixotic Kucinich candidacy and the ugly realities of our national character (hint: we despise the weak and poor) make me want to simultaneously pump my fist in righteousness and cry for sorrow & shame. It's also a very funny book.

9.) A System of Ornament According with a Philosophy of Man's Powers by Louis Sullivan. The fact that this remarkable, nigh-magical book is out-of-print and virtually unknown, even in the studios, tells you all you really need to know about the untimely death of American architecture and handicraft.

10.) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The grown-up version of the sweet pain I felt reading my #2 picks. Watch in awe as a poet and Nobel laureate (who was banned from the U.S. until the mid-'90s for his socialist politics, natch) slowly and painstakingly constructs a fully realized, multi-generational capsule world in the fictional village of Macondo -- and then collapses it right before your eyes in the final chapter, as if it were made of magician's flash-paper. Simply stunning.

Alright then, there ya go. Who else is up for the challenge? Maybe next I'll do Ten Albums That Changed My Life ...

PS: I feel terribly remiss not having anything by Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut on this list -- not to mention the ever-popular Orwell-Huxley dyad -- but that's what happens when you publish everything as a first draft, social media style. So it goes.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

May the Farce Be With You: Lucas UFO Denied Landing

[The following is a TL;DR comment from a friendly Facebook thread, edited for an open audience.] 

I've heard and get the gist of the arguments for and against the Lucas Museum, and haven’t previously gone in-depth regarding this “nontroversy” ... but two things about the spiraling foofaraw have been particularly galling me, so here’s my unsolicited amateur expert opinion:

1.) I've been really boggled by the emerging social/media narrative that has cast a public-interest org dedicated to the "open, clear, and free" lakefront as an elitist, malevolent killjoy -- contra the backroom machinations of a mayor who's spot-on central casting for "icy, profiteering A-hole who closes public schools en masse and kicks the indigent and mentally ill into the gutter," no less! That's not even hyperbole, that's just who and what Rahm Emanuel is -- a villain; a snake; a public menace. 

As a matter of political context, the narrative setup described above is just plain crazy, y’all. Indeed, this media-theater role reversal is not only counterintuitive but completely backwards, and that circumstance alone behooves a bit more careful introspection on the part of those grumbling about Friends of the Parks purportedly spoiling everyone's fun "to save a parking lot." One faction's story about what's "good for the city" is another man's boondoggle -- not to mention the incipient opportunity costs for those citizens not well-situated to benefit from the booming tourist, tech, and FIRE-sector bubbles cultivated downtown by Chicago's ruling class.  

Just think about the mental and rhetorical gymnastics required to make FOTP the bad guy in this scenario. It's completely bonkers.

2.) Those renderings ... those inexcusably vague yet unaccountably persistent, reprehensibly vapid, trying-so-hard-to-be-cutting-edge-it's-just-gauche, ugly blobitecture concept renderings … GAH! I know taste is subjective and many (if not most) people are easily gulled by this kind of fashion-forward parametric nonsense, but IMO it’s just freaking atrocious and wholly inappropriate for any site IRL; save maybe some ex-Soviet satellite backwater burg awkwardly trying to co-opt the Bilbao Effect way too late in the game.

I mean, just look at that thing. Put aside the warm fuzzy feels of your Star Wars: Original Trilogy nostalgia and Windy City boosterism for just a moment (if you possibly can) and look at the design aesthetic and building form per se. Take away the movie magic and put it on a studio presentation board from some anonymous upstart, and all the hype melts into a shapeless, colorless wad of parametric pixel-dough, topped with a circular fluorotube from a dusty old drafter's desk-lamp.

Once one sees it for what it is, prima facie, and mentally reconnects it with the patron and program, then it’s just begging for some prankster (with better photo manipulation skills than mine) to mash up with an image of Jabba the freaking Hutt, to focus all the unharnessed ridicule it rightly deserves into a scorching laser-beam of hate. I can't stand it, and yes, I might even prefer the existing parking lot instead. And anyone who rides with my careening trains of thought online knows there are few things in our built environment I hate more than a goddamned surface parking lot.

So, sorry, but No. Sharpen your pencil – a PENCIL, please – and try again, geniuses. If you want to clutter up our public lakefront with more gargantuan, private-profit tourist attractions (and let me also add that there are too damn many of those already) you’ve got to do better than this. This is just a tawdry, rube-hustling travesty masquerading as High Design. And I think we all know it. 

FULL DISCLOSURE: I say all of the above in spite of my notorious status as a die-hard, cosplaying, merch-collecting, mentally certifiable SW/LucasFilm fanboy. In any other site or building context, I would love, love, LOVE to enjoy this proposed museum’s program. (Oh, and BTW: re-purposing Gene Summers' beloved Lakeside Center complex is off-the-menu why, exactly? Duh, because every new program deserves its own brand-new "statement" building, instead of adapting an existing structure purpose-built for large, flexible programs; also we're still rich enough a city and nation that we can afford to throw away entire mega-structures ... okay, sure, it's your empire, Mr. Mayor.) So if I had an axe to grind, "common sense" would have me swinging it the other way -- but no, this is a garbage idea, and it fully deserves to be shot down, loaded onto a barge, and unceremoniously dumped somewhere far downstate, where the population's sparse and landfill space abundant.