Palaces For The People

I’m two-thirds through Eric Klinenberg’s excellent book Palaces For The People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, And The Decline Of Civic Life. The book jacket explains what Klinenberg means by “social infrastructure” and why it matters:

“Klinenberg believes that the future of democratic societies rests not simply on shared values but on shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centers, bookstores, churches, synagogues, and parks in which crucial sometimes life-saving connections, are formed. These are places where people gather and linger, making friends across group lines and strengthening the entire community. Klinenberg calls this the ‘social infrastructure.’ When it is strong, neighborhoods flourish; when it is neglected, as it has been in recent years, families and individuals must fend for themselves.”

Klinenberg makes a particularly strong case for public libraries. If I was Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Jeff Bezos, that’s where I’d focus a significant portion of my philanthropy.

Where I’m at currently in the book, Klinenberg is drawing on Jeff Wiltse’s social history of municipal swimming pools in the United States which I may have to read next. Wiltse offers searing reminders of our longstanding struggles with racism. For example, he recounts the story of a Little League Baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, that celebrated its city championship in 1951 at a beautiful municipal pool in South Side Park.

The team had one African American player, Al Bright, and lifeguards refused to let him past the perimeter fence while the other players swam. When several parents protested, the supervisor agreed to let Al ‘enter’ the pool for a few minutes, but only if everyone else got out and Al agreed to sit inside a rubber raft. While everyone watched, a lifeguard pushed Al around the pool shouting, ‘whatever you do, don’t touch the water!”

Wiltse adds:

“This was not an isolated incident, nor was it restricted to certain parts of the United States. Two years later, in 1953, the great African American film star Dorothy Dandridge dipped her toes in the swimming pool at the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, which welcomed her as a performer but banned her, and all other blacks, from the water. The hotel responded by draining the entire pool.”

These mind-numbing historical anecdotes aside, Palaces For The People is a hopeful work.

In the United States, there are two fundamental problems with implementing the convincing road maps that Klinenberg and other social scientists outline for safer, healthier, more vibrant communities. Everyone’s ingrained individualism coupled with many people’s refusal to acknowledge that publicly funded government programs often make significant contributions to the common good.

 

 

Weekend Assorted Links

1. Everything you think you know about obesity is wrong. So damn substantive, I should probably just stop here. A must read for anyone interested in being a more intelligent, caring human being. Here’s some context:

“About 40 years ago, Americans started getting much larger. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80 percent of adults and about one-third of children now meet the clinical definition of overweight or obese. More Americans live with “extreme obesity“ than with breast cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and HIV put together.

And the medical community’s primary response to this shift has been to blame fat people for being fat. Obesity, we are told, is a personal failing that strains our health care system, shrinks our GDP and saps our military strength. It is also an excuse to bully fat people in one sentence and then inform them in the next that you are doing it for their own good. That’s why the fear of becoming fat, or staying that way, drives Americans to spend more on dieting every year than we spend on video games or movies. Forty-five percent of adults say they’re preoccupied with their weight some or all of the time—an 11-point rise since 1990. Nearly half of 3- to 6- year old girls say they worry about being fat.

The emotional costs are incalculable.”

2. This cult comes highly recommended. I count myself a member. The top reader comments are equally interesting.

3. HOW award—headline of the week. With each tweet, Kavanaugh’s chances lessen. Please keep tweeting.

4. Can Ethiopia’s new leader, a political insider, change it from the inside out? Great opening:

“On the morning of his first day of school, when he was 7, Abiy Ahmed heard his mother whispering into his ears.

‘You’re unique, my son,’ he recalled her saying. ‘You will end up in the palace. So when you go to school, bear in mind that one day you’ll be someone which will serve the nation.’

With that preposterous prophesy for a boy growing up in a house without electricity in a tiny Ethiopian village, she kissed him on his head and sent him on his way.”

5. Jon M. Chu, who directed Crazy Rich Asians, shot a short film entirely on an iPhone XMax. Which greatly impressed John Gruber:

“The democratization of professional quality video cameras for filmmaking is one of the great technical achievements of the last two decades. 20 years ago you’d have had to spend thousands of dollars on film to make a short movie that looks this good.”

6. It’s often difficult to pick a major (concentration of study) in college. Here’s a new option that will likely prove popular.

What We Get Wrong About Honesty

That it’s mostly telling the truth to others. But being honest with one’s self is a more essential starting point, and because we lack any semblance of objectivity, far more difficult.

None of us are ever completely honest with ourselves. Meaning we are loathe to accept our differences which makes self acceptance a constant struggle.

Case in point. I loved, loved, loved this short essay titled “An Emotional Reunion Between Cello and Cellist”. Russell had me after her opening paragraph:

“On a recent Thursday, Matt Haimovitz, the forty-seven-year-old virtuoso cellist, packed an empty instrument case into the back of his car and drove from his home, in Montreal, to a friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side, where he’d be crashing. The case was for Haimovitz’s rare, multimillion-dollar cello, which he calls Matteo—after Matteo Goffriller, the seventeenth-century Venetian luthier who built it. He had played it for thirty years, until, fifteen months earlier, while giving a lesson to a promising Canadian student, he dropped it, and the cello’s neck snapped. Since then, the instrument had been undergoing extensive repairs by a team of five luthiers at Reed Yeboah Fine Violins, near Columbus Circle. Now the shop had called to say that Matteo was ready for release.”

If I’m honest with myself, I want something resembling what those six people have—Haimovitz and the five luthiers—a singleminded focus on one thing that animates their lives. One thing that gives them an overwhelming purpose for being. Even a little bit of flow.

Put differently, I want to love something the way Haimovitz loves his cello. I am fascinated by people with distinct passions, often wishing I was one of them. It doesn’t matter how esoteric or far removed the passions are from my life; interior design, locomotive trains, the Spanish language; I still look on with envy.

This year I’ll cycle somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000 miles. Friends ride 10,000-12,000. I like cycling, they love it. Some people read a book or more a week. I like reading, they love it. Some commit 60+ hours a week to their jobs because they like their work so much they often loose track of time. I prefer being on sabbatical. Some bloggers have huge readerships in part because they are laser focused on a particular topic. In contrast, the Humble Blog, a reflection of my continuously distracted pea brain, is all over the place.

Hiking Burroughs Mountain Trail last weekend, I listened to my friends excitedly discuss plant nomenclature and geology and wondered, “What’s wrong with me?” By which I meant, “Why aren’t I equally curious? Why am I content not knowing the name of the beautiful flower or understanding how the awe-inspiring landscape was formed? Why aren’t I similarly passionate about labeling and understanding the natural world?”

But then I stop to think that my cycling obsessed friends don’t run and swim. And maybe it’s okay that my interests are more disparate, and therefore, less intensive. Wide-ranging interests enable me to ask more questions, connect with more people, create a relatively diverse and interesting social network.

How fortunate that everyone is wired differently. Maybe the singleminded people of the world, the Haimovitz’s, would tell me sometimes there are downsides to being obsessively focused on one thing.

Maybe I’m okay and you’re okay.

 

How to Retire in Your 30s With $1 Million in the Bank

The very good headline of this New York Times article on the FIRE—financial independence retire early—movement. 

As a minimalist and student of Stoicism, I’ve been intrigued by and read lots about this movement. I’ve even locked horns with the movement’s most popular spokesperson. Steven Kurutz does a nice job explaining the phenomenon. And he provides lots of good links for readers who want to dig deeper.

There’s lots to admire about FIRE folks, but too many of the movement’s advocates  wrongly assume anyone can save $1m and retire in their 30’s. They argue on their numerous blogs that people can do it if they only follow their steps which start with securing a high paying job usually in engineering or computer software. To which Kurutz writes:

“They are. . . benefiting from an lengthy bull run in the stock market and, in some cases, the privilege of class, race, gender and background. It’s difficult to retire at 40 if you work a minimum-wage job, say, or have crushing student-loan debt, or did not have the same opportunities as others because you grew up poor in a crime-ridden neighborhood.”

Those two sentences will not go unchallenged by the FIRE orthodoxy. Probably skimping on humanities and social science courses in college, FIRE zealots tend to overlook the fact that the US economy is not a level playing field. Their counter arguments will not be convincing. It’s their blindspot. 

It’s okay that they have a blindspot, because there’s a lot to admire about the movement, including the practitioners’ disciplined saving, their rejection of mindless consumerism, their emphasis on family, and their determined nonconformity especially in creating non-work identities.

 

 

 

The Art of Code-Switching

John David Washington’s depiction of Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s The BlackKklansman highlights the concept of code-switching. Stallworth, the first African American police officer hired in Colorado Springs, CO in the late 70’s believe it or not, infiltrates the KKK by sounding white on the phone.

What is code-switching? From Wikipedia:

“Some scholars of literature use the term code-switching to describe literary styles that include elements from more than one language, as in novels by Chinese-American, Anglo-Indian, or Latino writers. In popular usage, code-switching is sometimes used to refer to relatively stable informal mixtures of two languages, such as Spanglish, Taglish, or Hinglish.  Both in popular usage and in sociolinguistic study, the name code-switching is sometimes used to refer to switching among dialects, styles or registers. This form of switching is practiced, for example, by speakers of African American Vernacular English as they move from less formal to more formal settings. Such shifts, when performed by public figures such as politicians, are sometimes criticized as signalling inauthenticity or insincerity.”

I was introduced to code-switching before knowing the term in the early 80’s while waiting for a bus on UCLA’s campus late one night with a group of others including an African-American student dressed as UCLA’s mascot, sans the head which he held in his hand. His animated “street” talk was punctuated with profanities, non-standard usage, and related funk. “Wow,” I thought, who would’ve ever guessed that “Joe Bruin is one cool brother.” Until a professor acquaintance rolled up at which point he literally threw a switch and went standard English. The speed and skill of the transformation left me dumbstruck.

Granted, there’s always a risk of inauthenticity or insincerity, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make an effort to relate to a wider range of people than we’re accustomed to. For all the academic mumbo jumbo, that’s all code-switching is.

Richard Russo is one of my favorite authors. He has a doctorate and teaches writing at elite universities, but he grew up working class, returning to do manual labor each college summer. His respect for working men and women, and his feel for the speech and mannerisms of construction and factory workers is one of the hallmarks of his writing. Like Ron Stallworth, he’s an expert code-switcher.

Our church’s new “transition pastor” is also a licensed electrician. Which makes me think of the clash of cultures at my university one night a week when youngish electricians suddenly materialize for evening certification coursework. They’re a distinct subculture in that they ALL drive BIG trucks, are varying degrees of dirty, and smell like cigarette smoke. I’m betting Pastor Duane could go from one of our church council meetings to the steps outside my office where they take their final puffs and not miss a beat. Given his varied life experience, I’m betting he’s a good code-switcher.

Interpersonal intelligence requires making constant adjustments in speech and behavior based upon changing group norms. Rather than always expecting others to adjust to us, we watch, listen, and learn to adjust to them. Like Ron Stallworth, Joe Bruin, and Richard Russo.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday Assorted Links

1. Knicks fan sells fanhood for $3,450, now will root for Lakers. Genius. Wonder what I could get for my lapsed Sonic fanhood. $3.45? Speaking of Spike Lee, I’m giving the Blackklansman an “A-“.

2. New logo and identity for the Library of Congress. And John Gruber, who takes his logos seriously, is not happy. At all.

“This new identity is a horrendous mistake. The old identity was perfect.

The new identity doesn’t look bad in and of itself, per se, but it doesn’t fit the Library of Congress in any way. The Library of Congress is majestic, historic, dignified, authoritative. A new or tweaked identity for the Library of Congress should be for the ages, something designed to last for a century or longer. This feels like an identity that will last 10 years. I love orange and black as a color scheme, but why in the world would you choose those colors for the United States Library of Congress? Why is the word “Library” used twice? Why do some of these marks break up the word “Library” at utterly random points making it unreadable? The ones that break it up as “LIBR-Library of Congress-ARY” look like a logo for the Long Island Railroad.

This is all so wrong it breaks my heart.”

3. What’s It’s Like to Shop After Not Shopping for Two Years.

“The most common mistake was that I used to buy things for a more aspirational version of myself, but then never used them because the real me didn’t want to. In waiting to feel the need for an object, I know it’s something worth buying—and when I have the money, the real me buys it and uses it. There are no justifications and no shame. I just buy it and use it.”

I’m a Cait Flanders fan.

Weirdly, just lately, in my advanced age, I started drinking asundry espresso drinks at asundry local coffee shops a few mornings a week after swimming or running. My sissy is disgusted with my frivolous spending, and I can’t live with the shame, so I’ve begun shopping for an espresso machine only to learn that’s the world’s largest rabbit hole. Oh, you gotta have a grinder? Not just any grinder, but a particularly good one. And every machine has serious trade-offs. Long story short, I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours the last week watching YouTube reviews as I try to declare my independence from our local coffee shops. Hours I’ll never get back. Talk about frivolity. I wonder what Cait would charge for an hour of therapy. I could even bring the espresso. . . eventually.

4. Make America Great Again.

We Should All Be Students of Mental Health

Outstanding week-long series on mental health from ESPN. It doesn’t matter whether you like basketball or not. Super informative. One story a day, through Friday.

Monday—The courageous fight to fix the NBA’s mental health problem.

Tuesday—When making the NBA isn’t a cure-all: Mental health and black athletes. Powerful story of what it’s like to grow up in poor, all black, high crime hoods and how that can make good mental health especially challenging.

Wednesday—To medicate or not? The thorny mental health issue in the NBA. Medication can help reduce the symptoms of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), but they also reduce one’s competitive edge. Shane Larkin’s story.