Sunday, December 13, 2009

Half a Scrooge

I feel like half a Scrooge. I love the Christmas season but, for a whole bunch of reasons, I hate the Christmas shopping. Let me count the ways.
  • I resent the way we equate gifts with love, as if the best or only way to demonstrate how important others are to us is by gifting them objects.
  • I particularly resent how this meme is generated and maintained by the manufacturers and retailers who make money off this distortion. Seriously, who believes that an engagement ring should cost two months salary, zhu zhus mean that daddy and mommy love you, and a flat screen TV means you really know me?
  • I hate the thought that someone is diving into the over-commercialized consumer quagmire on my behalf just because it is December. Especially since the shopping and gift giving have almost nothing in common with the religious holiday that’s been hijacked to justify it.
  • I dislike shopping in general. When I go, I know what I want and I buy it. Or I’m keeping someone company. As for window shopping – or, as I like to call it, “visiting things” – I have about a thirty minute tolerance for this. Then my friends will tell you: I’m sitting in the mall or seeking out a coffee house. All that stuff that we can buy does less and less for me every year. It brings no joy.
  • I am breathless, and not in a good way but in a panic attack way, at all the stuff we buy and the thought of where we will put it, what we will do with the stuff from last year and how all of this can be environmentally sustainable.
  • I hate the way we waste our energy chasing the myth that we owe each other things, and in the process miss out on the time we could spend with each other enjoying the moment.
Most of all, I hate how the shopping and gift giving displaces the parts of Christmas that bring me the most joy. To show the non-Scrooge half of me, let me count those too.
  • I love Christmas lights, even the ones that are over the top. Yes, I know someone bought them, and I know they burn energy, and I hear there’s an aura of competition around them. But I like to look at them.
  • I love being in public places around people at Christmas: a coffee house, a restaurant, a busy city street, the entrance to a downtown department store near the bell-ringer, a dog park, a ski slope. And I don’t even ski. But I love seeing people, relaxed and happy and enjoying each other, around Christmas.
  • I love my stupid 14-year old artificial Christmas tree with its 25 years of accumulated ornaments. Every year I put it in the same place, and pretty much put the ornaments on the same way. And then I turn out the lights and I take it in. It’s beautiful.
  • I love being with my family and friends at Christmas: Making a brunch of pancakes or waffles or French toast on Christmas Eve morning and Christmas morning, going to church with my parents on Christmas Eve, wrapping presents for other people, meeting for breakfast or lunch or drinks, sharing Christmas Eve with one set of friends and Christmas Dinner with another.
  • I love the weather around Christmas, because the snow is still a novelty and 25 degrees Fahrenheit is the second best temperature (after 70 degrees). It’s the best temperature for taking a long walk.
All I want for Christmas is more of the stuff I love about Christmas and less of what I don’t. Oh, and to not be told that my attitude, were it widespread, would cripple the economy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Read It So You Don't Have To (WSJ version)

Today’s big WSJ headline – nearly one-fourth of all US homeowners are ‘underwater’ on their mortgages. That is, nearly 25% of American homeowners owe more on their home than it is worth.

I remember when 10% underwater seemed high!

One such homeowner, a police officer no less, “argues the best government strategy would be to reduce the principal due on mortgages to reflect current market values. ‘You keep waiting and hoping that the government is going to step in and offer some relief.’”

Really? Best for whom?

A bit more detail…According to the story, about four years ago, this homeowner put $130K down on a house they paid $650K for. Today, the home is valued at around $400K. Indeed, if they’d stuck with their original mortgage, they’d be underwater by about $120K (or 30% of its current value). That would have sucked, and would have been largely driven by forces outside their control.

But that’s not all. In the last four years, the homeowner took out a second mortgage “to help pay for their daughter’s college costs, home improvements and a wedding…” Now, instead of having a mortgage of $520K or less (the original mortgage), he owes $647K.

And he hopes the government will step in and lower his mortgage principal, essentially asking that the taxpayers and/or the banks fund his daughter’s education, a wedding and home improvements. Why the hell not?

There’s two pretty weird letters in the Journal today. One is funny, in an “if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger” kind of way. Dr. William Burk, from Greenville SC, writes about germ-phobic medical professionals:
“As a retired anesthesiologist many years removed from the principles surrounding disease transmission, I nonetheless feel compelled to comment on neckties ("Nothing to Sneeze At: Doctors' Neckties Seen as Flu Risk," page one, Nov. 19)…Give me a break. I don't see any former colleagues falling dead from cervico-facial MRSA and they wear the damn things all day. The mere culturing of organisms doesn't establish linkage to transmission. If there are suspected Tie-phoid Martys out there who will send me their neckties, I'll volunteer to rub them on my nose.

One can get things practicing medicine. In my youth, I contracted Hepatitis B during a time when I was frequently sticking myself with needles containing the blood of jaundiced patients. There's probably a link there. In recent years, though, an intense paranoia seems to be pervasive among medical personnel. One cannot touch another human being without donning gloves. This is nonsense. In many years of cannulating tens of thousands of blood vessels and treating massive trauma from Cu Chi, Vietnam, to the Carolinas, I have countless times been "washed in the blood," and my skin has been up to the task of protecting me."
Yikes. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with him! I’m just sayin’.

But the second letter takes the cake. It’s an argument against allowing skilled immigrants to compete for US jobs in science and technology. Why? Because seeing these smart and hardworking foreigners in such jobs is discouraging to Americans leading them to choose work in other fields:

“The analysis by Stuart Anderson, mentioned in your editorial, is based solely on the selfish and nearsighted economic benefit we receive from these talented people but ignores their effects on our own dysfunctional educational system. I am sure Mr. Anderson would expect his children's schools to emphasize science and mathematics in their curriculum so their students could obtain jobs in science, engineering and biotechnology, but children are not so easily influenced. When they see the scientific and technical jobs going to legal foreign immigrants, they get the idea that it will take exceptionally hard work to compete with the world's brightest, best and most competitive, and they (wisely) choose other career paths and carry on the vicious cycle of poor scientific and technical education leading to the need for more immigrant workers.”
So the problem is that Americans are lazy and lack confidence? And the way to restore a work ethic and confidence is to exclude foreign workers from high-skill jobs? Seriously?

Maybe he's pulling my leg.

I am reminded of a conversation I frequently have with undergraduates. I say, “You want to do forensics in law enforcement. You should take a chemistry class.” They say, “Nah. I don’t like chemistry. It's too hard.” Or I say, “Why haven’t you competed your Math Core course yet.” They say, “I don’t like math.”

And I think, “That’s it. You don’t like it. Yet you think that all your dreams will come true while you simultaneously avoid anything that seems difficult to you?”

How, I wonder, can we compete against the world – a hungry, ambitious, hard-working world – with that attitude at the heart of too many college students.

Bring on the immigrant labor, if you ask me. May the fittest—smartest, hardest working, most ambitious, least whiny—win.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

City Crazy

You can travel further by car, but you don't see as much. What with going 25 mph, and paying attention to stop lights, and looking for parking spaces, and all. So I have been exploring Providence on foot. Today I walked north on Hope because I'd heard there was a little shopping district in that direction.

Between here and there, Hope Street reminded me of Willetts Street, where my grandparents lived when I was a kid. It was a street lined with up-down duplexes in old houses. (Now I hear it has deteriorated, as has much of Schenectady NY, but it lives on unchanged in my memory.)

Other veritable institutions were interspersed. The pubic library, with people playing chess outside. The YMCA which was having a neighborhood rummage sale. The Jewish Welcome Center, with a quote from Allen Feinstein posted out front. Hope High School, an imposing structure, also -- oddly -- with a quote from Allen Feinstein posted. Who is Allen Feinstein?

And then I arrived at the commercial district, with gas stations, pizza places, a children's store, dry cleaners...all the things of day to day life. I liked this area even a bit more than Thayer Street. Thayer is a highly concentrated restaurant-coffee house-boutique district for Brown students. I like that just fine! But north on Hope was business for the people, including a bakery called Seven Stars (with a fabulous blueberry pastry) and something called Not Just Snacks. Had I not know what it was, I probably would have passed it by. But a friend had told me that Not Just Snacks had really good Indian food.

So I stopped by and asked if I could be served some vegetable and meat samosas on the front deck (there is lots of outside restaurant seating in Providence). I had my mid-afternoon snack right there on Hope Street, watching the people go by. The couple overloaded with dry cleaning. The woman in the cross walk who was understandably alarmed by the car that sped towards her. The mother and her child who wandered by. The Jewish families going to Roshashona services. All the things that happen in a city.

Maybe some people don't like this: long walks on urban streets, buses roaring by, hoards of teenagers celebrating the end of the school day, the grimy settledness of the city. But I'm crazy about it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Indulging my inner introvert

At the end of August, I went to five major league baseball games: two in Kansas City, two in St. Louis and one in Cincinnati. I saw Zack Greinke strike out fifteen, Albert Pujols hit a walk off home run, dazzling double plays and diving catches, and throws to the plate that nailed the runner. I enjoyed every minute of every baseball game, even though I had never been to any of these ballparks and I didn’t know anyone there.

And since arriving in Providence I’ve been wholly content to wander the streets of this old city and settle into my apartment, speaking to nary a soul. Full disclosure: I have not been all alone in this transition, as my mom was excellent company on the trip here and I have a few friends here. But I have relished – on the cross-country trip and in the time that I have been here – all the time I get to spend alone.

Being in a strange place, I don’t listen for my name. I don’t eavesdrop on conversations. I don’t run into anyone I know. No one asks me anything. No one needs anything from me.

In the last couple of years, I coped with the constant interruptions by reminding myself that it was an unavoidable part of my job. And when someone came in my office I would take a deep breath, preemptively calm myself, and give what I hoped was my full and resentment-free attention. But purging the resentment did not come naturally; it was an act of will.

I am an introvert who gives a good impression of being an extrovert. That probably makes me more extroverted than those who can’t play act enthusiasm for constant social interaction. But it wore me down over time. I was very glad to go home to a quiet empty house each night. And, during the work day, I was always acutely aware of the distance between what made me most comfortable and the role I was expected to play.

And so, here in Providence, I am happy to indulge my inner introvert. I promise I will not hole up in my little apartment for all of the next year. But I hope I’ll be excused for enjoying the peace and quiet as long as it lasts.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Day One

Some people associate sabbatical with 'taking time off from work'. I hope they aren't saying that to my dean! I explain it to those outside academia as 'working for myself for a year'. And, really, that's a good explanation.

For the last 16 years, I have worked mostly for other people: teaching and doing administrative work. I've been able to work some for myself -- on research and writing projects -- but over the years it has been harder and harder to focus on my agenda rather than everyone else's. Therein lies the value of my sabbatical, where for the first time in years I get to work for myself.

My first official day here was a wash administratively. I started the day not yet 'signed in' at the university and ended the day the same way. But in the meantime I enjoyed meeting the very friendly staff in three different central administration offices: the Dean of Faculty, Human Resources and the 'card' office. Unfortunately, there is some confusion about what unpaid visiting scholars are to do in order to get an ID card. I-9 form? Yes, but then no. Letter of appointment? Carry that around with you, and don't let anyone take it from you: Live and learn, as my copy of the letter was graciously confiscated from me by the charming receptionist in the Dean of Faculty's office. Go here, go there, find the door around the corner from the bookstore and just before the construction site (construction seems to be a running joke around here). Bur everyone is so sincere and nice, so it's hard to be upset. Tomorrow is another day.

Substantively the day was better, a lot better. A little mucking around with data, some notes on research questions and approaches, some exploration of other secondary data that I can draw on. Working for myself! Very satistfying.

And, at the conclusion of the day, I went to a talk by an anthropologist of law out of Cornell who discussed her research on regulation of global financial markets from the bottom up. So invigorating! It made me realize how much I miss having scholars with similar interests around on a day-to-day basis. In fact, it's been so long that (1) I had completely forgotten what it's like, but (2) and perhaps more significantly, it suggests why I have veered towards being a superficial generalist of a scholar rather than an expert in a given area.

So, by the end of the talk, I had noted that 'this was a very good day'. That's a good sign -- that my first day back at my working sabbatical went so well.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Body art

I was sorry not to get a picture of this:

A young man, with elaborate tattoos, entered the Vietnamese Noodle House where Brandon and I were having lunch. He carried a bouquet of flowers and sat down at the table next to us. We waited for about ten minutes to see who would join him, but eventually left. I hope she showed up!

Eastern Montana and North Dakota

I had random thoughts driving through Eastern Montana and North Dakota this week:

1. There were only about 4 radio stations in Eastern Montana, and it seemed like each got its news feed from Fox News. That was eye-opening.

2. North Dakota had more variety, probably because I-94 passes through a number of towns of size. Occasionally I got ABC News, and NPR had a much stronger presence.

3. By the time I got near to Fargo, after 750 or so miles of driving, I was sufficiently bored that the billboards on the side of the road seemed fascinating. I'd ease off the gas to read them carefully, and then realize that I'd slowed to 65 mph, and then speed back up again.

4. I went to a minor league game yesterday, the Fargo Redhawks played the Gary IN Railbacks. I noted that the Redhawks replaced their pitcher four times, but pitching did not seem to be their problem. They had multiple throwing errors, as if where the ball went had no relation to where the intended recipient stood. I'm betting they do some throwing drills today.

5. Fargo is a bigger place than I thought, with an Asian market to die for. It has welcomed a large number of refugees from all over the world.

It's on to Brookings SD next.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bucket List

On Monday, I got a letter from a college professor in Canada. It seems I am on his bucket list. To paraphrase, he wrote:

I have terminal cancer. I am dying. But before I die, I had to write and tell you how much I hate your book. Too much Durkheim, not enough Weber. It's a disservice to the field.
So I and my co-authors have achieved a bizarre status where a total stranger thinks about us as he lays dying. One of my co-authors wants this on the cover of our second edition.

It made me wonder, however, what I would be doing if I were him. I'm not profound, I realized: I would be eating donuts.