vital and indispensable

Take the L train from Union Square home to Brooklyn, or the 1 to the upper west side, or pretty well any train from where you work downtown to where ever you live, and look at the advertising.  It’s targeted to the rider demographic and it’s a sign of the times.  And times are rough:  people are going back to school to ride out the recession and to retool to position themselves better in a harsher market.   The subway cars are full of ads for colleges and universities.

The whole scene is a microcosm econosystem.  The car you’re in was designed to get workers to offices.  Ever notice how bad service is on the weekends and at night?  That’s because its prime purpose is to move workers back and forth from their offices.  The ads for education fine tune the purpose of the car:  in addition to getting you to work, the MTA will also help you find the degree program you need – and take you there to boot.  And after you’re successfully degreed it will, of course, take you back to work again.   One stop shopping.

Education is for money so you can enjoy purchasing a good life for yourself.  Or is it?

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instead of forever knowing
April 19, 2011, 12:06 am
Filed under: departure lounge, the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

A midlife crisis is when all the structures you have carefully worked to establish for your life have run their course and now sputter and stall and collapse in a pile underneath you.  And you go out and buy a new sports car or, if you’re the type, begin the novel that’s nagged at you all these years.  It’s busting from one zone that has a growing number of inadequacies and into a new one that should keep you sane and secure for the next phase of life.

Damiel, Berlin’s angel, is fed up.  His main gig – caring for the city’s troubled – isn’t working for him anymore and he wants out.  For Damiel, angeling is too much about the eternal:  he testifies, hovers weightless, waits, is all knowing, blesses.  He craves an earthly live:  to be bound, weighted, where experience is immediate, the acknowledgement of people is acute, the days events are participatory, to be susceptible to sickness and suspicion and epiphany.

Angels are like codependents and social workers; their task is alway to give, to people who quite literally will never stop craving more, of the junk, the balm.  It’s the burden of angels, always to take care of others, never themselves.

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moral absolutes
April 14, 2011, 7:52 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

I just came from a second hand book shop where two men – a father and son, maybe – in baseball caps and tees, blew into the back room where the fiction is to find a copy of the Fountainhead.  They were on a mission.

Six months ago on the L line I managed to restrain myself from tearing a copy of Atlas Shrugged out of the hands of a young reader.  My plan was to enact a teachable moment:  selfishness is good, I have selfishly taken your book, live with it.  It’s a missed opportunity that I have added to my list of life’s regrets.

Twenty years – more – ago I got into the habit of asking the book buyer at the campus bookstore where I had summer jobs, which book to read next.  When I asked her about Rand, she said, with a tight smile, “if you’re a 12 year old boy.”

It’s amazing how this adolescent, ideological, bitter crackpot fully captured the imagination of a nation and an age.  The clearest route to her current influence is no doubt through men like Greenspan and Friedman who brought her with them in their ascent to top posts in academia and government.  In their age – which may now be waning – cynicism and moral clarity were easy sells.

Jonathan Chait summarizes the Randian world view in this paragraph from his essay Wealthcare in TNR.  In this crazy world the rich are being punished by the rest of society who, by a moral law of the world, have failed to succeed in their own lives and deserve their fates.  It’s grace-less and harsh and, more to the point, absurd, a moralistic and ignorant fantasy.

Here is the paragraph from Wealthcare:

In these disparate comments we can see the outlines of a coherent view of society. It expresses its opposition to redistribution not in practical terms–that taking from the rich harms the economy–but in moral absolutes, that taking from the rich is wrong. It likewise glorifies selfishness as a virtue. It denies any basis, other than raw force, for using government to reduce economic inequality. It holds people completely responsible for their own success or failure, and thus concludes that when government helps the disadvantaged, it consequently punishes virtue and rewards sloth. And it indulges the hopeful prospect that the rich will revolt against their ill treatment by going on strike, simultaneously punishing the inferiors who have exploited them while teaching them the folly of their ways.

WealthcareJonathan Chait, The New Republic

April 13, 2011, 8:11 pm
Filed under: brave new world, departure lounge | Tags: ,

Tea, a pipe, the evening edition and … murder, please.  Or maybe to update it a bit: an evening in, popcorn, someone you love and a nice bloody murder movie.

Show us the body first, cut and cold, in the woods or splayed across a big chair in a living room, like the one I’m sitting in now, reading this paper or watching this movie.  Then bring in the detective, an outsider, foibles fully on display, with razor sharp wit, always on the move: assessing, searching, reasoning, intuiting, questioning, psychologizing, smoking.  We need foils and blockages, false turns, malevolent and coy personalities whose roles flip:  fool us again and again with each new revelation.  Now wind it tight in time:  a deadline against which the detective races.

What is the appeal of murder to the middle class?  There are two ways of looking at murder in a comfortable society:  as an aberration, or as a part of the system that maintains its ease.  It’s simple to accept murder as aberration; all of the sordid details and undesirable characters — the cops, the detectives, the murderer and even the victim — are totally foreign to our lives.  It’s the difference that fascinates us.  Detectives are agents who act on our behalf to quell the violence and return us to our ordered lives.  They are heroes of the culture:  Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Morse, Wexford, Miss Marple, Alleyn, Jonathan Creek, Jane Tennison, Inspector Rebus, Father Brown, Tom Barnaby, Bergerac, The Saint, Cadfael, Cordelia Gray.

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alternate futures
April 8, 2011, 12:33 am
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

David Brooks describes two worlds in his article about life fulfillment called the Social Animal.  One is an empty yet realized life, and the other full and usually elusive.

The empty life is founded on advice and coaching and what society says a good life should be.  Needless to say this world of stern advice and empty results is staggeringly ironic.  Base your life on career skills, get degreed at the right school, concentrate on the minutiae of technique and performance, leverage intelligence, and you will succeed says society.

But you won’t find achievement or fulfillment, says Brooks.  None of the advisors and coaches nor social maxims are there when you need answers to life’s most important questions:  love, friendship, loyalty, belief, disavowal.  For these intimate and essential decisions you’re on your own.

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April 7, 2011, 11:19 pm
Filed under: departure lounge, unseen world | Tags: , ,

Justin Coombes, Eden, 2006

three seas away
April 7, 2011, 6:35 pm
Filed under: the sweet life, unseen world | Tags: ,


When I was a toddler, I spent two weeks in the nursery aboard the Queen Elizabeth II which steamed from Bombay harbour across the Arabian sea, through the Gulf and the Suez Canal (before it was closed), through the Mediterranean, the Straits of Gibraltar, across the Atlantic to New York Harbour.  One ocean and three seas away.  There were marigold garlands when we slipped away and ticker tape at the final port.

A ship is an island, bounded by a black steel hull, a complete miniature civilization, with its own social code, transient citizenry, micro institutions, canned rituals, beautiful and crazy people with no escape learning to thrive with or tolerate each other.  A ship has it’s figurative birth and death too, arrivals and departures, tinged with sweetness and sorrow.

In university I read the modern Irish playwrights and novelists, their obsession with the sea:  how it gave life and took it, how their strong women watched their sons go out on boats, how they were wracked with worry, buoyed by hope and then, inevitably, emptied again by word of the loss of another boy.  Their worlds were bounded and also harsh and isolating.

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