Friday, January 18, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance Detroit-style

Now available on DVD

Attention Psych 101 adjuncts:  When the syllabus hits "cognitive dissonance" cue up chapter eight of the documentary-as-dirge Detropia

Tommy Stevens can teach this topic far better than you.

In this scene (titled "China Can Do") Stevens, a retired Detroit school teacher and current blues bar owner, tours the North American International Auto Show with his wife. He's thrilled to get a close-up look at the new Chevy Volt. "I like it!" he says, telling a GM flack, "This car is built down the street from my business." If the Volt does well, Stevens will too. 

Next, the couple visits the booth of Chinese car manufacturer, BYD (slogan:  Build Your Dreams), which has its own battery-powered vehicle with a sticker price clocking in at $13K less than the Volt. 

You can see Stevens' USA-USA-USA confidence start to crumple. "That's interesting," he says, leaning in to read BYD's display. He rears back, exclaiming to his wife, "It's a better deal!" 

Like a latter-day Paul Revere, he scoots back to the GM flacks, asking if they have seen what BYD offers. Nope, they hadn't even looked at it; besides, the Chinese car surely doesn't have all the options of the Volt. Incredulous, Stevens shouts, "This global economy stinks!"

Calming, he then schools the GM guys on history. This is Honda déjà vu for Stevens. "'Honda was junk', they said." We all know what happened next. 

The GM flacks refuse his pleas. And here is where frustration, intellect and thwarted love combine across Tommy's face. Detroit businessman-Tommy wants the Volt to win; "average American" businessman-Tommy would also run the numbers and, if it were his purchase, knows he'd likely buy BYD. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald is attributed as saying:  The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

I don't know how well Stevens is functioning these days, but his intellect is unassailable. As he walks away from the GM booth, he shakes his head and tells his wife, "That guy doesn't want to talk about reality. We got our heads in the sand again. This is heartbreaking!" 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Responsive City Zoning Hotline. Believe It.

What's up with the air rights above that gas station? This, dear readers, was the question nagging me on January 2.

My real estate client and I had seen an intriguing condo with lovely, south-facing windows. Windows overlooking a gas station that had been in operation since 1922. My buyer is a cautious fellow who worried about a developer clearing out the petrol peeps and building some nasty high rise that would block his vista. 

Time to investigate. 

We poked around ACRIS, the city's database of building registry documents. It is a vast depository. I'm all for Sunshine Laws and erring toward making all public documents available on the web. 

But here's the thing:  If you're not a real estate attorney, or an old-hand in such matters, how the heck are you supposed to interpret these voluminous records? 

We wanted to know who owned the air rights over the gas station. But "air rights" is a colloquialism. Contracts might call the issue "unused development rights" or other term of art. We didn't know what document we needed. 

Shoe leather is a good strategy for many such quandaries. So, when the Zoning Department reopened on January 2, we were downstairs asking the guard which office to make our inquiry. 

He pointed to a poster listing the Zoning Information Desk hotline number. Ugh sigh. No one ever returns voicemail messages in this city. This will never work!

We moved into the vestibule, called the hotline and left our question on the VM – expecting nothing. As we headed for the door, I saw Amanda Burden, Chair of the NYC Department of City Planning, get out of a SUV and walk in. I smiled at her, wishing I had the right line to cheerfully note our disappointment in not getting to see an actual Zoning person. I said nothing. 

Ninety minutes later, my phone rang but I couldn't pick up. 

Ten minutes after that, it rang again. Same number. Hello?

It was the Zoning Information Desk returning my call. WHAT?! Amazing. Now, the young man did not have exactly the answer I wanted, but he did point me toward the type of documents that typically contain air rights agreements. 

I eventually found some corroboration for our theories. I also sent Ms. Burden a thank you note for her team leadership. 

Imagine the awesomeness if every City agency were so responsive to the citizenry. A girl can dream...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Schadenfreude Click-bait Is Always Thus

New York Magazine recently published an ass-ey (my neologism for an essay allowing the author to make a complete ass of her or himself).

I won't link to it or name its writer (who surely has a Google Alert for all such mentions), but must ask:  Is this the apex of editorial cynicism?

The rambling piece had no focus, and seemingly no editorial oversight, save perhaps some horrible person whispering in the psychosis-inclined ear of the writer, "Yes, do add another un-self-aware anecdote that makes readers loathe you. Show – and tell – us your wreckage without being interesting. Folks love to be enraged by privileged twits. Be bold. Everyone will be trying to decode what the hell you're talking about. And the clicks will be mine, mine, mine!"

I fell right into the trap. 

I sent a message to a writer-friend immediately after choking down all 5500 words. "Be sure to read this before I see you tomorrow. I need to process." She didn't wait. Couple hours later, my Gchat went ding with her shared gobsmackitude. "I don't know where to begin with the WTFs."

The publication had us just where they needed us:  Engaged, enraptured and pissed off. 

As we tried to understand what the hell the writer was getting at, and wondering if ALL the editors had taken Xmas break and simply hit publish upon receipt, I felt a thud hit my stomach. 

Jeezus. They meant it to be this way. The editors wanted to cause a disgusted tizzy. They don't care if this writer never works again, or worse, goes to the end of what appears to be a dangerous downward spiral.

They absolutely don't care about us, their readers. Or our time. Or our mental health being put on a one-way bus to Frustration Crazytown. 

Trust me, read this book
I know this because I read TRUST ME, I'M LYING, Ryan Holiday's excoriation of digital media, blogs and citizen journalism.

Now, Mr. Holiday is no puritanical scold. He rolls with some questionable characters in his professional and personal life. He knows dirty tricks and has perpetrated them on behalf of clients. 

The man is also no dummy, crystalizing the issues better than anyone else I've read. A typical passage, from page 104:

Pageview journalism treats people by what they APPEAR to want – from data that is unrepresentative to say the least – and gives them this and only this until they have forgotten that there could be anything else. It takes the audience at their worst and makes them worse. And then, when criticized, publishers throw up their hands as if to say, "We wish people liked better stuff, too," as if they had nothing to do with it.  Well, they do.

And, ahem, page 138:  ...the best way to make your critics work for you is to make them irrationally angry. Blinded with rage or indignation, they spread your message to every ear and media outlet they can find. 


So how can a media-junkie help turn things around? Or at least not exacerbate the situation?

Holiday suggests asceticism:  The second you stop and walk away, the monster will start to wither, and you will be happy again. (p.236)

I have not yet succeeded in refusing to click the culture-warpers. But I do not trust them. My laughter and interest now tinged with skepticism. 

It's sad. And it's good.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Escape as Illusion: THE FORGIVEN

Under a shattering sky

Lawrence Osborne, I can't decide if I want to shake your hand or slap your face. 

Your new novel, THE FORGIVEN, has done the unforgivable – and great thing – of shattering one of my last illusions. The belief that – should everything go tits up – I could flee urban America and be healed in some cheap, foreign idyll. 

The nutshell plot:  David and Jo, a middle-aged couple on the skids, head off from London to see their stylish gay friends, Richard and Dally, at their Moroccan compound. Along the way, something terrible happens. Upon arrival, they join a gaggle of ambitious pretenders and hedonistic fatalists, hash in the air, too-loud flirtations on offer, and everyone deciding whether to even bother asking themselves:  Where do we go from here? 

It's a wrenching, worthwhile read. 

I met Osborne maybe seven or eight years ago. Enormously tall with a wooly mop of curly hair and a throaty laugh that shook the rafters, I wonder how he could ever be an unobtrusive observer anywhere. But he's clearly mixed in this desperado ex-pat milieu. 

From page 108:

They went past an open space with people dancing. David watched them as if he were deaf, as if the music didn't exist, which made it a horrible sight. People jiffing about like epileptics. He loved only the smell of the expensive perfume on the women's bodies, sweated off and floating free. Why hadn't they gone to Rome instead? This very moment, they could be sitting down at Ristorante 59 on Via Angelo Brunetti and ordering a nice cold bottle of Greco di Tufa. What a mistake he had made in coming here. But he had made it for Jo, and he was sure it would "mend her," as he so often put it to himself. Everyone can be a fool. 

She needed a break, a real break. She hadn't written anything in years. She was bitterly unhappy, and maybe it was mostly because of him, but there it was – one should never deviate from what one really likes. The whole idea of "exploring" as an earnest moral project is pitifully ridiculous, and it always leads to failure, if not acute suffering. What a fool he'd been. There was no need to travel at all, really, except to go somewhere more beautiful, which for David meant an Italian or a French city with a better way of life than London or New York. Places with better food, calmer dynamics, better architecture. You went there and recharged your batteries. You drank and ate unreasonably, with no though to what you would look like next week with fatter love handles, and that was good. Life was better for a while, so you got your money's worth. Most of the rest of the world, on the other hand, was just hassle. Perhaps he just didn't understand it.

I'm afraid Osborne's internal dialogue for Jo on page 142 is eerily similar to occasional visits to my own rubber room upstairs. It's just too close to reprint. Read it yourself.  And perhaps weep. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Can't Delete the Street

Protesting outside Indian Consulate 9 January 2013

How many people does it take to create an international incident?
Eight, judging by the Indian consulate's skittishness on Wednesday.

VS, a friend and Indian national, had been distraught for weeks about the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey. She organized a protest via Facebook. About 12 others and I signed on for some picket duty on 64th Street across from the New York consulate. 

As I turned the corner from Fifth Avenue, I could hear VS and her crew of maybe five others chanting, "India: Save our sisters!" Selma, it wasn't. But it was important. 

I took a poster from her hand-drawn pile and added my voice. "Fast-track justice!" "India:  Prosecute rape!" "Justice now, India!" 

Honestly, we were a pitiful little cluster. We were infinitely more powerful, however, than an online petition with a thousand signatures. The folks rustling the consulate's curtains – sneaking peeks – could not just hit delete and be done with us. 

Somebody called the cops instead. 

NYPD rolled up and respected our right to assemble and shout. Refreshing!

CNN India took some b-roll; maybe we were on New Delhi TV. No matter.

Our group shape-shifted, adding and subtracting, throughout the afternoon. Being present. Being heard. Being real to the officials across the way. 

Sometimes that is the best we can do. And it far better than fuming in front of screens. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Mr. UnGoogle-able

No computer bug was going to catch me unprepared. As the Y2K crossover hour drew near, I knew I'd done all I could. The case of garbanzo beans stashed under my bed, the three sets of flashlight batteries, the $500 cash in the desk, the plan to join a mob of fellow Chicagoans along the frozen lakefront for midnight fireworks (or shared gobsmacking as Burnham skyscrapers go black and crumple), yes, I'd done the best that I could under these strange circumstances. 

And I would not be alone. I would hug and kiss someone special no matter what happened. 

He would toss back his grey Jew-bro, and laugh his hoarse, grizzled laugh – product of far too many Marlboros and cognacs. He'd make cynical asides. He'd scream it was entirely too cold and entirely too herd-minded to be outside in the first place. He'd rush back in and taunt my basset hound, to their mutual delight. And he'd take me to bed. 

Not a bad night.  One of 100 or so we had together. He was a significant other. 

So why do I not know if this man is alive or dead today? 

I have zero desire to rekindle a romance or even a friendship with him. But I have a nagging need to find out if he still walks the earth. Two other significant others died within the past three years. One death was well known; one accidently discovered via a related (but not direct) Google search. A similar search will not yield information on this man. 

His name is similar to a Hollywood actor. He would never be on Facebook or participate any self-promotional tripe. Others have written of his work, but many reviews are over 10 years old.  He is unGoogle-able.  A situation that the Mr. Greene I knew in 2000 would have found most satisfying. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


The 75-watt lightbulb goes dark. Like a candle in the wind...
– From the Despicable/Lowbrow quadrant of New York Magazine's The Approval Matrix, 1/14/13
My love is true

Two weeks ago, friends served us a wonderful Christmas dinner at their apartment. It was the first time we had seen the place. Pretty huge by Manhattan standards, and, without being showy, had show-stopping views of the 59th St Bridge and Midtown. Our hardworking hosts had earned every glimpse.

So why did the dining room feel cold? Discomforting. Medicinal even. 

It wasn't what was on the table, or who was sitting around it. 

It was what was above and to the left of it. An unremarkable lighting fixture with an infernal CFL bulb hissing its icy blue death-ray over our faces. 

A wee dramatic, Ms. Bergmann, don't you think? I think not. A perfectly jolly evening upended (ok, only in my mind) by this twisted CFL snake. I'm not afraid of live serpents, but a future of nothing but eco-bulbs gives me the vapors.

Incandescent bulb-hording is a thing, and as GE is my witness, I'm giving every spare inch of closet space to bulbage. 

Maybe we shall have "special occasion lighting" alongside the Wedgewood, reserved only for Thanksgiving and funeral nosh. Maybe "she had 60-watters" will be the 2016's party boast. Maybe screwing in a freshie before screwing (of course with rosy silk scarf shade drape, thank you and RIP, Helen Gurley Brown) will be a notable ploy with the OK Cupidocracy. 

I don't know. But I will be glowing until you claw that last paper sleeve from my deservedly blue, dead hands. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Importance of Questioning Importance

I decided a while ago that I would only do things that are really important or really fun.

– Writer Lawrence Wright via profile published in NYT 

Well and good, Larry. But how do you determine what is really important?

Fun requires no interrogation. Fun makes us laugh, feel light and bright and free. It is the ultimate in Buddha via Oprah directive to be in the moment. The fun-maker experiences the fun in the doing, and in its afterglow. One may not be certain of an opportunity's fun-factor prior to participation – but careful observation of self and others gives pretty good odds going in.

Can't say the same for important. Let us count a few epistemological conundrums.

How do you know it's important before embarking? You must have a categorical understanding of important topics. I'm guessing Mr. Wright has such a list with big headers like Justice, Truth, Religion, War, Bravery. If the project falls under one of the eternal battles, it could be deemed important.

But why? If it is an eternal battle, it will by definition not be won or lost by blasting another book into the canon. So, is simply being in the fight what makes it important?

Important to the writer, sure. Important to the reader – if the writer does well – of course. Important to Society or The Way Things Will Happen From Now On? Maybe not. 

I envy Wright's (assumed) belief that something important to him will be important to readers. And the attendant belief that shared importance is enough.