May 15, 2016

Sunday Diversions: May, Part One

The idea of retirement has always felt so foreign to me. First, because men in my family have a history of dying young, so we don’t plan for many retired” years. Second, financial security has always been a source of stress, and thinking of a time when I don’t have to work to pay the bills feels implausible. And finally, because I get antsy; what would I do, when I have no work, nothing to do?

These past few weeks have been illuminating on that final front: I have been unemployed and not aggressively looking for work. It has felt, a bit, like retirement, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. I have taken the time to be domestic, meet new people, do some exploration. I’ve learned, in the past few weeks, that I am capable of doing nothing,” that I can keep myself mentally and physically engaged even without an office to go to every day. It makes me think, perhaps, that when the time comes, retirement might just suit me well.

Here are some of the pieces that have made me smile, think, cry, or reflect these past few weeks:

Anxiety is a liar: When it says you’re incapable of doing scary things, don’t believe it. — Anne T. Donahue

Anxiety feels absolute when you’re stuck in the thick of it. It’s a windowless room, it’s a line you’re stuck waiting in, it’s an event you can’t get out of. It traps you and tricks you and tells you it’s forever. In the midst of an anxiety attack—whether it happens at a party or when you’re out with a friend—you sit frozen, hoping you don’t seem like you’re freaking out as much as you are. You fake your way through conversations and jokes and normalcy, and you try to remind yourself that these feelings will pass and that they don’t define you. (Even if at the time you don’t believe it.)

My anxiety has always gotten worse when I’ve chosen to listen to that voice that says, Forever.” When I’m too tired or too hungry or too stressed, my ability to rationalize and think logically all but disappears, so instead of reminding myself that I can go home or order some tea and take a few breaths, my internal monologue goes from zero to 100, and I convince myself—in a matter of seconds—that I should probably avoid making plans for the foreseeable future or avoid having fun or avoid doing anything tied to anything that has ever made me feel anxious. 

Which of course is how anxiety works. You don’t think rationally or logically, so even when somebody like a therapist promises it’s something you can eventually overcome by taking a few breaths or rooting yourself in reality, it still jumps when you begin to feel better and says, Surprise!” It’s the worst.

This Is Our Country. Let’s Walk It: In much of Europe, walking wherever you want is perfectly legal. Not in America. — Ken Ilgunas

Might we be better off if we could, like a Scot or a Swede, legally amble over our rolling fields and through our shady woods, rather than have to walk alongside unscenic, noisy and dangerous roads? The organization Smart Growth America reported that from 2003 to 2012 over 47,000 pedestrians were killed and an estimated 676,000 were injured walking along roads. Our lack of safe and peaceful walking places may also contribute to the nation’s status as one of the more sedentary countries in the world. According to a 2012 study by The Lancet, over 40 percent of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of exercise per week.

If we want to create more safe and scenic walking spaces, we should look to Europe’s roaming laws for ideas on opening up our countryside. But would a European right to roam” law work in the United States?

Is staying in the new going out? — Molly Young

Going out, on the other hand, is closer to prospecting. The upside is huge: You could have a life-altering adventure, meet your soul mate, find your new best friend. The potential downside is equally monumental. You could run into an ex, lose your wallet, suffer a grope, be rejected. The scope of experience at a party or a bar is, as the hedge funders might put it, high beta. We do it for the possibility of encountering the spectacular. This rarely happens.

There are opportunity costs associated with chronic staying in, too. A year’s worth of weekends spent at home is a bit like never moving out of your parents’ house: At some point you have to leave the nest. Leaving the nest, even just to get outside, is how we grow, challenge ourselves and discover things that have not been tailored to our relevant interests by an algorithm. As with Keynes’s paradox of thrift, the indisputable smart play for the individual is to spend nights and weekends snuggled under the duvet with an iPhone. But what’s the point of living in a city if you treat it like a suburb?

David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis in fiction, essays, journalism, and reviews; it may be his most consistent theme at the surface level. — John Jeremiah Sullivan

Tennis” is a wonderful word in the sense that it never really existed. That is, although the game is French to the core—not one but two of France’s early kings died at the tennis courts, and the Republic was born on one, with the Tennis Court Oath—the French never called it that, tennis. They called it jeu de paume, the game of the palm,” or handball,” if we want to be less awkwardly literal about it. (Originally they had played it with the bare hand, then came gloves, then paddles, then rackets.) When the French would go to serve, they often said, Tenez!, the French word for take it,” meaning coming at you, heads up.” We preserve this custom of warning the opponent in our less lyrical way by stating the score just before we toss up the ball. It was the Italians who, having overheard the French make these sounds, began calling the game ten-ez” by association. A lovely detail in that it suggests a scene, a Florentine ear at the fence or the entryway, listening. They often built those early courts in the forest, in clearings. The call in the air. Easy to think of Benjy in The Sound and the Fury,” hearing the golfers shout Caddy!” and assuming they mean his sister, only here the word moves between languages, out of France via the transnational culture of the aristocratic court and into Italy. There it enters European literature around the thirteen-fifties, the time of Petrarch’s Phisicke Against Fortune.” In considering the anxiety that consumes so much of human experience, he writes, And what is the cause hereof, but only our own lightness & daintiness: for we seem to be good for nothing else, but to be tossed hither & thither like a Tennise bal, being creatures of very short life, of infinite carefulness, & yet ignorant unto what shore to sail with our ship.”

Nas, the Narrator: On publishing & hip-hop storytelling. — Mensah Demary

If presented with a choice, I’d rather discuss classic hip-hop albums than short story collections: the former evokes warmth, my need to consecrate my life to a certain fidelity and pure aural bliss channeled into nighttime sessions in the bedroom, lights off, completely enveloped by sound, while the latter invokes the image of a bottomless pit. Nevertheless, my fascination with and general uneasiness toward Nas connects directly to Illmatic, specifically to its perfection, its infallibility. Nas is an artist, a well-read, old-school recluse in a world which demands bombast, a gaudiness he aspired to at one point in his career. Ostentatiousness bogged down his art. Accordingly, he provides for me a cautionary tale as I revisit his sixth album God’s Son (Ill Will/Columbia, 2002), released with a bit of fanfare. Nas defeated Jay-Z—hyphenated at the time—and reestablished himself as the so-called King of New York, a triumph for the former Queensbridge Houses resident who ventured into the world no older than twenty, armed with a work of art in his backpack, and achieved outsized popularity, fame, wealth, and status, returning home to New York older, perhaps wiser, but nonetheless weary. God’s Son was a victory lap, but ultimately a mediocre one, yet I love the lyrics.

Nas is a world-class storyteller and practitioner of the narrative form. I don’t understand why there isn’t more discussion around hip-hop’s literary value among today’s millennial-and-boomer intelligentsia. The new New York literary salon is a twenty-something black woman whispering conspiratorially with a fifty-something white woman with regards to the diversity question: The optics alone leave me wobbly in the corner of the room, the bourbon’s Gaussian blur fogging my eyes. The house party—somewhere in SoHo, let’s say—is packed, and while I might hear the DJ play Future and/or Drake from Spotify, and the crowd is locked in, and not necessarily dancing—more like swaying—but definitely enjoying themselves, I wonder if this music is truly understood for all of its artistic value. I make a note on my phone to later write an essay about hip-hop and literature, but in what hopes? Sometimes, an essay is designed to convince; others ramble, but at least this isn’t a thinkpiece on culture from a writer too young to rent a car.

What Would Happen If We Just Gave People Money? — Andrew Flowers

Werner posed a pair of simple questions to the crowd: What do you really want to do with your life? Are you doing what you really want to do? Whatever the answers, he suggested basic income was the means to achieve those goals. The idea is as simple as it is radical: Rather than concern itself with managing myriad social welfare and unemployment insurance programs, the government would instead regularly cut a no-strings-attached check to each citizen. No conditions. No questions. Everyone, rich or poor, employed or out of work would get the same amount of money. This arrangement would provide a path toward a new way of living: If people no longer had to worry about making ends meet, they could pursue the lives they want to live.

Straub had studied business, international policy and psychology at school and spent years working for IBM, the International Red Cross and a Montessori school. Basic income struck a nerve,” he said. People are burned out more than ever. You come to Switzerland and talk to people, they aren’t happy. They fear for their jobs. There is a gap between the economic possibility in this country and the quality of life.”

A current pet peeve: the sharing economy”. It seems to me that two quite different things are being lumped together under this label, and it muddies the debate. — Neville Park

Slick words like app”, sharing economy”, disruptive”, innovation”, etc., obscure what’s really at stake. This isn’t about stuffy conventional” industries failing to adapt to a new era. It’s about the growing number of (whiter, tech-savvy, middle-class) people relying on precarious and illegal side work. Are these really the best jobs our economy can create? Are we just going to give up on job security and worker protections? Before we toss away those cumbersome regulations, it’s worth remembering why we implemented them in the first place.

We are consuming ever bigger portions on ever larger dinner plates. Food manufacturers keep pushing us to eat more. Can we learn to control our helpings? — Jay Rayner

My approach to portion control is, like my sizable thighs, entirely hereditary. I got it from my parents. They were both raised in meagre surroundings during the second world war, with food in short supply and so, when they became parents, they went the other way. They made sure the table was always full. This was combined with the Jewish tendency — even among those Jews with no interest in God or his weird picky dietary laws — to overcater. Somewhere deep in the DNA is imprinted the message that tomorrow the Cossacks might be coming and so now you must eat, and who knows whether the Rosenbaums might be coming round needing to be fed, too.

Certainly, my late mother regarded enough food just for the members of the family as not quite enough, and I can’t help feeling the same way. I freely admit to having no idea what reasonable portion control is. When dinner involves individual items — a pork chop each, say, or a fillet of fish — I end up feeling edgy, for there is no excuse to cook more of them than the number of people eating. I am happier when it’s a one-pot dish, a stew or a ragu for pasta, where volume is allowable and leftovers an absolute certainty, even if as a family we do it justice. I did not get to where I am today by being blessed lavishly with self-control. What kind of restaurant critic would that be?

Bots: The Amazon Echo is opening up a vast new realm in personal computing, and gently expanding the role that computers will play in our future. — Mandy Brown

Notably, Amazon’s Alexa,’s Amy, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana have something else in common: they are all explicitly gendered as female. It’s possible to choose from a range of voices for Siri—either male or female, with American, British, or Australian accents—but the female voice is the default, and defaults being what they are, most people probably never even consider that the voice can be changed. Nadella’s casual adoption of the generic he (“it’s about man with machines”) reveals the expectation that a generation of woman-gendered bots are being created to serve the needs of men. In every case, these AIs are designed to seamlessly take care of things for you: to answer questions, schedule meetings, provide directions, refill the milk in the fridge, and so on. So in addition to frightening ramifications for privacy and information discovery, they also reinforce gendered stereotypes about women as servants. The neutral politeness that infects them all furthers that convention: women should be utilitarian, performing their duties on command without fuss or flourish. This is a vile, harmful, and dreadfully boring fantasy; not the least because there is so much extraordinary art around AI that both deconstructs and subverts these stereotypes. It takes a massive failure of imagination to commit yourself to building an artificial intelligence and then name it Amy.”

A quadrivial apologia and tribute to the public library. — James Shelley

Someone in a suit, presumably a corporate executive-type on their lunch break, is skimming a newspaper. Someone who may have spent the night in a nearby shelter is reclining in a chair with a magazine. Others quietly walk past my desk, in the direction of a language class. Small groups of students are scattered around the building, hunched over their homework. A private tutor floats between the desks of their pupils. A young parent, toddler in tow, selects some new bedtime reading materials. A traveler with a suitcase — perhaps an out-of-town visitor just recently arrived via the nearby train-station — makes a brisk inquiry at a librarian’s desk.

This is only an anecdotal observation, but I suspect that the library is one of the most heterogeneous places in the city. Just look at the age demographics for start: everyone, from very young children and their caregivers, to adolescents and older adults alike, all have meaningful reasons to be here. Concurrently, it is a remarkable intersection of cultural diversity: longtime local residents look up old city archival records alongside new immigrants taking a tour of the facility for the first time.

Are we putting public servants in an impossible situation? Sometimes we send the strangest signals to the people who work in the public service. — Steve Paikin

In the best of all worlds, here’s what we want from them: We want them to be brilliant. We want them to be much less bureaucratic and much more creative. We want them to serve us better, find solutions to our problems, and explore new ideas that could help save us money.

But woe betide a single one of them if they ever experiment with a new idea that goes south, then costs the taxpayers money. In that case, we’ll be the first to string them up in the town square and shame them from here to eternity.

This is the conundrum Canada’s public servants live every day.

Captain America, Aaron Burr, And The Politics Of Killing Your Friends — Linda Holmes

Civil War finds itself in theaters in the same week that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit Hamilton is nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards. Hamilton, too, concerns itself with the problem of life-devouring bitterness between people who largely agree with each other. (Given that Hamilton has been mashed up with absolutely everything, it’s not surprising that the potential for this parallel was spotted at least as far back as the trailer.) How did Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (the fictional versions, that is) wind up in a duel when Hamilton began the show seeking Burr’s counsel and they agreed about so much of what they wanted to accomplish for the country? How do you end up shooting a man you admire at a time when you mostly still admire him?

The easier answers are pride, custom, or, as some reads of the show would have it, Burr’s obstinacy. The harder answer, and the one the show supports, is that both felt they were in the right, both were flawed, and neither could find a way to stop. In fact, there’s a sequence in the Civil War book where a failed plan of Iron Man’s to avoid fighting Cap may remind you eerily of a line from the show explaining that proper dueling always involves a final effort at peacemaking, and it’s only in disastrous cases that it’s abandoned: Most disputes die and no one shoots.”

Sadiq Khan may not represent a win for all Muslims, nor should he — Chimene Suleyman

Where it should not have mattered that Khan is Muslim now very much matters. Had Khan not won it would have been likely that every parallel drawn between him, extremism, and terrorist-apologism had been believed. This is the all too real narrative attached to Muslims, where many outside the community in the last decade have not been able to accept it as fabrication. It has mattered that London has stepped away from the trap, distanced itself from believing the racism that has plagued Muslim communities across Europe and America for so many years.

Of course there are immigrants, Muslims, people of colour, who are not by default socialists, Labour supporters, or fans of Khan. The beauty of being allowed to exist as fully dimensional means there is no one way of thinking that transcends a community. Khan may not represent a win for all Muslims, nor should he. It is reductive to give one person a status that has simply nothing to do with their (yet to be seen) capabilities.

Rhythms of Fear: Women instinctively read the danger written upon the city. — Laura Maw

I read the text of this city and exist in a space that will never be my own. I cannot re-write, overwrite or erase. I can only obey its syntax, the structure of the streets designed to induce fear in me, the formulation of patriarchal language of spatial domination, occupation, violence; a linguistics I will never build or share. The rhythm of this street after midnight is slow. It is deadly silent, broken by vibrating engines and the sudden shouts of men from their cars. It is punctuated by men walking down the road, toward me, in large groups, refusing to let me pass. It is a curation of implicit violence.

Elizabeth Wilson states that flânerie, the act of leisurely urban wandering, is a masculine freedom and she is right: walking the city after midnight, as these men show me, is no woman’s realm. If I am frightened I should not be outside at this time; if I am hurt I should not have been wearing this dress; I should not have been walking this way alone; I should not have left my friend’s house. The responsibility is on me. I work around men’s rhythms and rules; I must learn them to keep myself safe. I am reader, not writer.

Peter D. Harris has some stunning paintings of Toronto streetscapes, including gas stations, restaurants, and streetcars:

Peter Harris paintings

Peter Harris paintings

Peter Harris paintings