Showing posts with label miscellaneous blather. Show all posts
Showing posts with label miscellaneous blather. Show all posts

2.02.2019

"use it in good health"

When I was growing up, my grandparents and other older relatives used an expression, "Use it in good health," or a variant, "Wear it in good health". 

This was said when you bought something that you were very excited about, or received a wonderful gift, or made a major purchase. If you brought home a new coat that you loved, and tried it on to show her, along with "It's beautiful," or "It looks great on you," my mother would say, "Wear it in good health." 

Another variant is, "You should wear it in good health." The you should part is a wish or a prayer, similar to the more formal (and religious-sounding) may you. It expresses a desire. In "wear it in good health," the you should or may you is understood. 

Tangent: there is also a sarcastic version of you should. "Maybe the Democrats will grow spines and vote against this war." "You should live so long." This is roughly equivalent to hell freezing over.

Another tangent: there is also the Jewish you shouldn't. "Bring a snack, you shouldn't faint from hunger," meaning, bring a snack so that you won't be hungry. This is often an exaggeration meant to be humorous.

So when I recently told my mother about our new car, she said, "Use it in good health."

I've always assumed this was a Jewish-culture thing, but I actually don't know. Perhaps it's even more specific, a Brooklyn-Jewish thing. Or perhaps it's not Jewish at all, perhaps it's generational. Do you know this expression? Did your family from [somewhere] use it?

I know most people will answer on Facebook and not here. But if you could leave a comment here so it's captured on this blog, I would appreciate it.

About the saying itself, it's one of those idioms I heard without ever thinking about. With my mother now the only person in my life who would use these old expressions, I sometimes hear them with fresh ears. I love this one. It acknowledges the importance to you of this material object, and at the same time, puts it in perspective. The coat is beautiful, but only if you have the good health to enjoy it.

12.23.2018

true confessions, or will laura buy new window treatments for a house that doesn't need them

This is the other shopping story. The one in which I don't come out looking like a rational adult.

I don't care much about clothes, shoes, bags. I don't buy expensive cosmetics or skin-care products. As long as I have what I need, I'm good. It's easy to watch my spending about any of those.

But. There's always a but, right? I love home things. Towels, linens, dinnerware. Rugs. Shelves. Lamps. Organizers. (I could go on.)

And I love home-decorating. When buying clothes, I hold my nose and get it over with. But don't let me in Bed Bath and Beyond or Ikea without adult supervision.

Despite this, I still try very hard to not buy gratuitously. I won't say I never buy home things that we don't technically need. But once I've got our "needs" covered, I try to leave it there. (Scare quotes around needs, acknowledging that these are not true needs, but needs of privilege.)

Does it seem like I'm avoiding something? Not getting to the point? Window treatments. There, I said it. Window treatments. Curtains, shades, blinds.

Why window treatments? I love colour, and curtains or shades add big swaths of colour to a room, totally changing the way a space looks and feels. (I could go on.)

I've had a bad habit of spending too much money on window treatments. This goes alllll the way back to Brooklyn, the custom-cut blind for the bedroom window that had to match the lavender comforter. 

Then there were the vertical fabric blinds over the huge picture window on Bogardus Place, our first apartment in Washington Heights

I didn't feel bad about either of these, despite being relatively poor, with hand-me-down furniture and very few things to wear. It was more important to dress the apartment well. And to be fair, there was a giant window facing the street, with no covering at all, and it was an odd size. And I don't remember the cost being exorbitant. 

See what I did there? I can rationalize anything.

On Bennett Avenue, where we lived 14 years, the majority of our time in New York, I bought some inexpensive fabric and a friend made curtains for me. This was penance for the Bogardus vertical blinds (the ones I just rationalized). An apartment had become available on a nearby but much nicer street -- a bigger apartment in better condition, for much lower rent -- and we decided to move. And my custom fabric vertical blinds were now wasted.

That was my first experience with this phenomenon. I'd like to say I learned my lesson, but if I learned my lesson in 1992, would I be writing this post?

Now we fast-forward to 2005, the year "wmtc". We rented a tiny, dilapidated bungalow in the Port Credit area of Mississauga. To us, it was paradise. It was walking-distance to the Lakeshore GO train, steps from the most beautiful part of the Waterfront Trail, and for the first time in our adult lives, we had a backyard. The lake was at the end of our street! And we were in Canada! We were overjoyed. I felt like the luckiest person in the world.

The house itself was dirty, cold, and not in good condition. While waiting for the moving truck to arrive with all our things, we painted. That's how it started. The painting was necessary, but it got into my head: I had a little house to decorate.

First there were the three accent walls -- in wild colours renters are not supposed to use, including one wall from which I stripped seven layers of wallpaper. None of this was expensive, and using those colours was fine, since we knew the owner would eventually sell the property for a tear-down. Now we're getting to the heart of the matter. 

"...since we knew the owner would eventually sell the property for a tear-down."

The rental wasn't long-term, and we knew it. We just didn't know how short-term it would be. After the one-year lease ran out, it might have been five years, it might have been five months.

So here we are at the real confession: the custom-made shades I bought for the living room and dining room of that house. I won't even tell you what they cost. It would have been expensive for any house. For a broken-down rental that had the potential to be short-term, it was... You can fill in the blank. I don't want to say it. 

I didn't buy them on impulse; I thought about it for a couple of weeks. My mother encouraged me to go for it, but she didn't know what they cost. Allan, who is more frugal than I am, went along without a peep. I'll never understand why.

The windows needed something, of that there is no doubt. But why didn't I buy inexpensive curtains at Ikea or Home Outfitters? That would become my default setting for "I need to fix up this rental without spending a lot of money". Yet I didn't even consider that. I just plowed ahead and bought the beautiful, two-colour, honeycomb fold, Hunter Douglas, fabric blinds.

And we lived in the house 14 months, and then had to move.

We took down the blinds. I saved the hardware and wrapped up the blinds in bubble wrap, and I've been moving them from rental to rental ever since, hoping that one day, some rental somewhere, will have the same size windows. (I've also tried -- multiple times -- to sell them on Craigslist and Kijiji, for a small fraction of their cost.)

Since then, we've lived in too many places. First there was the sewage flood, then the greedy landlord, then the big move west. For each place, I bought some inexpensive curtains, or else bought fabric and had curtains made. I spent very little money and significantly changed the look of the room, exchanging ugly PVC blinds -- and in one case heavy velvet curtains with a heavy coating of dust -- with big swaths of colour that pulled together all the other colours in the room. Very little money, big results.

And now my long story finally arrives at the present: the lovely old house we are renting in Port Hardy. For the first time ever, we have moved into a house with nice window treatments: fabric vertical blinds in the kitchen, dining, and family/living rooms, and fabric black-out curtains, complete with matching and good-looking rods, in all the bedrooms. There are even nice thin blinds in all the bathrooms. All quality, all matching, all in good condition.

And all beige. Sandy. Approximately number 13 on this.

On the day we arrived -- literally on our first walk-through of the house! -- I saw the blinds and curtains and thought, beige. I thought, Those would be great if they were a better colour.



I'm know I won't do it. I'm pretty sure I won't do it.

10.14.2018

how the media (invisibly) props up capitalism and other hidden biases

I recently read these somewhat old, but still relevant, letters to the New York Times Book Review.
คาสิโนออนไลน์ แจกเครดิตฟรี 2019Cost of the Crash
To the Editor:

In his review of “Crashed,” by Adam Tooze (Aug. 12), Fareed Zakaria asserts that “the rescue worked better than almost anyone imagined.” He notes there was no “double-dip recession” and growth returned “slowly but surely.” But this misses what was the major criticism of the “rescue.” It merely hit the re-set button — keeping the big banks solvent. Meanwhile, the stimulus did little to put people back to work. It was not the double-dip recession that critics feared but a long sluggish recovery that failed to affect the majority of the people.

For example, it took six years (2009-15) for the unemployment rate to return to the pre-recession number. The share of income received by the top 1 percent had been 23 percent before the recession. After falling to 18 percent in 2010 it jumped back to 22 percent by 2015. Meanwhile, as late as 2015, the bottom 99 percent of the population had only recovered two-thirds of the income they had lost. Zakaria should have added a few words to his assertion that the rescue worked: It worked for the top 1 percent, not for the rest of us.

MICHAEL MEEROPOL
SPRINGFIELD, MASS.

The writer is an emeritus professor of economics at Western New England University.



To the Editor:

Fareed Zakaria’s review of Adam Tooze’s “Crashed” is an approving account of an approving book. But what was “saved” was “the economy,” not humans.

Yes, the government and others acted to prop up banks. But humans lost twice: Houses and savings were savaged, while banks, their executives, and the rich, as usual, won. And in a further irony, they used taxpayer money to save “the economy” and the banks. Yes, some of it was repaid from those financial institutions, using money deposited in them by humans.

And the endless greed spawned by free market capitalism and lax regulations, which created the crash in the first place, gets mentioned simply in passing.

PHILLIP GORDON
CASTRO VALLEY, CALIF.
These letters brought to mind some concepts that I enjoyed thinking about in library school information school. There were many exercises in illuminating hidden biases and assumptions. In academia-speak, this was sometimes called problematizing or contesting, but I like to think of it more plainly as making the invisible visible. This book review reinforced the dominant view of the economy; the letter-writers challenged the underlying assumptions of the review.

When something is everyday ordinary, commonplace, accepted as normal, it becomes invisible. How can we discuss and analyze, and perhaps challenge, its influence? First we have to make it visible.

Gender roles are the perfect example of this. From the colour of a baby's room, to the toys they play with, the stories they see and hear, and a million other data streams, humans are taught gender roles and expectations. Sure, this has loosened up a bit for some segment of society, but in the overall scheme, it is still largely true. Expectations of gender roles are as invisible as the air that baby breathes. We are thoroughly indoctrinated from the moment we are born. If we want to challenge gender roles, we first have to name the many ways those roles are taught and reinforced. We have to make the invisible visible.

This in turn leads me to think of something Allan and I talk about a lot: how anything progressive or leftist is labeled "political" -- and declared inappropriate in many settings -- while pro-government and pro-military displays are thought to be natural and not political. Military displays at sporting events: neutral. Sitting down during the national anthem: political. Honouring "fallen heroes": natural. Honouring anyone who is a vocal opponent of war: political.

Once you are aware of these hidden biases, you see them everywhere. In one iSchool project, I had to choose a classification system, describe it, then use a different method to classify the same things, and show how assumptions and biases were transformed through the use of a different classification system. I analyzed the way clothing is classified by L.L.Bean, and proposed a gender-free alternative.

I think this hidden bias thing should be a regular wmtc feature, for capitalism, and for war. Or maybe it already is?

(Whoo-hoo, I'm blogging again!)

3.28.2018

in which i discover jordan's cereal and need to tell everyone about it

We used to eat President's Choice Blue Menu granola. The vanilla-almond flavour was crunchy, delicious, and reasonably healthy. My favourite way to eat it was with plain Greek yogurt and fruit, but it was very good with milk or rice milk as well. Then... it changed. It was no longer crunchy. It was no longer tasty. With a little liquid added, it tasted like soggy cardboard, or what I imagine soggy cardboard would taste like if it were a breakfast cereal. Thanks a lot, Loblaws.

Allan, who does our food shopping, went on the hunt for a cereal that would satisfy all the requirements: whole grain, crunchy, tasty, not overly sweet, and reasonably healthy. Plus I prefer clusters to flakes. It would also be good if the cereal didn't cost $10.00 a box.

This is how I discovered Jordan's Morning Crisp granola, and it has made me very happy.

Morning Crisp is crunchy.

Morning Crisp is delicious.

Morning Crisp comes in a variety of yummy flavours: Wild About Berries, Simply Strawberry, Maple Pecan, Bursting with Nuts, Dark Chocolate (!), and Honey Nut.

Morning Crisp is made from all natural ingredients, with no artificial colours, flavours, or preservatives, and it contains lots of whole grains. Look:


The only thing not great is palm oil. But look at this.

President's Choice Blue Menu
"Protein" Whole Grain Cereal, 58 grams
Jordan's Morning Crisp Granola
55 grams

For those of us who regulate our sodium intake, this is amazing. Jordan's contains more sugars, but my overall sugar consumption in a day is very low. Sodium is a greater concern for me -- and it's a massive difference.

Jordan's is a British company. The Jordan's Canada website is not functioning, but their Facebook page is here, and you can follow them on Twitter. I will tweet them this post.

9.19.2017

do workplace-based tv shows make people dissatisfied with their jobs?

I recently realized that I enjoy a lot of TV shows that are themed around a workplace. There are the comedies, like The Office and Brooklyn 9-9, and my favourite sitcoms of past generations, such as Barney Miller and Mary Tyler Moore, and a whole bunch of sitcoms I don't watch, such as Cheers. But there are also dramas like Bones, and Suits, and older shows like ER and several others from that era.

You can see why the workplace is ripe for use as a setting. It allows writers to bring a very diverse group of characters, with widely disparate backgrounds, strengths, and expectations, into a situation where they must work together, for better or worse. The diversity and the need to work together is believable, if often not truly realistic.

But inevitably, as the show continues, the workplace becomes a surrogate family. In both Bones and Suits, many characters have no other family, or have only a small scrap of family left, or are estranged from whatever family they have. Each backstory is credible in itself; finding so many of those stories in one place, not so much.

But at least the Bones writers put some thought into why these workmates become so close -- indeed, whey they are closer than most families. Yes, the characters work in a highly collaborative setting, where individual expertise is only valuable insofar as it serves the whole. And yes, in their work, they are constantly confronted with the fragility of life and the spectre of mortality. But even accounting for those factors, the preternatural intensity of the relationships only makes sense because the characters have no other families.

In a separate sphere, we know that feelings of physical inadequacy are often triggered by unrealistic images of youth and beauty promoted in all kinds of media. We know that many people become depressed around Christmas, New Years, and Valentines Day, when we are surrounded with unrealistic images of family, social life, and romance, respectively.

So I wonder, do people feel inadequate because their workplaces don't resemble these TV teams, not even a little? Do people feel inadequate because most of their relationships are less intense than the relationships on these TV teams? Do some people wish their workplace resembled these shows more? Do they seek to become inappropriately close to their workmates, because they believe this is possible, or even normal, in working life?

Postscript: The title of this post is Impudent Strumpetesque.

Post-postscript: I intentionally spelled New Years and Valentines Day without apostrophes. I want to start a trend.

3.12.2017

should we give up our voip phone and only have cell phones? help me decide.

The ancient technology I grew up with,
including the colour.
We still have a bit of antiquated technology called a home phone.

We use a VoIP phone -- have done so since 2002 -- which is why I say "home phone" rather than "landline". Our home phone is not a landline.

I've blogged about VoIP in the past: it's reliable, very inexpensive, and easier to use than Skype.* I also like the flat-rate monthly fee that includes all the bells and whistles. The only catch is that if your internet connection or power goes down, you have no phone, so it's best to have a cell phone as a backup.

Then we graduated to this.
The other relevant fact here is that Allan doesn't use a cell phone. He's had a cell phone at various times, and he hated them, and doesn't want to be bothered. (I actually have several friends who don't use mobile devices.)

And now this. But they suck.
This means that if I'm not home and there is a power failure or internet failure, Allan has no phone. This is not safe. A few months ago, Allan was in a minor car accident, and now I am insisting that he have a cell phone.

Recently our phone -- the hardware, not the service -- began to die, yet again. I find that no matter what brand I buy, the hardware (like everything else these days) is cheaply made crap that only last a few years. So, rather than buy yet another portable phone system, I'm thinking of getting rid of our home phone altogether.

I think no one under the age of 30 (or is it 40?) has a home phone or even thinks about the concept of it. But before I cancel Vonage, I want to be sure. Do we still need our home phone? What do you think?

* I also blogged about a crazy ordeal I had moving from Vonage US to Vonage Canada. And I notice in that post I still liked Rogers!

1.07.2017

update from the land of the missing white dog

We miss Tala a lot. Of course. Need it even be said.

Somehow I have gone from abject grief to poignant acceptance quicker than I expected. I have no idea why this is. With each dog we have said goodbye to, eventually I get to a place where, thinking of them, I feel sad but at peace -- fortunate to have had their love, assured that we did everything we could for them, and a kind of happy-sadness at their memories. My heart still aches for Tala, but somehow I'm at peace with it.

Everyone is asking about Diego. He is doing really well. He seemed "off" for a couple of days -- he seemed to be waiting for Tala to come home. For all we know, he still is. But he has quickly adapted to a new routine, and seems almost like his usual happy self.

I miss the howling, and the rough-housing. I wonder if Diego misses it, too.

I'm grateful that I was home for almost a full week before we suddenly had to say goodbye to Tala. If I had been out of the house at work and union meetings, I would have missed precious time with her. I'm also grateful that the decision was completely obvious. As soon as we saw the chest x-rays, we knew.

I'm having trouble reconciling myself to why we didn't help her sooner. She was having some symptoms, but we attributed them to her chronic spine condition and to age, never imagining something else was going on. She was struggling for a few weeks. But was she suffering? The thought of one of my animals suffering is unbearable for me. My brain tells me we did everything we could, and even if we didn't, we can't go back and re-do it. But my heart is not fully on board.

Tala's death has made me think about all love and all mortality. I'd say this is a sign of age, but in fact each time I lose someone I love, I feel this way. Our ability to love is infinite, but the creatures we love are always finite. And since we human animals are aware of our own mortality, we know that our love will lead to loss. But love we must.

I envy those people who believe in an eternal afterlife. When I say goodbye to someone I love, I realize what a beautiful fiction that is.

10.24.2016

i look forward to the day when no one wears a fitbit anymore

What did people do before Fitbit? Without their adorable little bracelets, how did they get enough exercise? Never mind that, how did they manage to live?? All those lonely, barren years, decade upon decade, people running, swimming, cycling, lifting, walking -- without a Fitbit. Can you imagine? It breaks my heart just thinking about it.

Pre-Fitbit, I often didn't know if people were exercising at all! Imagine! I might be speaking to someone who was getting enough exercise, and I wouldn't even know it! Unless the subject came up, I wouldn't know how many steps they had walked that day! What a scary thought.

5.10.2016

i'm not ready for another broken heart, or, nothing says mortality like your sick dog

Tala has cancer.

As it happened with Cody, we found a lump. First I was sure it was a cyst, then I was hoping it was a cyst, now I'm just hoping it's not an iceberg. 

There's a big ugly tumoury thing sticking out, but this type of sarcoma is known to have internal tentacles. We're having x-rays done today to see if the cancer has spread to any organs, then - we hope - surgery as soon as possible.

Cody's cancer turned out to be highly operable and likely not metastasized, and we were thrilled to celebrate one more Cody Day. But it did turn out to be her final year. Tala Day is in late January. Will she be with us in January 2017? 

The answer to that, of course, is we don't know. 

And the answer to that is we never know. We don't know about Tala and we never know about any of us.

I feel that we never know every day. I'm not trying to be maudlin or melodramatic; it's just a fact. I feel my own mortality, and that of everyone I love, every single day. I have the impression - based only on observation - that this is not universal. But perhaps it's universal but most people don't admit it, or do a better job of blocking it out.

It's not like I walk around thinking, "I'm going to die". I'm not a character from a Woody Allen film. I just have a strong sense, deep down, that all we have is right now. That right now is our happiness, our love, our passions, our pain, our opportunity to give our lives meaning. And any time other than right now is an illusion.

(This has some unfortunate reprecussions in my life, like real difficulty saying no to myself, and resulting credit card debt. And the constant nagging fear that I should be spending our so-called retirement savings. I look at the stupid savings plan and think, will we live long enough to use this money? I'd like to know, please, because if not, I'm making travel plans.)

In almost 30 years of sharing our lives with dogs, we've said goodbye to four beloved animals so far. At this point, I see every dog as a heartbreak waiting to happen. It's worth it - for me there's no doubt - but as I get older, as the years start whipping by faster and faster, their time with us seems so very fleeting. If you adopt, as we always have, that time is shorter still, both because they're not puppies when you take them, and because a rescued dog's life span is usually shorter. 

And going through that whole journey, from "I think we're ready to adopt another dog" to that final goodbye, you come face to face with right now is all we have.

10.08.2015

a gray rug, a black kong, a happy white dog

We need to get rugs or carpet runners for Tala; she's slipping on the wood floors when she and Diego play. But with one heavy shedder and one heavy drooler, we're not too keen on buying nice rugs. While looking for something else at Ikea, we found a rug they were promoting: $17! They're not bad looking, either.

I put the rug down, Tala immediately ran down the hall, retrieved her squishy bone toy from my office, ran back, and settled in for a chew. She saw that rug and she knew exactly what she wanted.


For $17 each, we can cover a good portion of the floor with these babies, and make Tala very happy.

1.18.2015

what i'm watching: two random observations arising from watching a tv show from my childhood

In September, I blogged about watching "Bewitched" on Netflix as my "comedy before sleep" show. I'm still watching it, sometimes taking as many as three nights to get through one episode, so potent is this sleep aid. I want to share two random observations based on Bewitched.

People on TV have whiter teeth now.

I always notice teeth and smiles, and it was immediately apparent that the teeth of every actor on Bewitched is dull and off-white, compared to the gleaming white teeth seen on TV shows today.

This is obviously down to tooth-whitening technology. But it must mean that everyone on TV now is having their teeth whitened, that tooth-whitening has become one more appearance enhancer that is expected of actors and aspiring actors - one more way that TV does not reflect reality.

The difference is quite striking. No one with the kind of teeth I see on Bewitched would be allowed on TV today, except as guests on a Jerry Springer-esque show.

The other observation is about the two Darrins. Bewitched fans know there is the original Darrin, played by Dick York, and "the other Darrin," an expression now synonymous with casting failure, played by Dick Sargent.

As I've been plowing through Bewitched episodes, I've been awaiting the appearance of Darrin II. I purposely didn't look up when the switch occurred, wanting to be surprised. I noticed in Season 5 that Darrin was getting less screen time, and sometimes disappeared for entire episodes, "in Chicago" on business. I assumed this was a bad omen for Darren the First.

Then one day, in the cold open, Samantha calls to her husband, he turns around to face the camera... and there he is: the other Darrin. It's the first episode of Season 6. Elizabeth Montgomery has new, above-the-title billing, David White (Larry Tate) has Endora-style billing in the opening credits, and the theme song has been shortened. (Attention spans were dropping, even back then.) Thus begins Darrin the Second.

It now strikes me as very strange that a show would cast a new actor in a major supporting role, rather than write the character out of the show. I was wondering if any contemporary shows have done this, and found this: 25 Casting Fails on TV that They Expected Us Not to Notice. Many of these examples are character voicings, and many mark the disappearance of a minor character. A few are actual casting changes. But none, to my knowledge, are as major a character as Darrin was on Bewitched.

These casting changes used to happen on daytime soaps all the time, and perhaps still do. (I haven't watched daytime soaps since high school.) A voice would intone, "The part of Joe Smith is now being played by Jamie Joe-White," a new actor would enter the scene, and that would be that. The most famous instance I can think of was on a nighttime soap: when Barbara Bel Geddes was replaced by Donna Reed on "Dallas". This was an unmitigated disaster; the network was forced to concede a better contract to Bel Geddes and put her back on the show.

Does this happen anymore for major characters? On Seinfeld, Jerry's father was originally played by a different actor, as was Pam's mother on The Office. But both were minor roles. I'm wondering if any contemporary sitcoms have changed the actor playing a major role, rather than getting rid of the character.

I'm also wondering if people who watched Bewitched in real time would have known that Dick York was being replaced by Dick Sargent. Would it have been reported in some entertainment media - not in a trade publication like Variety, but in the entertainment section of local newspapers? Or did everyone just turn on their TVs and experience the shock of The Other Darrin?

8.17.2014

libraries with pride of place

Central Library at National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City
While I wait impatiently to post some exciting news, please enjoy these photos of amazing libraries all over the world.

I've seen six on this list: New York Public Library, Butler Library at Columbia University, Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at University of Toronto, Trinity College in Dublin, Central Library at University of Mexico (from the outside only), and Los Angeles Central Library.

Library photos from BuzzFeed.

6.26.2014

in which i defend the suburbs against misconceptions (some thoughts on reading jane jacobs)

I'm reading Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs' 2004 strong caution to North American society. I'll blog about the book in general at a later date, but wanted to share some thoughts that keep coming up as I'm reading.

This is the first time I'm reading Jacobs since living in a suburb, the kind of area Jacobs reviled, rather than living in a dense urban environment, the kind she revered. And now, when I read Jacobs' shorthand descriptions of suburbs, I wonder if she truly understood them.

Two of the charges levelled against suburbs - and if you've read Jacobs or anyone influenced by her, you've encountered these repeatedly - are (1) no one knows their neighbours, and (2) you have to drive everywhere. The former refers to the absence of shared community spaces. Jacobs often wrote that we must encounter each other face-to-face in order to build tolerance and a sense of community. The latter criticism is often expressed as, "You have to drive [x] distance just to pick up a loaf of bread."

I think this reveals some misunderstanding about how most suburban people conduct their lives. Most suburbanites don't live in walking distance of a big supermarket, but that doesn't mean they drive to the store every time they need anything. Based on my observations, most people do all their shopping at once, bringing home groceries for a full week or more from one trip. In other words, just because they (supposedly) need to drive just to pick up bread, doesn't mean they do.

Urbanites may pick up small numbers of items every day, often on their way home from public transit. Many people shop for dinner on the way home from work. Many urbanites don't have the means to shop for a week's worth of food at one time, and may not have the space to stock up on staples. To those people, the absence of a variety of shops and services within easy walking distance looks incredibly inconvenient. But to suburbanites, shopping daily or several times a week may look similarly inconvenient.

I said "supposedly need to drive" for a reason. Most modern suburban neighbourhoods do have a small commercial strip with a few stores and services in walkable distance. However, these strips are often not visible from the main arteries. They're located inside the neighbourhood, so to speak, on smaller through-ways. So while it may appear that suburbanites must drive to pick up milk or bread, chances are (a) they buy milk or bread weekly, along with everything else they need, and (b) if they do need something in an emergency, they can walk to get it, or drive a very short distance, if necessary (recognizing that not everyone can walk carrying packages, in all weather).

Commercial strips aren't the only suburban feature not visible from the main roads. Many or most suburban neighbourhoods also contain green space, tucked within the neighbourhood itself. My Mississauga Library System colleagues who live in Toronto often claim that Mississauga lacks for green space - shared, outdoor, public commons. As commuters, they see Mississauga only from the main roadways. In fact, almost every neighbourhood in Mississauga has green space, inside the subdivision. And in those spaces, you'll see people walking their dogs, kids in playgrounds, teens on their bicycles, seniors out for a stroll, and so on.

As for knowing our neighbours, we do, to the extent that we want to - and that's exactly the extent we knew them in New York. Mississauga is more diverse than most of New York City, and in general it's more tolerant and less insular than any given New York City neighbourhood. But that, I think, is more a function of Canada and Mississauga, and the high value placed on newcomers and diversity in our area.

* * * *

I grew up in the suburbs (Rockland County, in lower New York State). It was before the existence of McMansions: my family had a small house and a huge yard. We owned two cars, and needed them both, and when we reached our teen years, we needed more than two. There was no local public transit, just buses to New York City. As children, we were completely dependent on adults driving us to do anything. We did have a lot of freedom to roam around the neighbourhood, but so did urban children in that era (and many still do).

The suburbs in which I grew up was very much like the ones that Jacobs loathed: isolating, and completely dependent on the automobile.

hated living in the suburbs, and vowed I would never choose to live in one as an adult. Never is a big word when you're young and have no idea the shape your life will take. But even a few years before we moved to Mississauga, I couldn't have envisioned being happy in the suburbs. I always thought if we left urban life, we would opt for a small town in a rural area. (Where, I should add, people are equally dependent on cars!)

And now, of course, I live in a suburb and I really enjoy it. Mississauga is technically a city - Canada's sixth-largest! - but it's an extremely suburban environment. The City of Mississauga has come a long way in adding public transit and in cultivating public spaces and excellent community services. But when it calls itself "urban," it's stretching that word beyond all meaning.

Many suburban and rural people disparage cities - cities are dirty, crowded, noisy, and so on. I usually sense that they've never lived in a city, so they see the negatives without understanding the positives. That is, they don't see the trade-off.

Think back to the woman I overheard on the plane, wondering with horror why her urban friend spends so much money to live in Brooklyn when she doesn't even have a backyard or a detached house. I've heard countless people similarly wonder why people pay such exorbitant rents to live in Manhattan. While there's no proper justification for the ridiculous housing costs, I would say that those people simply don't understand the trade-off: they don't understand what you get in return for those crazy housing prices. As E. B. White said, "...the city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin -- the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled." You pay those prices, live in those small apartments, put up with the crowds, because you thrive on urban life.

In a quieter and less spectacular way, the suburbs can also offer a rich trade-off. Naturally we need more and better public transit. That's a given. And suburbs must be more than places to live and shop. People need to be able to work, play, and create in their own communities. But Jacobs herself reminds us that smaller towns and cities all over the US were once equipped with trolley cars, linking communities internally and to each other, before North American society (thanks to General Motors) (this, too) abandoned public transit in favour of the automobile.

We need better planning, for sure - more density, more transit. But the suburbs themselves are not the problem.

12.25.2013

wmtc winter break goes low-tech

Every year I seem to break the holiest commandment of the holiday season: I'm not busy. I always hear how "everyone is so busy this time of year" and "this is such a crazy time of year, you can't get anything done," but that never reflects my experience.

We don't travel to see family, we have no extra social events, and we don't do Christmas shopping. Many years ago, we used to send a huge pile of winter-holiday cards, but we've gone digital with that, and we don't do it every year.

So Christmas is an extra day off, and here in the Commonwealth, we have Boxing Day, too. Two days off with nothing to do and no obligations. A strange scheduling glitch at the library gave me four days off in a row, which I am thoroughly enjoying. I'm reading, doing things around the house, and we're taking that final move-in step that never got done: hanging pictures.

And one more thing! Here's something else I'm doing with my un-Christmas winter holiday.


A few years ago, a Joy of Sox friend was cleaning out closets, and asked if anyone wanted some Sox-related jigsaw puzzles. I used to love puzzles, and hadn't done any since my days as a nanny in the mid-1980s. She sent them to me, but in our old house (pre-flood), we didn't have a spare table and didn't have the space. Where we live now, we have plenty of room to set up a card table, and my winter break gives me the perfect excuse.

The puzzle pictured above ended up like this.


After a brief period of admiration, this took its place.


So far it looks like this. The challenge of field and sky remains!


I find jigsaw puzzles very relaxing, and so addictive! When I was growing up, we often had a puzzle laid out on the dining room table. We would work on it together, or anyone who walked by would try to get a few pieces in. When I said this in a Joy of Sox gamethread, many people had similar memories.

Making these puzzles is also great for listening to music, for which I never have enough time. The little table I'm working on is beside our huge collection of LPs. Jigsaw puzzle plus vinyl, how low-tech can you go?

9.07.2013

personal update, our new (rental) house, and why we'll never own a home

We've moved! We're renting a much larger, newer, and more comfortable house in central Mississauga. We've lost the huge backyard of our old rental home, but the backyard here is still a decent size, the largest of any house we saw that we'd want to live in. (The choices were huge backyards with old, un-maintained, falling-apart houses, beautiful new townhouses with either no backyard or a tiny square of cement, or this place!)

We have more space - way more space - in this house on two floors than we had in the old place on three floors. And after two major floods, we're pretty happy not to have a basement! The basement of the current house is a separate apartment, and those tenants do not share the yard.

One of the big differences in this house is that our landlord and his family used to live here, so everything is new and well-maintained. It is by far the nicest place either of us have ever lived in.

It will be a while until we're all set up, but I've decided - for once - to take it slow. Normally I run out and buy everything we need, do all the decorating right away, locked and loaded in two weeks, max. This time I'm in no hurry. Happily, our insurance settlement from the flood covered our moving expenses and car repairs, and we can replace a few of the most important items we lost.

"If you don't mind me asking, why are you renting?"

As we looked for this home, realtors and some owners expressed surprise that we were not renting only to bridge a gap between homebuying, but renting for the long haul. One owner was shocked that we had lived in our previous rental since 2007, and would be there still, if not for the flood. I guess renting is considered all right for young people who are just starting out, and maybe for older folks in transition, but a middle-aged couple isn't supposed to rent.

Yet one of the bright spots in our miserable summer was being able to simply walk away from that sewage-flooded house, with no responsibility to clean or renovate. Moving is never fun or easy, but within two weeks of the flood, we had signed a new lease, and within two months, we were gone. After the sewage flood, I could only think, "Thank [something] we rent!"

I mean no disrespect to any readers - most of you, probably - who own your own home, and never would have done otherwise. Each to their own, and I hope the market is kind to you.

For me, there are many reasons to rent, and I can find no compelling reasons to buy.

We can't afford it, and we don't care

When we were younger, it was much more important to us to "choose to be poor," so to speak - to keep our expenses low, have less earning pressure, and thus time to pursue our own goals. Renting gave us time to write, and when we could scrape some money together, to travel. Buying would have meant choosing a life path strictly for maximum earning potential. And beyond the downpayment that we didn't have, buying anything in the New York area would have tripled or quadrupled our monthly expenses.

Since then, the housing market has only gotten worse, from my point of view. Home ownership is ever more expensive, and the dream of easy money from buying and selling is ever more of a gamble.

The equation isn't only financial. Owning itself means nothing to us. We love a nice living space, and always try to have one, but we don't need or want the responsibility that comes with home ownership. In our previous home, in one year the furnace and oven both needed replacing. All I did was pick up the phone. It was someone else's bill, and someone else's headache.

The experts agree. Or do they?

The only thing we don't have is a house to sell. We have no means of generating a large amount of income from the sale of a house, which would presumably buy us a more comfortable retirement. We don't have that, it's true.

On the other hand, we don't have a house that we can't sell. We don't have the potential reward, but we also don't have the risk. We're most comfortable with that.

Conventional wisdom says that renting is "throwing your money away," and smart investors always buy. I never understood the first part, because I'm pretty sure than my rent buys me a place to live that someone else is responsible for maintaining.

The second part is based on several assumptions that don't apply to every situation. Once upon a time, it probably made perfect sense. My parents bought a home and paid off the mortgage in less than 10 years, with only one income-earner. These days, in any place we've lived, we couldn't pay off a mortgage in 30 years. And why would I want $500,000 in debt?

I notice, too, that most calculations of renting versus buying don't account for the cost of maintaining a home. Take this article, for example. Top 10 cities where renting is better than buying says:
Real estate research firm Zillow did the math and factored in all kinds of possible costs, including monthly rent and mortgage payments, insurance, property taxes, maintenance and closing costs, and expected price appreciation to come up with the exact point at which buying becomes less expensive than renting.
But the article itself seems to use a simple rent-multiplied-by-months equation.

This video looks at the economics of buying vs. renting, challenging the idea that buying is always a better deal. In comments, people give the usual arguments - "But at the end you own the house" - even when it's clear that the house has actually cost you way more than you would have spent renting.

In Time magazine's business section, a former homeowner considers renting. He writes:
At first I thought that buying a home would also be a smart financial decision. The more research I do, however, the more I realize that the notion of homeownership as a magical path to wealth is a marketing ploy of the real estate industry. In fact, home prices (like gold prices) generally barely keep pace with inflation.

There’s no question that buying a house makes sense for some folks, but mainly for non-financial reasons. Owning a home gives you stability (you’re not at the mercy of a landlord) and freedom (you can do what you want with the place). But financially, it’s not always the best bet.
I agree that homeownership is more stable than renting. But freedom? Not really. If you are hamstrung by mortgage costs or stuck with a house you can't sell at a profit, you're not free. The house itself takes up a certain amount of your time. You may enjoy that time and see it as well-spent. But it's not free.

The New York Times offers a sophisticated buy-versus-rent calculator that takes a large number of variables into account. I couldn't account for many factors, such as interest rates and property tax (one of the joys of renting, I don't know about those things), but from what I could tell, it would be 30 years before buying a home was actually better financially than renting in my area.

This article in the Financial Post (the business supplement of Canada's rabidly right-wing National Post newspaper) spells it out more flatly than most.
Does it make more sense to buy or rent a home from an investment perspective? It’s a question I get asked more than any other. The answer, in an era of historically low interest rates and perpetually rising real estate values, appears to be obvious: buy.

Just ask any real estate agent and they’ll tell you, “Don’t pay your landlord’s mortgage for him,” or “Build equity for yourself instead of flushing your money down the toilet,” and our favourite, “There has never been a better time to buy.”

It all sounds pretty convincing, but it’s wrong. Unless you need the security blanket of owning your home, it is nearly always a better financial move from an investing standpoint to rent rather than buy. The reason: People rarely consider three major costs of owning a home.
The three factors are: the costs associated with buying and selling, the operating costs of ownership, and the impact of a mortgage. The second factor - the cost of maintaining a home - is the one I find most people overlook. Friends have told me they pay nearly the equivalent in rent every month to maintain their home. About the impact of a mortgage, the Financial Post writer says:
This isn’t preparing for retirement. This is preparing for job interviews in your seventies when you should be enjoying cocktails after a round of golf.
I notice that even the very smart and sensible Suze Orman, who used to categorically tell everyone to rent only until they had saved enough for a down payment, has changed her mind. Orman now says, "Just because you can buy a home or condo doesn't mean you should. Here are some instances in which renting makes more sense."

She offers four reasons why you might want to rent. One is the down payment. Personally, I cannot imagine forking over that kind of cash in return for the right to pay off a huge mortgage. But more tellingly, reason number four is: "You don't really want the responsibilities and risks associated with being a homeowner." I appreciate the recognition that some of us just don't care.

A touch of insecurity

The only potential negative that has now arisen is that renting a house is not as secure as an apartment rental. Renting a house in Ontario, there is the possibility that the owner could choose not to renew our lease, if he wanted to sell the house, or move back in, or have a family member move in. That's what happened with our first house, in Port Credit, a risk we knew from the start. That move turned out to be very beneficial, but this could happen with any house we rent in Mississauga. We try to screen for that possibility, but we're depending on people to be honest about their intentions - a big if.

I think if it turns out we are moving too frequently, we would probably go back to apartment life. For now, we are carefully breaking down each box we empty and storing them all in the garage. One year from now, when our landlord renews our lease, I'll Freecycle them. If the landlord doesn't renew, we may save even more money by renting an apartment again.

It seems that for many North Americans, owning a home is a sign of adulthood, one of the three things you're supposed to do: get married, have kids, and buy a house. Lucky me, I've skipped all three!

7.19.2013

know your rights, rental edition

After a week of looking at houses for rent, we found something we love and put down a deposit. My dread of moving has been mostly replaced with a mixture of resignation and excitement, as this will be a definite upgrade in our standard of living. Life is full of the unexpected. We're very fortunate in many ways - it could be way worse - and I don't want to lose that perspective.

This experience continues to be educational! In addition to the rental scams I saw on Craigslist, the basement disaster and our impending move have provided a refresher course (as if I needed one!) in knowing your rights and asserting them.

Know what you're entitled to

Last week, I emailed our insurance agent with a question, and was told that our claim would be disallowed - none of our losses covered - because we are not covered for flood. I was horrified. Sick to my stomach. What about our sewer backup rider? Our damage was from sewer backup, and we bought an extra rider expressly for that. The language is very clear and straightforward. It doesn't specify or exclude any cause of sewer backup, it just covers loss caused by it. Meaning, it doesn't matter if the sewer backup is caused by a flood. We still should be covered.  I managed to control my emotions and write a coherent email to the agent.

Lo and behold, she got back to me very quickly, saying she "went up the line" and argued on our behalf, and yes, we would be covered in full.

Her reply seemed awfully quick for "going up the line". Was she performing her company duty, attempting to deny coverage? Most people I spoke to thought so. After all, we know health insurance companies in the United States employ people whose sole task is to create obstacles to coverage, to make it so difficult that the patient or their family member gives up and goes away. (Whistleblowers have attested to this.) Obviously I have no proof that this agent was following that approach. It's just difficult for me to see the error as unintentional.

Know what they're not entitled to

We gave our landlord written notice that we were terminating our tenancy - that is, breaking our lease. He returned our rent cheques that would be unused,* but not our security deposit, which should be our last month's rent. LL told Allan that after we moved, he'll inspect the place and we can discuss the security deposit at that time. We knew this was his opening salvo in a move to keep our deposit.

I called to follow up, emphasizing that we need our deposit back (or used as our final month's rent, and the September cheque returned; it amounts to the same thing) in order to make a deposit on another place. He repeated the same line about an inspectionl I requested we arrange this inspection sooner rather than later, so I can get a handle on my finances. He agreed.

After we hung up, I had an idea. With a few seconds of Googling, I learned that what LL was suggesting is illegal under Ontario law. I sent this email.
Hi [LL],

As it turns out, we will have to change the way our last month's rent is being handled. We've learned that under Ontario law, our security deposit can only be used for the last month's rent. It cannot legally be withheld for damages, cleaning, or any other charges.

A summary of appropriate rent/security deposit procedures are summarized here by the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board:

http://www.ltb.gov.on.ca/en/Key_Information/STEL02_111479.html

In particular, I draw your attention to these paragraphs:

Can a landlord charge a person a deposit or a fee to rent a unit?

Yes, a landlord can collect a rent deposit if it is requested on or before the day that the landlord and tenant enter into the tenancy agreement. The rent deposit cannot be more than one month's rent or the rent for one rental period, whichever is less. For example, if rent payments are made weekly, the deposit cannot be more than one week’s rent; if rent payments are made monthly or bi-monthly, the deposit cannot be more than one month’s rent.

The rent deposit must be used for the rent for the last month before the tenancy ends. It cannot be used for anything else, such as to pay for damages.

Does a landlord have to pay interest if a rent deposit is collected?

Yes, the landlord must pay the tenant interest on the rent deposit every 12 months. The amount of interest that a landlord must pay is the same as the rent increase guideline that is in effect when the interest payment is due. The guideline is set each year by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Information about this year’s rent increase guideline can be found in the Brochures by Topic section of our website.

Note: Landlords may deduct the amount needed to update the rent deposit (so that it equals the current rent) from the interest that is owed to the tenant. See previous question.

If the landlord does not pay the interest owed to the tenant when it is due, the tenant can:
- deduct the interest from a future rent payment, or
- file a Tenant Application for a Rebate (Form T1) to the Board.

Can the landlord charge the tenant a damage deposit?

No. A landlord cannot collect a damage deposit that they would use if there is damage done to the unit. Also, a landlord cannot use the last month’s rent deposit to cover damages in the unit.

If the landlord finds that a tenant has damaged the unit or caused damage to the building, the landlord can give the tenant a notice and/or ask them to pay for the damages. If they do not, the landlord can apply to have the Board determine if there are damages and what should be done about them. For more information about the remedies available to a landlord if a tenant causes damage, see the Board’s brochure on Maintenance & Repairs. [end quote]


Accordingly, we are requesting that you return either our rent cheque dated September 1, 2013, or our security deposit in full, plus the interest required by law. If you believe there are damages to the house for which we should be reponsible, we will discuss and negotiate that as a separate matter, as required by law.

We need our security deposit returned promptly so that we can sign a lease on another house, and the law very clearly states that this is our right. Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Laura & Allan
This LL is not a kid. He is not a novice. I'm quite sure he knows the provisions of the Ontario Residential Tenancies Act.

We can apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board to recover our money. Hopefully we won't have to, but we won't hesitate to do this if need be.

I'm not special

And so, there are two more examples of how you can be ripped off if you don't know - and assert - your rights.

Long ago, after one of these types of posts, a reader thought I was bragging about getting special treatment. Quite the contrary. My point is that we all must do this, and we all can. I know it doesn't come naturally or easily to everyone, but it does get easier with practice - especially if you've ever gotten the positive reinforcement of a good result. I share my stories to show that you can fight back, and that often you must fight back. You can know your rights and you can win.

One final note. When you're doing battle with a landlord or a utility or a telecom company, you need unassailable facts. Don't ask your friends, or if you do, don't rely on their opinions, even if they appear to have inside knowledge. Don't ask the folks who hang out at your favourite message board or social media site. And for dog's sake, don't ask Ask.com or Yahoo! Answers or something similar. Go online and go to the source. And if you're unsure how to find reliable sources online... ask a librarian!



------
* In Canada, as in many European countries, tenants give landlords a year's worth of post-dated cheques. Landlords deposit the appropriate cheque at the beginning of each month, and it's the tenant's job to see that the cheque will clear.

4.05.2013

can money buy happiness? yes. no. sometimes. maybe.

My friend Impudent Strumpet writes a series of posts that dispute the oft-repeated notion "money can't buy happiness". (Here's an example.) I find this idea very thought-provoking. I've definitely subscribed to the idea that money doesn't equal happiness - that making the acquisition of riches a primary life goal does not lead to a happy life. Imp Strump's posts led me to think more clearly about this axiom and see what kinds of truths it might or might not hold.

If money doesn't buy happiness, try living without any

For people who live in poverty, money undoubtedly could buy a great deal of happiness. The stresses of poverty are endless, and few of us would deny that being able to afford adequate food, housing, fuel, health care, and other basic necessities would make many people who lack those things very happy indeed. That is why universal health insurance and a more just, rational economic system would solve more problems for more people than the system of profit and greed we have now.

Beyond that, for those of us who are not necessarily poor or low-income, being able to afford some wonderful life supports and conveniences definitely buys a large measure of happiness.

In recent weeks, I have purchased new eyeglasses, new orthotics for my shoes, and some veterinary services. All were very expensive. I didn't want to spend so much money on these things, but I had no choice; all are necessary for my comfort and well being. (Some may consider dogs a luxury, but they are my family.) Each time I took out my credit card, I thought, what do people do who can't afford these things? If your feet hurt or you can't see properly, and you can't afford the solution, how do you cope?

After your most basic needs are met, having enough discretionary income so that an unexpected expense doesn't force you to make difficult and uncomfortable choices is a very real happiness. I've lived both ways, and I can tell you, the reduction of anxiety is tremendous. The column Imp Strump quotes in her recent "money buying happiness" post gives the perfect example.
People with plenty of money have crummy luck all the time, too, but it’s just an inconvenience for them. My parents are millionaires. Last week their heater, car, and garage door broke. So what?

If they were poorer, each problem would've caused two more problems. People living on the edge are vulnerable to every mishap in a way that is catastrophic.
Living lives of our own choosing

Being able to do the things you love is another kind of happiness that money can buy. My greatest love is travel, and travel costs money. When I don't have money to travel at least a little, I'm considerably less happy.

Money also buys leisure time. When you must count every dime and dollar to make it to the next cheque, you must do everything as cheaply as possible. You can't afford little conveniences that make it easier to prepare dinner, or big conveniences like a car, which makes it easier for you and your family to participate in various activities. Without any discretionary income, you have less time to enjoy life, and fewer options when you do.

I do believe that there's a kind of happiness that money can't buy, a basic contentment, a satisfaction with one's life path, that no amount of material goods will touch. Yet money affects this, too. No matter what gives your life meaning - gardening, cooking, travel, photography, hiking, sports, writing, etc., etc., etc. - you need some leisure time and some discretionary income to pursue it. As the notion of good job and decent employment crumbles, we see more people completely consumed with survival. Less money equals less happiness.

Small-picture vs big-picture happiness? Is that it?

Despite all this, which I find logical and irrefutable, I do think there is some truth buried in the saying "money doesn't buy happiness". I once wrote about small- and big-picture luck. Maybe that's the distinction here, too.

I went to university with lots of people whose primary life goal was to make a lot of money. Not to earn money doing something they loved, or to be well compensated for helping others, but to make as much money as possible, full stop. I see no evidence that that fulfillment of that goal leads to happiness. It appears to lead to the desire to make more money. Which in turn leads to the desire to make more money.

It also leads to things like Enron, Nortel, and Worldcom - things like the Bhopal and Deep Horizon - which lead to a huge amount of unhappiness for untold numbers of people, through absolutely no fault of their own.

The pursuit of profit does not lead to happiness. I am comfortable stating that as a fact.

I have also met many people who are completely caught in the thrall of consumerism. They spend constantly, and are often broke, because they are always buying clothes, shoes, gadgets, what have you. Shopping is the main focus of their lives, like a bottomless pit of getting and spending. Their purchases do appear to buy a small measure of good feeling, but it is fleeting, ephemeral. As soon as the feeling fades, they are shopping again. If it sounds like I'm describing an addiction, I am. This addiction to things - buy, buy, buy, more, more, more - is created and fed by the consumerist, capitalist system in which we live.

I think, too, that money does not create the deepest kind of happiness: how we feel about ourselves, our relationships, our lives. While money can buy us a great deal of comfort and convenience, wealth can't actually turn an unhappy person into a happy person. An adequate income can remove a huge amount of stress from a relationship, but it can't in itself create a loving, respectful relationship where one does not exist. When a person is unhappy with herself, material goods offer, at best, a very short-term band-aid, and possibly not even that. A life spent chasing material wealth will not bring inner contentment. In that sense, money does not buy happiness.

The solution: revolution

By my observation, people with tremendous amounts of money - people who live lives of lavish excess - could lose a large percentage of that wealth and still be happy. But people of modest means would find their lives greatly improved by a sudden influx of cash, or the sudden affordability of services.

Thus, a global revolution that ushers in a more equitable distribution of wealth, and the socialization of resources that are currently held for private profit, would probably make a small percentage of people a bit less happy. But it would lead to a tremendous net increase in human happiness overall.

12.11.2012

a great date


It's 12.12.12! To all my fellow obsessives, enjoy the day!

8.01.2012

what is it about love?

I was looking my dogs, thinking about how each came into our lives. How one day a dog is living in a shelter, and that's its pack and its life, and then one day it is put in a car and taken somewhere else, and now it has a new family, and a new life.

The dog loves its new people and its new packmates, because that's what dogs do. That's what it's programmed to do, so to speak. That's its dog way of being. Even if the dog is stressed from the huge change, or depressed over the loss of its old family, after a period of adjustment, the dog will grow to love its new pack with the same loyal, intense dog-love, because that's what dogs do.

And for us, the day we bring the dog home, we're excited and we like the new dog, and we anticipate is life with us. But the longer the dog lives in our home, the longer we take care of the dog, the longer it depends on us, the deeper the bond becomes, and the more we love the dog. Because, I think, that's what humans do.

I like all animals, especially all dogs, but when I look at my own dogs, I feel a unique and profound love. And if another dog were to appear in my home, and it depended on me and I took care of it, I would eventually feel a deep and special love for that dog, too. One day a dog is just a dog, and another day, it's part of your family and part of your heart.

And that's the way it is with people, too.

How do we love, where does love come from?

People talk about "maternal instinct," the drive of a mother to love her children. I don't doubt that a mother's love for her biological child can be a unique force. We've only to check YouTube for all those animal mothers nurturing orphaned babies of other species to see how that works.

But that's a partial explanation at best. "Maternal instinct" doesn't explain a father's love, or the love of adoptive parents for their children. Or how I took a job as a nanny, and grew to love the boy in my care, how he came to be part of my heart's family. Or why I love my dogs.

We could say it's caring for another being that forges that special bond - but that, too, would be but a partial explanation. It wouldn't explain the protective love of a young child for its new infant sibling. Or my love for my nieces and nephews. Or, for that matter, our love for our partners.

It's a mysterious force - so powerful, intrinsic to us, and beyond our control.

On the one hand, love keeps replenishing itself: the more you give away, the more you have. The more you love, the more you can love. There's limitless room for love in our hearts.

And on the other hand, the more we love, the more potential there is for loss, and for pain. The loss can be devastating. But knowing that, most of us continue to love and to seek love. Those who don't - people who try to avoid love, in order to avoid pain - are seldom happy.

I recently finished reading this excellent book, the literary zombie novel. In the end, I saw the whole story as a search for human connection, the human's relentless search for love. In a world filled with misery and death, with the knowledge that whoever he connects with will soon die or disappear, our hero keeps searching. He keeps telling himself he's through, that he wants nothing further to do with other people, yet he continues to make those connections, in spite of himself. He can't help it. It's what humans do. I can't rightly call this a metaphor for life: more like a simple description.

When I was a teenager, and avidly collected quotes and sayings that felt profound to me, I loved the poetry of Kahlil Gibran. All these years later, I re-read The Prophet and the verses still speak to me.
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.


Kahlil Gibran, from The Prophet, On Love

7.20.2012

what fans' extreme reaction to bad reviews reveals

I noticed this story yesterday about some fans' extreme reaction to negative reviews of an upcoming movie.
As The Dark Knight Rises hits theatres this week, critics posting negative reviews of the Batman film have been flooded with a wave of online abuse and threats sent by fans.

The final instalment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which officially opens in theatres Friday, is one of the year's most anticipated films.

U.S. online film critic Marshall Fine offered the first negative appraisal of the comic-inspired tale on his site Hollywood & Fine and via the popular movie-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

As expected, fans raised a furor in the comments section. Although most were negative, some commenters went so far as to vow to take down his website, while others threatened violence against him — including beating him into a coma or setting him on fire.
I find this pretty bizarre, and the story made me wonder... what's going on here?

Fine, the critic may well be right. He is quoted as saying:
This is what they live for, so to have somebody say 'This isn't good,' they take it personally. To them it's a slap in the face. It's not just that I said 'I don't like this movie.' They hear that as 'I don't like this movie and if you do, there's something wrong with you.' They take it personally and they respond emotionally.
For so many people, I am what I consume. If you don't like what I buy - the movies I watch, the games I play, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear - you don't like me. Not only don't you like me, you've dissed me, you've put me down.

This thinnest of skins, most fragile of egos, combined with obsessive materialism, is what leads to shootings over a pair of sneakers or drivers running people down over a scratched car - a violent episode erupting over some perceived slight. The glove has been thrown down and you must represent.

Naturally, these outraged fans haven't even seen the movie themselves. Their comical anger mirrors the right-wing protests that inevitably accompany a movie with religious themes. Facts? We don't need no stinking facts! This movie will be great (or offensive) and don't you say otherwise!

Another theme at play, obviously, is troll behaviour, people unleashing their inner nastiness as they hide behind the curtain of online anonymity. The trolls and their vitriol pollute our online interactions like roadside litter on the information highway. We all know about this and deal with it all the time. I wish all the news and information websites would close their interactive features, but that will never happen, as long as clicks sell advertising.

Then there's the anti-intellectual strain of popular culture, on full display in comments on the CBC story (and likely any story on this subject). These folks proclaim a perverse brand of egalitarianism: we all know the same things. "What do critics know? Usually whatever they hate, regular people like!" "Critics are stupid. That is only one man's opinion!"

In a literal sense, of course, that's true: a review is one person's opinion. But the person is - or at least is supposed to be - a student of the genre they're reviewing, someone who spends a huge amount of time learning about and analyzing the art form. A critic is supposed to bring a broader perspective to the table, telling us not just "I like this," but "This is good and here's why, and here are some things it might have done better". They're supposed to offer analysis, place the work in context, measure it against other similar pieces. Although we often disagree with reviews, there are presumably reviewers that we recognize as reliable authorities, whether or not our tastes always jive with theirs.

The anti-critic comments are part of the general rejection of expertise - a denial of the very concept of authority, or at least a misunderstanding of what authority is. (I wrote about this here, in relation to online question-and-answer sites.) Experts exist. There are people who have spent a great deal of their life studying a particular subject, and so, their views on that subject are more informed, and should carry more weight, than the views of someone whose sole knowledge is as a casual, non-critical consumer.

Naturally no opinion is sacrosanct. (Neither is any movie!) Often people with great authority are also highly biased, and are sought out for exactly that reason. We see this all the time in the mainstream media: bank CEOs are asked for their economic prescriptions, former generals are asked if a war is worth fighting. So of course we must question any authority's motives and interests, and never accept a resume in lieu of an argument.

But with all these important caveats, authority and expertise do exist. Bad movies exist, too, but that's another story.