Those imagined chthonic forces

February 6, 2010 at 11:21 pm | In just_so, writing | 3 Comments

Night before last I had a most impressive nightmare. What I mean is that it left an impression.

I was driving, one car amidst a glut of traffic, along a night-time street leading into the center of town. I was on my way home. As I got closer to downtown, traffic slowed, and then stopped altogether. Impatient, I passed the cars in front of me by driving over the curb onto the sidewalk, passing on the right (illegal, but in my dreams I do what I want). However, when I got to the front of the queue, I stopped, sensing real fear.

Here’s what I saw: The road ahead lay in empty darkness, even though it was a main thoroughfare. No other cars, no traffic, no people, …no lights. Way off in the distance, there appeared to be some activity – fires? – but it was impossible to see that far ahead, and …well, the general sense of foreboding didn’t …bode well.

I didn’t want to look, but there was nothing else to look at.

Except for two guys on scooters, who emerged from the darkness as they came toward us. Their nimble scooters (which may have been electric bikes) allowed them to avoid all traffic gridlock, not that it would have mattered since they approached us from the vast oncoming emptiness of an inexplicably untrafficked main street. They said they had come to warn us, that we couldn’t continue: it wasn’t safe, they said. There were fires downtown, they said. The town was burning, they said. They gave us direction, for our safety, they said. Go this way, go that way, go back, don’t go forward, be careful, be warned, be gone, they said.

Be where?


I turned my car up a dark, unpromising side street, but I didn’t really have a vehicle anymore – this was a dream, after all, and what was there one moment dissolved in the next. Seeking safety, I entered a textiles shop, but instead of finding a kindly vendor, I saw them, the scooter-guys, surreptitiously setting fire to a set of richly brocaded curtains. I was looking at devils: fire-starters, chthonic forces that had somehow erupted out of nowhere and were now replicating themselves everywhere.

All of a sudden, being alive felt unspeakably lonely – and therefore scary. There was something really big out there, much bigger than my puny life, but it had no room for me or my comforts.

I woke up, convinced we were going to have an earthquake. (Anything to make sense of fear, I guess.)

I have to stop thinking about death, I thought. After a while, I managed to get back to sleep, that familiar, refreshing pretend-death.


For a time, one of my sisters had a mother-in-law who, sadly, actually believed in hell-fires. The anxiety crippled her. Until this particular dream, I didn’t understand how awful that might be, but I think I get it now. For just a few seconds, my dream transported me to an alternate reality where – again, just for an instant – I lost a sense of measure. That’s not the same as a sense of scale – my sense of scale was fine, it just wasn’t friendly. Scale is something you can still play with, but losing measure is what you have to worry about. I was puny beyond measure, the “otherness” was vast beyond comprehension, my sense of comfort was totally and utterly gone. To have a sense of comfort, perhaps you need to have a sense of measure: self-worth, “relationality” to other puny beings (the “l’enfer, c’est les autres” kind), and a good grip on the disparity between your big fat brain (yes!, it’s true, you have a big fat brain, you’re a genius!) and your all-too-faulty flesh-and-blood incarnation. There are no hell-fires, there are no devils on scooters (unless they’re the infamous City of Victoria parking commissionaires), and no one is setting the curtains on fire.

Oh, and we didn’t have an earthquake either…


February 3, 2010 at 12:04 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, housing, ideas, land_use, politics, social_critique, urbanism, writing | 7 Comments

I read Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart a few weeks ago, and have been meaning to return to it for insight into several aspects of politics as I’ve experienced them here in British Columbia. True, Bishop writes about the US, and BC isn’t the US, and, true, Canada has three big parties, not just two. But in my province it’s really all about just two parties, the BC Liberals and the BC NDP (and our first-past-the-post electoral system ensures that third parties have a nearly impossible row to hoe). Where I live, people do “sort” themselves in ways that are practically as pernicious as US counties sorted into all-blue or all-red group-think ideological camps.

But more on that some other time…


Bunker House, Queens

Bunker House, Queens


First, some observations on sorting and urban form…

Recently, the offspring and I were talking about All in the Family, which I watched often growing up, since it was a favorite show of my father’s. Thanks to YouTube, salient bits of it are instantly available to younger viewers.

Last night I heard laughter coming from my son’s room – he had just finished watching Jeff Rubin talking about how our oil-dependent economy will have to change radically. In the talk, Rubin conjured an image of Archie Bunker and Al Gore together in bed, based on the new paradigm we’re heading into. So of course my son had to research (ahem) All in the Family, and he was watching excerpt after excerpt on YouTube (hence the howls of laughter – I initially worried that he thought Rubin was funny, but no, it was the Bunkers).

The Bunkers

The Bunkers

Mostly, aside from marveling at how Archie could spew his sometimes vicious opinions without the PC police censoring him, my son was struck by how impossible it was for Archie to avoid the objects of his prejudice. Everywhere Archie Bunker turned, he ran into “coloreds,” “communists,” “Polacks,” “homos,” and so on through the entire unsorted bin of …well, of what?

Of a mixed urban neighborhood – versus neighborhoods sorted almost exclusively through (upward) economic choice or (downward) economic non-choice.

Without New York City and its population-packed boroughs (in the Bunkers’s case, the Astoria neighborhood of Queens), Archie could have become isolated (sorted), and found affirmation in a like-minded tract development. But in that more urban environment, which isn’t upscale enough to maintain homogeneity and therefore has to accept newcomers constantly, he has to accept neighbors whose views he dislikes. Because Archie himself isn’t rich enough to move, he has to mingle. Because real estate and rents are so dear in densely built-up areas that have easy access to the downtown core, no one has the luxury of living on his own hectare, at a distance. In fact, Archie has to put up in his own four walls with the “Meathead” (Michael, his Polish-American, social-work studying, non-laboring son-in-law with hippie roots). Rents are too expensive for the Bunker daughter Gloria, newly married to Michael, to move out. So the lucky couple gets to live with her parents.

Which brings us to how the tendency to sort, as described by Bill Bishop, even finds expression at the domestic level, in house architecture.

Since the seventies when All in the Family was produced, it has become unexceptional for each kid to have his or her own bedroom. It’s expected that parents have an “en-suite” – a full bathroom of their own, off the “master” bedroom (oh, those feudal aspirations!, sovereigns all, we parents are loosey-goosey in our permissiveness, but masters of our own domains, with hot and cold pulsating showers to warm our cold clean hearts, and Jacuzzi tubs for all that stress, of course!).

It’s not unusual for the kids to have either their own (shared) bathroom, or possibly even have en-suites of their own. We’ve become a bit antiseptic in how we provision for privacy within our own homes, and we sort in our own four walls.

Since the days of All in the Family, it’s normal for a family member to go off to his or her own domain (senior masters and junior masters-in-training) for entertainment. A TV in a kid’s room isn’t unusual, I hear…

Within Archie Bunker’s economic class and in his Queens neighborhood, that sort of domestic sorting was impossible: the houses weren’t built for it. And the social sorting proved equally impossible for the same reasons. If you were lucky, you might climb into Queens (economically), but it was harder to climb “above” Queens and still stay within spitting distance of the city. Unless you struck it insanely and unusally filthy rich (as The Jeffersons did, the Bunkers’s African-American neighbors who moved to Manhattan), you had to forsake the urban if you wanted to climb out of the Queenses of most older American cities. Hie thee to an ex-urb and sort yourself! Stay in Queens and be ready to rub up against people.

It’s kind of strange to think that television had to beam Archie Bunker’s discomforting vitriol into the already-sorting 1970s living rooms of low-density suburbs, where people were replicating in their domestic living arrangements the social sorting they preferred in their neighborhoods.

Even Archie noted that it’s natural for people to be “among their own kind” (which for him meant blue-collar bigots). He was just lucky enough not to be able to afford it.

A fluke: Sammy Davis Jr. finds himself trapped for a while in Archies lair

(A fluke encounter: Sammy Davis Jr. finds himself trapped for a while in Archie's lair, er, chair)

A mystery dream…

February 1, 2010 at 3:09 pm | In just_so, writing | Comments Off on A mystery dream…

On Sunday morning I awoke to the sound of caterwauling. It seemed to come from the sidewalk directly outside my bedroom window. When I first awakened, I didn’t actually understand what the noise was – at first I thought it was a baby crying.

The voiceless voice in my head – you know, the one that typically keeps up a running commentary (unless you’re an enlightened monk or something) – “spoke” to me at the same moment as I awoke.

It said, “What’s that noise?”

Fair question. “I don’t know,” I answered (silently, of course).

We (my voiceless voice and I) listened, and then, in my head, I voicelessly replied, “It’s a cat. Caterwauling.”

A third voice came along, complementing the duo my own internal voice and I were dancing. He – I’m quite sure my voiceless …er, partner, in conversation seemed male – said:

“Be sure to wait for the second part.”

“What?” What was that supposed to mean? Oh, right: …nothing. This is all in my imagination, another one of those damn internal dialogues, except now it’s starting to turn into a party, …or at least a menage a trois.

I started to roll over, burying my head in the pillows, hoping the cat would soon stop.

It did.

Oh good, I thought, hopeful that I’d get back to sleep quickly. My own internal voice couldn’t help chiming in: “Wonder what that crazy shit about the second part was supposed to be about?”

“I guess that was just a bizarre figment of your imagination,” I silently told myself.

The cat was quiet, everything outside was quiet, I was ready to go back to sleep.

And then a dog began barking furiously. From the sound of it, a big dog, Baskerville-sized.

Except this one barked, unlike the fictional one.

And that was the second part.

The ugly reader

December 13, 2009 at 9:26 pm | In authenticity, writing | Comments Off on The ugly reader

If I type “troll” into my browser, I’m immediately taken to Wikipedia’s page on Troll (Internet). That’s appropriate, since it was internet trolls – those icky anonymous assassins – I was thinking of when I decided to write about “my” ugly reader.

Usually, when I post, I imagine a beautiful reader – someone like myself: open-minded, strong, analytical, capable of synthetic reasoning, etc. etc. However, from time to time, someone really ugly comes along, however: weak, anonymous, and …well, crazed.

Luckily, WordPress has spam filters and moderation queues, so I can shield you, Dear (Beautiful) Reader, from that Ugly Reader’s ugliness.

So consider this your lucky, beautiful day. No ugly trolls for you! 🙂

Fremont Troll

Fremont Troll

Cutting through clutter, or, unity is overrated

August 4, 2009 at 12:17 am | In housekeeping, just_so, writing | 1 Comment

Advice on getting organized isn’t hard to find these days – it seems every other person has clutteritis and needs a feng shui intervention. I’m not immune to the lure of the organized life either: were I able to arrive at an oasis of oversight, it would feel like coming to my true home.

… I think.

Yes, I think it would. Perhaps.

Here’s the rub: my indecisiveness points to a larger problem, and it has to do with trauma (lower case “t” – nothing major, really, but just compelling enough for me).

Some months ago, I invested in a copy of Regina Leeds’s One Year to an Organized Life: From Your Closets to Your Finances, the Week-by-Week Guide to Getting Completely Organized for Good. Leeds is a Zen Organizer, which I think is a philosophy somewhat akin to the ancient Roman notion of a healthy mind in a healthy body, except that in this case the healthy mind is to reside in a healthy environment, namely organized space.

Makes sense to me. The reason Leeds’s approach seems to work for me a bit better than others I’ve tried to implement is precisely because of her savvy psychological insights into why we become pack-rats or late-nicks or lost in the clutter (er, detritus, really) of our physical lives.

Most organizing books assume that you’ve always been a slob, and that the new advice dished out by the book in hand will open your eyes, and change your ways. Leeds understands that some people have decades of slob-dom under their belt (to the point where for some it really is how they’ve “always” been), but she also writes about those of us who used to be organized, laser-like and filled with the energy of the eternally driven, but to whom something happened to derail us.

And she wants to help us get back on track, taking us gently and psychologically by the hand, from room to room until the job is done.

I knew I could like this book, even if it doesn’t turn into the magic wand that gets me my groove back, when I read on p.18:  “It’s powerful to understand the impetus for any change. Sometimes circumstances move us in positive directions. When they don’t, we want to take back the reins. We want to be the architect of our life, not a victim of circumstance.” In this passage Leeds was writing about those of us who were organized, but who then had something change on us. In my case, moving into the house I currently live in has been an unmitigated disaster. There’s no other way to describe it. We bought the house in a semi-demolished state from a man who owned it for about 18 months, just long enough to begin tearing out all the mistakes of the previous owner.

What that meant is that we found ourselves with a house that had 3 bathrooms partially torn out (not a single bathroom intact), with a kitchen that was a wreck, with wiring that was dangerous, with a roof that needed replacing, with load-bearing walls (both interior and exterior) that needed reinforcing (a steel beam in the kitchen where the house had sagged 2 inches because some idiot had removed interior load-bearing walls, and paralam on an exterior load-bearing wall where only 2x4s were holding up a 12-foot span), with plumbing that was literally held together with tape, with no insulation in the walls and no storm windows on the 17 (in words: seventeen!) 4’x5′ single pane windows, and with an attached “garage” whose double door frame had been chain-sawed out so that the previous owner’s son’s monster truck would fit through it.

We had problems finding contractors to work on the house. After we found one, we continued to stay in rented accommodations as long as possible – much longer than intended – with all our stuff packed up in boxes. Finally, we told the contractor that we had to move in – the house wasn’t finished yet, but after months and months of waiting, we couldn’t afford to keep renting.

When we moved in, it was a nightmare. We had 192 boxes of belongings – at least 1/3 of them were boxes with books. But there were no built-in bookcases anywhere in this relatively roomy house, and a carpenter was still crawling around the floor (and around all our boxes), installing baseboards. And so the boxes remained unpacked for several more months while the carpenter showed up on occasion to nail in another baseboard – and we slowly ran out of money. We did contract to have some bookcases built in, till finally, the books could be unpacked – in part. Something as simple as buying simple, stylish, and cheap bookcases, we found, was a challenge on “the island” since the concept of an IKEA is a Mainland thing, not to be found here. You have no idea how wonderful IKEA is for simple things like shelving until there isn’t an IKEA anywhere to be found.

Meanwhile, the garage was still a wreck, and still open to the street. Homeless people started sleeping in it, and we worried they’d set fires to keep warm – and possibly torch our house in the process (the garage is attached). Since the garage was open to the street, all the garden utensils ended up in the basement – along with all the junk that goes into basements. We don’t have an attic, and some “attic items” (like extra bedding materials) ended up migrating into the basement, too. Anyone who has any idea about organizing knows that this is the beginning of the end, because one cardinal rule of organizing is sorting: thou shalt not mix different stuff. But mix we did, and once we started, it was like being on a bender at a cocktail party, with one mixed drink after another.

Eventually, after several years of worrying about the people surreptitiously sleeping in our open garage, we bit the bullet and found the money to renovate the garage at last. Now the garage had a door (which kept the homeless from camping in the space), and I lugged the garden utensils into the garage – but all I was able to muster in my clutter-intoxicated stupor was to dump them on the floor.

I was too far gone. After all, years had now elapsed during which all of us – the spouse, the son, the daughter, and I – had worked continuously at home: the kids and I were homeschooling, the spouse was working from home, I worked (unpaid) from home, and so we were all at home, 24/7/365, utilizing every damn square inch of the house all the time. It was (is, still) a workhouse.

There was no such thing as “coming home” since we were here all the time. We never left. We slept here, ate here, worked here, cooked here, cleaned here, tidied here, laundered here, ironed here, groomed the dog here…

After a while, I seriously felt like dropping things where they fell. I was always the one trying to clean up after everyone, and the house felt like nothing but a giant work machine.

Last year, the son (then 17) started at university. He got out of the house. The daughter (then 14) left to attend a neighborhood high school for her senior year, so she got out of the house (and she’s off to university in Vancouver next month – so she’s really getting out of the house). That meant that I stopped homeschooling, but I was still (am still) working at / from home, as is the spouse. We haven’t yet …escaped.

But I’ve made some progress in clawing back a degree of organization, which in the first instance involves separation.

From the undifferentiated chaos of a constant home-life, which was a constant work-life, I’m separating things into discrete spheres. I feel that if I ever again want to do any real work – the sort that matters to me, the sort that’s driven by real energy and meaning – I will have to find separations. Spare me the group hugs –  unity, I find, is highly overrated. There’s time a-plenty to fall back into an undifferentiated nothingness once you’re dead.

Jumping Malthus’s shadow

July 15, 2009 at 12:46 pm | In ideas, innovation, writing | 2 Comments

Although I had planned some longer blog posts about the interaction of the natural and the social worlds, how they collide and also drain away from one another specifically here in Victoria BC, I need to blog first about an intriguing book I’m currently reading: A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark.
Book cover of A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark
I was initially annoyed by Clark’s focus on what he calls the Malthusian regime, the entire pre-Industrial Revolution period in which people all over the world had more or less existed at subsistence levels – a condition not to be confused with starvation, but more with stasis …I think. That is, under the Malthusian regime, a society can’t jump over its own shadow, and it somehow always lands again in the same place.

Admittedly, I skimmed a lot of the book’s first third because I’m not an economist and the detailed data on death rates, birth rates, interest rates, medieval wills, and whatnot went over my head. Right over my head went most of Clark’s to-me-incomprehensible formulae that combine the driest of economic theory with the Greek-est of mathematical symbols. Parts of the book are literally in a language I don’t know how to understand.

But…! But now I’m on Part II, The Industrial Revolution (pp.193 ff.), and now Clark explains how the shadow was jumped.

Last night, on p.197, I read the passage that explains, for Clark, the factor that drives post-Industrial Revolution growth:

Growth is generated overwhelmingly by investments in expanding the stock of production knowledge in societies.

The statement looks simple, but it is somewhat complex, and brilliant. Let’s examine it. (Note: apologies to Clark if I’m getting this completely wrong, but here’s my take.)

  • Production knowledge refers to knowledge about how goods and services are produced, whether it’s manufacturing or medicine or food production or ideas. In the pre-Industrial Revolution period, the ecosystem of knowledge around production didn’t expand all that much – people didn’t do things in new ways, they did most things the way their parents and grandparents or tribal elders taught them to.
  • The stock of production knowledge refers to the whole ecosystem built on, around, and through the various production knowledges (plural – for you can break them down).
  • Investment in the stock of production knowledge means putting the spur to innovation, so that production knowledge actually gets better, deeper, more efficient. Innovation also implies (to my mind) being in it for the long haul, versus getting quick satisfaction and buzzing off to go lie on the beach.
  • Innovators plan and are capable of delayed gratification, for innovation doesn’t just happen, magically. Pre-Industrial Revolution societies, while often having a more “brutish” existence, nonetheless score low on the “capable of delaying gratification” scale. The ability to plan for the future and to delay gratification also goes hand in hand with literacy (knowledge transmission, creating wills to pass on wealth) and numeracy (being able to count beyond one-two-many, and therefore being able to estimate accurately and, again, plan).

So, to repeat: Overall growth – to benefit societies, to extricate them from the Malthusian regime of subsistence – is generated by investments in expanding the stock of production knowledge in societies.

Right after that sentence, Clark writes: “To understand the Industrial Revolution is to understand why such activity was not present or was unsuccessful before 1800, and why it became omnipresent after 1800.”

I’m definitely looking forward to reading (and trying to understand) the rest of this book. My interest is already piqued by his references to the benefits of density and urban agglomerations, and I see his ideas in the context of Richard Florida’s work on the creative class, too.

Here’s a link to a NYTimes review of the Clark’s book, by Nicholas Wade: In Dusty Archives, a Theory of Affluence.

A side note…

Clark has been criticized for emphasizing a genetic component to economic growth – he argues that values such as the ability to delay gratification as well as skills like literacy are almost genetically passed down through a society, often literally passed down, since in the period that led to the Industrial Revolution, the offspring of the very wealthy were most likely to step down in society. The rich had more surviving children, while the poor had fewer. But the rich under the Malthusian regime couldn’t ensure that their surviving offspring would have the wealth they enjoyed, and thus, the sons of large landholders became small landholders, sons of important merchants became small-time traders, and so forth. While that looks like a downward spiral, Clark argues that it actually helped spread the values of the rich into society overall. The offspring of the poor were less likely to survive, therefore there were fewer of them to propagate their values.

Sounds brutal and not very politically correct (or perhaps confirms the worst fears of revolutionaries), but it sure reminded me of some of the research featured recently in Seed Magazine on the Hive Mind and the eusociality of some insects, which indicates that behaviors, not just genes, are passed along by evolution.

Here’s a rather long extract from Seed Magazine’s article on the Hive Mind:

Amy Toth, a post-doc in genomic biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that many of the morphological differences among eusocial insects don’t arise from genes coding for body plan, but from differential nutrition. “For a long time,” she says, “people have known that nutritional differences are important in social insect societies. Queens are better nourished than other workers, and that’s very well established for many different species.” What Toth’s and others’ research is showing now is that there are nutritional differences among workers as well: “Skinny ones are foragers, and fat ones tend to do tasks in the nest, such as brood care,” she says. What’s more, they are able to trace the mechanisms behind those differences down to interactions on the genetic level.

Her work, along with that of Gene Robinson, also at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, and Jim Hunt, shows that it’s not merely differential nutrition that leads to caste differences, but the fact that differential nutrition affects gene expression. A poorly fed larva’s gene that codes for, say, vision will be expressed at a different intensity and at different times from one who is well fed. So the individual with more acute vision will, as an adult, undertake tasks for which vision is important. The two insects share a genotype, but because their genes are switched on or off at different times, their life cycles and even appearance would seem to be those of unrelated individuals. In ants, which are more sophisticated, differential gene expression leads to radical morphological differences, such as wide divergence in head and mandible size, and even the presence or absence of wings, all macroscopic differences that one would usually ascribe to genotype.


The life cycle of a paper wasp colony begins with a foundress, a female wasp who, at the end of the previous autumn, mated with a single male and managed to survive the winter in hibernation. In spring, with the male’s sperm still living inside her, she begins to construct her nest, into which she deposits fertilized eggs that will become the first generation of female workers. As the larvae develop, the foundress feeds and cares for them, though not very well.

Hunt says the ones that are fed only by the foundress are poorly fed, and though they are destined not to reproduce, they are, surprisingly, not born sterile. “When they emerge,” he says, “they are reproductively ready to go. They have the physiology of a noneusocial, solitary wasp. They have their reproductive physiology switched on.”

But because they were poorly fed, they are not fully developed. Their bodies are soft, and they cannot fly for the first day or so, so they stay in the nest. This is something, Hunt says, that a solitary, noneusocial wasp would never do, and it has nothing to do with a mutation. Because their reproductive system is ginned up, this first generation is primed for maternal behavior; what they find while hanging around the nest is that there is a second generation of larvae already present and in need of nourishment. So because they cannot fly away and seek the food they need to develop their ovaries, they instead rear their mother’s young, their brothers and sisters. The energetic cost of mothering eventually causes their reproductive systems to shut down entirely, and they will remain sterile the rest of their lives.

On the other hand, the females of this second generation, which are called gynes, emerge from the larval state fat and healthy, but with their reproductive systems not yet active. They stay in the nest and continue to accept the attention and food provided by the workers. Toward the end of the summer, when the food sources start to dry up and the workers return to the colony with less and less to share with their siblings, the gynes will leave the nest and, if they are lucky, be inseminated. They will then hibernate, and, if they survive the winter, attempt to found their own colonies. Meanwhile, the worker will have died at home. Their life cycles could not be more different, though their genotypes are the same.

While humans aren’t insects, the emphasis on nutrition and how it affects genetic expression, which in turn determines social behavior, seems resonant with the kind of situations that economists study: how well are people doing? How nurtured or well-fed are they? What can they afford?

Clark has been a busy worker bee, gathering a ton of data. Even if non-economists don’t understand it all, his book is well worth reading.

Henry James Barcelona

June 24, 2009 at 11:10 pm | In arts, fashionable_life, ideas, writing | 4 Comments

I watched Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona recently. It was enjoyable and fun to watch – to a point. It had all the classic hallmarks of a Woody Allen story, as it revolved around the American (and now also European) upper-middle-class set – which made it watchable, but also made it annoying.

The acting was good – I thought Penélope Cruz was utterly enthralling, a delight to watch and impossible to anticipate – and the story was actually quite interesting. And the settings were gorgeous.

In fact, the settings were gorgeous to the point that I lost my ability to willingly suspend disbelief.

Where, in all that luxury and ease, was there any friction or resistance – any real life? Two young women go off to Europe – specifically, Barcelona – for a summer lark. Sure, it’s credible that two women like this could both be available at the same time to do this together, although my ex-academic mind was already calculating Vicky’s age – she’s doing a Master’s Thesis on Catalan culture, hm, she must be reaching her mid-20s?, and her friend Cristina is from her old college (pre-grad school) days, so presumably they’re the same age, in other words, they are two women around 23, 24, 25 years old who both happen to have time – and resources (that is: money) – to travel together for the whole summer? No boring jobs to pay the rent or pay back student loans?

Right there, zing!, one of the threads holding up the suspension of disbelief starts to fray.

But the rest get shredded even more quickly. Consider that Vicky happens to have American relatives in Barcelona who can house the two “girls” for the duration – and that this isn’t just any house, but an estate. Consider that the mansion’s owners are two ultra-conventional people who don’t seem to evince the slightest talent that would indicate how they came to live this life of luxury in good old Espagna.

Now, if that were my only complaint, one could say that I’m just envious of the rich. But my objections go deeper – to the absence of friction and resistance.

There are no servants or gardeners to be seen, nor any trace of their existence. Does the American housewife who presides over the manse do all her own housekeeping? Unlikely.

Wait, there’s more.

The house is up on a hill, buccolic setting – and yet there’s never any difficulty in reaching the city center for restaurant hopping or an evening out. Country paths for bicycling, fields for picknicking, berry brambles for foraging: all instantly accessible, as easily reached as the downtown core and its exciting nightlife. From an urbanist perspective, this aspect of the fairytale was staggeringly surreal: it seems that in Woody Allen’s Barcelona, there is no congestion, there are no hassles in getting taxis (they just …appear!), everyone happily drives even after drinking the equivalent of a case of wine, and no one is ever stuck in traffic jams.  The space-time-continuum is collapsed: there is no energy lost in moving between the fantasy worlds of city and country …presumably because they’re both just that, fantasy.

No one works in Barcelona! Everyone either parties or gossips or ponders soulfully the meaning of life.

It’s all Old World charm and authenticity in Woody Allen’s Barcelona, and you know, deep, in a deeply un-American way, what with all those Europeans. And yet technology works seamlessly and without any friction or hassle. For example, American tourists have no problems with their American cellphones, which magically just work. Nor do they have any issues with paying for what must amount to staggering roaming charges – even though they’re currently unemployed travelers. Vicky is constantly receiving calls from her fiance in New York, nor does she hesitate to call him – actually, as soon as she and Cristina arrive in Barcelona and get a taxi, she pulls our her phone and calls him.

I know there are ways of getting around the mobile carrier issue in Europe, but it all invariably involves at least a bit of hassle. Not in the movies, though. Maybe the girls all had Skype enabled on their phones, and that’s why they could afford such liberal long distance use. But then again…

In Woody Allen’s Barcelona, artists aren’t starving, they’re boho-rich. In fact, our hero (Juan Antonio) isn’t just rich – he’s rich enough to drive a spiffy red sports car, pilot a borrowed plane (and have rich friends who have planes to pilot), live on a hill (living on hills seems to be important if you’re an important character in this movie), be able to support his penniless – but wildly gifted – ex-wife (Maria Elena, played by Penélope Cruz) and support his new mistress (Cristina), set Cristina up with a darkroom and all the papers and chemicals and lights and cameras necessary to practice her new-found art/hobby (not to mention that the darkroom appears to be installed in a single afternoon …gee, I wish I could get my home improvement projects done on that kind of schedule), dine out endlessly in attractive bodegas, and…

…And, as if that weren’t enough for one single inexplicably wealthy artist-painter: in addition he has a poor widowed papa who’s also an artist, who also lives on a hill in an immaculate and beautiful house (which also is bereft of groundskeepers or servants even though it’s a stretch to think that the old man could keep it up all by himself). And, this is the coup de grace, the father is a poet who writes the world’s most beautiful and moving poetry, which he then withholds from the world because of his lofty disdain for mankind. Na-na-na-boo-boo, as the kids might say.

As I said above: no friction, no resistance. Woody Allen gives a whole new dimension to the concept of “life of leisure” and “life of ease.”

Naturally, these people have to create inner dramas and turmoil for themselves, otherwise their upper-middle-class existence would become unbearable – as it does for the wife in the transplanted American couple with whom Vicky and Cristina set out to stay for the summer.

The fear of losing all that lucre keeps them mired in pretend affairs. I say pretend affairs because Cristina’s shallow desertion of Juan Antonio at the end of the film shows how artificial her interests in him were. She returns to the US with Vicky so she can continue to nurse her neurotic search for meaning and life’s “gifts.”  Vicky meanwhile resigns herself to marrying the idiot fiance so she can age into a desiccated replica of her relative, the expat American housewife in Barcelona.

I realize it sounds like I hated this film. I did and I didn’t. I enjoyed watching it – there’s so much eye-candy, so many beautiful people, gorgeous scenes, tantalizing situations. But it was actually the eye-candy that made me despise it, too: for me, it took away from the story, cheapening it instead of enriching it.

I came away from the experience of watching it as I do from trying to read Henry James‘s work. There’s something so arty and precious in James’s language that I literally fall asleep to save my sanity. Yes, it’s true: I’m a philistine, I cannot – literally cannot – read Henry James. (In fact, when I tried to watch a movie version of The Wings of the Dove, I promptly fell asleep there, too.) Granted, Vicky Cristina Barcelona didn’t put me to sleep, but give it a few years to reach the art status of James, and some day it, too, will reach that pinnacle. Revered, Allen’s obsessive focus on the (usually American) upper middle class, will be an object of adoration for many (and Vicky Cristina Barcelona its apogee), even as it puts some of us into snooze mode.

Continuing a conversation on avc

June 18, 2009 at 8:54 am | In media, web, writing | 3 Comments

Replying to a couple of comments on Fred Wilson, reblogging here:

Good points. In your blog you do, however, focus in on a specific area (as per your blog’s title, a VC). That makes it all hang together, and focuses your insights. Others might think out loud, but it’s unfocused (although in the aggregate, it can all cohere into a pattern).

Are you familiar with the term “bricolage” (in Levi-Strauss’ academic-structuralist sense)? The Bookman (blog) describes it as a “willingness to make do with whatever is at hand… The ostensible purpose of this activity is to make sense of the world in a non-scientific, non-abstract mode of knowledge by designing analogies between the social formation and the order of nature. As such, the term embraces any number of things, from what was once called anti-art to the punk movement’s reinvention of utlitarian objects as fashion vocabulary…”…

I’m way too scientifically-minded to appreciate bricolage as any kind of ideal, and I’m definitely not saying that either one of us is a bricoleur, or that I want to be one and do bricolage (although it sometimes feels like that’s what I’m doing). But even when you’re just “thinking out loud,” I do think that your expertise lets you record your “rarely … completely baked thoughts” like ingredients in a recipe. And your readers know that they often enough add up to a movable feast: they cook your stuff in the comments board – to use a typically bricolage-y analogy.

On the other side of the coin, there’s the rock star blogger, someone so star-like s/he can blog about underwear and people read it. (In fact, people would probably read it *because* it’s about underwear…) I’d rather chew off my own leg than fill those boots, though. The pressure would kill me. 😉

Originally posted as a comment by Yule Heibel on A VC using Disqus.

(See also my June 15 post, Fred Wilson Is:.)

Remember the milk (on working at home)

June 17, 2009 at 10:45 pm | In education, health, housekeeping, ideas, just_so, writing | 2 Comments

The other day Philip Greenspun wrote a provocative (that is, a typically iconoclastic) article, Universities and Economic Growth. It’s well-worth reading, so click through and take a look. (h/t @KathySierra)

I just want to use a small passage in that piece as a jumping off point for another observation that’s completely unrelated to Phil’s agenda. (In other words, this is a hijack.)

Apropos of universities, and of how today’s students use them, he wrote:

Focusing on homework has become much tougher. A modern dorm room has a television, Internet, youtube, instant messaging, email, phone, and video games. The students who get the most out of their four years in college are not those who are most able, but rather those with the best study habits.

No company would rely on this system for getting work done, despite the potential savings in having each employee work from home. Companies spend a fortune in commercial office space rent to create an environment with limited distractions and keep workers there for most of each day.

It’s that last sentence (“Companies spend a fortune in commercial office space rent to create an environment with limited distractions and keep workers there for most of each day.”) that really struck a nerve.

Readers of this blog know that I homeschooled my children. Today, I’m done with that – but until last summer, we were in the thick of it. For eight years, from 2000 until 2008, we – my son, my daughter, and I – worked at home (with field trips thrown in). Toward the end of that period, we did use BC Ministry of Education curricula, so it’s not the case that I had to invent unit studies for high school science or anything. But the homeschool culture (which basically means self-motivated work habits) continued.

That status quo changed last September when my then-17-year-old started his path on the B.Com program at UVic and my then-14-year-old started grade 12 at a neighborhood school (for the exotic experience). This coming September the now 18-year-old will enter his second year at UVic while the now 15-year-old will start her university studies at UBC. (Yes, you read that right, and no, I don’t want to hear any tut-tut-negative comments about radical acceleration. Tell it to someone else.)

About half a dozen years ago the spouse began working from home, too. So here we all were, 24/7/365, working at home – until last September, that is, when the kids went off to school. …Which left us grown-ups to continue the home-work slog.

Now that I’ve had ~10 months to decompress, at least from the intensity of being responsible for the day-to-day education of my children, the statement “Companies spend a fortune in commercial office space rent to create an environment with limited distractions and keep workers there for most of each day” really resonates with me.

People who commute and go to an office think that working at home in fuzzy slippers will be somehow liberating. Well, there’s a flip side to everything. Working at home all the time – not by yourself or just for yourself, but rather as part of a larger entity (say, a homeschooling family or a couple starting a business) – especially if it’s not very remunerative or lucrative (homeschooling is a financial drain, not a generator of income) can be really hard. I suppose it’s different if you make oodles of money and can get away from time to time. But if you don’t and you instead end up with more of the same (working at home), watch out: you can get to feeling stuck, and there’s nothing quite like that kind of stuckness.

Working at home isn’t like working in an office that you can leave behind. You don’t have tidy divisions between work and non-work, and sometimes the blurring lines get really blurry.

My dog won’t appreciate being left at home, but maybe I’ll try working in some third places this fall. On the other hand, if I use third places to do more work, it just means that I’m taking my work out of the home and into those other places, too.

My home (and homework) isn’t like a modern dorm room with “television, Internet, youtube, instant messaging, email, phone, and video games” as distractions. Over the last few years, my many home jobs have splintered into many more pieces, to the point that they themselves have become the distractions. In shepherding this machine that is the home and this project that was homeschooling and this partnership with my partner through years of home-work, it seems I have forgotten how to get my own work done.

In fact, I think I’ve forgotten what it was.


Sometimes someone will helpfully ask what I plan to do, now that the kids are heading out. It occurs to me that I have to remember something I forgot, not plan something I don’t know yet.

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