Archive for January, 2008

The peculiar case of Mrs. H

January 31, 2008

I’m supposed to be providing clients with job readiness counseling; setting goals, working on resumes, getting motivated, performing mock interviews, helping with the seemingly impossible job search…etc. It’s challenging! And only occasionally gives way to malaise.

But when there are no clients? The challenge loses some its edge, shall we say. And when things get edge-less, I have time to write on the blog…Bleh. Oh, there are other, more work-related tasks that I could be getting myself to do. But most of them are pretty mundane.

I did have one client yesterday, ethical questions of whether to blog about clients aside. Mrs. H is a delusional old Chinese lady who seems to have taken a fancy to me. She drops in to see me at the Family Support Center with some regularity, but not really to avail herself of career counseling services. Rather, she’s just got no one else to talk to. In China she was an accupuncturist, apparently, but now she’s retired and living alone in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Her husband passed away some time ago…making her rounds at the FSC is just another way to keep busy.

She bears a small gift like fruit, candy, or a jar of some unidentifiable spice. Instant oatmeal, coconut powder, candied lotus root…you get the idea. At first I refuse to accept it and plead with her not to bring any more gifts. But I always give in eventually, which is her signal to start talking. I know that this gift-giving is a traditional measure of politeness and respect, which is commonplace for elderly Chinese folk. I also know that her Mandarin pronunciation is quite clear and standard, which is exceedingly rare for elderly Chinese folk. So I know that part of her is not only genteel, but also uncommonly intelligent.

And yet when she starts talking, she rambles incoherently in a kind of obsessive, paranoid stream of consciousness about all the ways in which she is put upon by the world. Her son doesn’t talk to her, the landlord is evil, the pollution clogs her lungs, etc. Sometimes she has a problem or task for me, as in the last few sessions which were devoted to ordering one of those really expensive ionic air filters. This was done to combat the urban dirt and dust, the ubiquitous dust which seeps into her room and frightens her.

Of course boundaries are an issue. When someone wants to monopolize your time with chatter, you can’t really just submit. When they want to take you out to lunch or set you up with eligibile Chinese girls, you must remind them of the invisible line. Always a weird feeling.

I want to refer this individual to therapy, but she’s unwilling to start. Besides, I’m not sure how much Western therapy would really help an elderly Chinese person. Her best bet for mental health would probably be to find ways to get out of the house and become more involved in the Chinese community, though this is easier said than done. She *is* working with some of my colleagues at Family Support to try to get a better housing situation; actually, she’s made incredible progress in that direction and has been shortlisted for Section 8 housing which is well nigh impossible to get. Maybe she’s got connections that I don’t know about?

It’s not as if Mrs. H and her problems make me throw up my hands in despair…it’s more like her case makes me realize that everybody has problems, not all of which are easily identifiable or curable in the analytical doctor/patient or counselor/client way. Just sitting and listening to her ramble, and occasionally performing random tasks, might be the most helpful role I can play.


Brooklyn books

January 29, 2008

“They took the I.R.T. Subway to Brooklyn Bridge, got out and started to walk across. Halfway over, they paused to look down on the East River. They stood close together and he held her hand. He looked up at the skyline on the Manhattan shore.

‘New York! I’ve always wanted to see it, and now I’ve seen it. It’s true what they say- it’s the most wonderful city in the world.’
‘Brooklyn’s better.’
‘It hasn’t got any skyscrapers like New York, has it?’
‘No…but there’s a feeling about it -Oh, I can’t explain it. You’ve got to live in Brooklyn to know.'”

-from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith


Francie, Betty Smith’s thinly veiled characterization of herself as a girl, had it right. There is a feeling about Brooklyn, which seems to have persisted into the 21st century. But what is it exactly? Francie’s Williamsburg was a slum, roiled in poverty, the outskirts of civilization…presumably bearing no relation to today’s hipster-ized, yuppie enclave. Brooklyn in the 1910’s and 20’s was a completely different place. And yet not. Where does permanence of place, specifically Brooklyn-ness, come from? Is it just a sentiment, a projection, a phenomenon of feeling whose roots are ultimately socio-economic? Yes. But it’s still kinda cool how places can be so significant, grab hold of the human imagination so thoroughly.

“I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn and so the next morning I traveled down there from Westchester to scope out the terrain. I hadn’t been back in fifty-six years and I remembered nothing. My parents had moved out of the city when I was three, but I instinctively found myself returning to the neighborhood where we had lived, crawling home like some wounded dog to the place of my birth.”

-the opening lines of The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster


The ensuing novel starts off in a plodding sort of existential mode but spirals into a quirky, rambling soap opera with the occasional philosophical moment. It’s not clear whether the protagonist’s residing in Park Slope actually *causes* the laughable and often perfectly timed plot twists, but, as in some of Auster’s other work, Brooklyn is key. Who recommended Brooklyn? We never find out.

Both Smith’s and Auster’s works are about the resilience of imperfect families. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about an Irish-American family struggling to live a decent life. Francie’s coming of age narrative is famous not only for its controversially frank portrayal of urban poverty in America, but also for its vivid imagery and humor. In Follies, a lonely, seemingly hopeless terminally ill insurance salesman-cum-writer is propelled by love, goofy characters and bizarre confluence of circumstance into forming a strange but powerful family bond.

The Brooklyn Follies contains an interesting anecdote about Franz Kafka that strikes me as memorable. Apparently, while Kafka was visiting Berlin, he came across a crying girl who was bemoaning the loss of her beloved doll. Kafka was so moved by her tears that he told her tenderly that the doll had simply gone traveling for a while, and wouldn’t forget her. Rather, it would assuredly write letters to the girl every day, which he could retrieve for her from the post office. Kafka then went home and worked for hours on a perfect letter from the doll, putting just as much energy into it as he would put into his serious work. When the time came for Kafka to leave Berlin he wrote a last elaborate letter in which the doll describes her wedding and the beginning of her new life, which delighted the little girl.

So Kafka used his literary talents to make this poor little girl smile again. I think the point of the story is how seriously he regarded this task. Moved by tenderness and love, he wrote these letters to produce a certain effect. Now, to read most of Kafka’s work is to be full of perplexity and anger, despair and frustration with the world and its moronic inhabitants. But even his writing these intensively negative feelings in such a powerful literary way must have been, above all, a labor of love.

Novels are emotional. They are structures of feeling, meant to evoke feeling. For all their intellectual depth, complexity, and fun, I think that novels are supposed to tug at the heartstrings first and foremost. And to this end, good writers invest a lot of emotional energy into their work even if it isn’t readily apparent, as with an author as baffling as Kafka.

Places are also emotional. Brooklyn, perhaps, has a certain feeling attached to it that Auster and Smith each picked up on in different ways. And that’s a crucial trick for a writer to have.

City Year, capitalist ideology, and MLK

January 23, 2008

city year

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Martin Luther King Day, while civilized New Yorkers were sleeping in and avoiding the unbelievable cold, I had to get up early and trek out to Long Island City, Queens to volunteer my services as a, uh, volunteer. Of course the fact that I was forced to do this in no way reduces the “volunteer” aspect of my volunteer work.

In honor of Dr. King, a gaggle of City Year volunteers threw a big service day bash around the nation, our local (!) iteration of which took place at a high school in Long Island City. The ceremony began with an invigorating round of boot-camp-style calisthenics on command. Along with ROTC kids, the uniformed City Year volunteers talked the audience through their synchronized call-and-response PT regimen. Then there was the formal inauguration of City Year Young Heroes, sponsored by Bank of America among others, in which a group of middle schoolers pledged to emulate, “the values of courage, compassion, cooperation, and commitment” by pledging their Saturdays to various community service projects over the next 5 months.

city year

Fabulously rich NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg put in an appearance, and encouraged the youths in the spirit of Dr. King, reminding them that “everyone can be a hero!”

Several ideas started to kick around in my head:

  • The rigid discipline and Boy Scout-like enthusiasm of the City Year types is kind of freaky.
  • The lack of talk about the history of struggle or social justice movements is kind of conspicuous, especially if you’re supposed to be honoring Martin Luther King
  • The similarity of City Year’s enthusiastic idealism to nationalist rhetoric is striking

Althusser, a 20th century French philosopher who liked to read Marx, describes the way that every Subject is recognized and needs recognition. The Subject then recognizes and calls out to another, interpellating him as a Subject. Thus, every Subject is always already embroiled with others. He borrowed this idea from his friend Jacques Lacan and used it to complete his notion of ideology. Ideology is the discourse through which individuals become subject to the state. It is the basis for how the State gets people to conform, thus reproducing the conditions of production which are crucial to the State’s existence. (Since Althusser was writing, “State” power became largely de-centralized and currrently seems to reside not in the halls of government, but in the hands of elite transnational corporations) In the case of City Year, the notion of individual capacity for change co-opts people into a group while at the same time subverting the fact that only community-based concerted social (read: economic) action will produce change.

This was a fact of which Dr. King himself was very aware: “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry… Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong… with capitalism… There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”*

I’m of the opinion that City Year types parading around in their red jackets with their T-Mobile phones and Bank of America middle schoolers won’t promote awareness, education, or change in the long run. No matter how many jumping jacks they do. Still, I’m willing to put up with their philanthropy…I mean, it’s for a good cause!

But using King as your poster boy is crossing the line.

Open your eyes!


RIP Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


January 22, 2008

Heartthrob celebrities are apparently the latest addition to the Endangered Species list. Heath Ledger and Brad Renfro have kicked the golden bucket in frighteningly quick succession.

Watch your rear end, Johnathon Taylor Thomas!

Food troubles

January 20, 2008

It’s not like I think about global food prices a lot…unless I’m indulging in an environmental-disaster-themed dystopic rant.
Like the writers of the classic 70’s film Soylent Green, I tend to think that *eventually* climate change will cut down on the amount of arable land while the population explosion will cause hyperinflation…thus, ridiculous food prices and *ahem* alternative food sources.

(See humorous dino comix!)

dino comix

Accordingly, I definitely didn’t think that the price of food would go up significantly until climate change and resource wars forced it up. But recent media coverage shows that problems in the global supply chain are jacking up prices alarmingly.

According to the International Grains Council, total cereal crop in 2007 was 1.66 billion tons, the largest ever and 89 million tons more than 2006.

When supply goes up, prices go down…right?

Not so! The Economist says that food prices have skyrocketed; in December 2007, wheat was at it’s highest price ever recorded at $400 a ton. According to the NYTimes “The food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, based on export prices for 60 internationally traded foodstuffs, climbed 37 percent last year. That was on top of a 14 percent increase in 2006, and the trend has accelerated this winter.” The Economist says that this trend is partly due to huge subsidies for corn used for ethanol production around the world. The steady growth of demand for meat especially in China, India and other developing nations, has also driven grain prices up.

In a classic free-market, this development should serve to help the world’s poorest people who, one assumes, are farmers.
But Nobel laureate Gary Becker, as quoted by The Economist, says that if food prices rise by one third, they will reduce living standards in rich countries by only about 3% but in very countries by over 20%. As usual, the poor get poorer.

I don’t necessarily know how to interpret this kind of information, but the news says: The dollar continues to take a pounding, the US economy is entering into recession, the Fed will no doubt cut interest rates again, and Bush’s puppet masters have prepared another tax-cut-for-the-rich stimulus package. Capital is going into developing countries rather than into the US. So at a time like this it might seem counterintuitive to get rid of the subsidies and tariffs that shield rich American agribusinesses from the market. But lower food prices would help the world’s poor and boost the world economy, ultimately helping taxpayers.

Right? Yeah, that’s the ticket…

Plain language and social services

January 16, 2008

As I continue with outreach and client counseling, I’m getting a more and more vivid image of what it would be like to be a person stuck in poverty, trying to get along in Brooklyn. Let me tell you: it is pretty hopeless shit, especially if you’re a non-English speaker or under-educated adult.

I don’t want to get all complain-y, so let’s assume that it’s OK that the class system is unfair because it makes global capitalism work. And the racism and hatred that immigrant folk experience, let’s just call that par for the course. It is, let’s say, pretty cool that the government provides some services for working class folk, you know, in case they’re ever down on their luck.

Here’s the complaint: If you’re reading at a 4th grade level, there is NO possible way you can navigate the system of public benefits that is (barely) in place to help people like you.

I have this client who has a learning disability. Yesterday I accompanied him to an orientation for VESID (Vocational Education Services for Individuals with Disabilities) a program run by New York State. Its goal is to help adults with disabilities find a job and keep it. The first step to receiving services from them is to sit through an hour long orientation in a cavernous room with soul sucking florescent lights and 30 other desperate people. You watch a corny video. Then a nondescript man with a monotone voice drones on about all the procedural ins and outs for 45 minutes. I went to an elite college and majored in English and I barely got the gist of it.

How is this supposed to work?

Al Gore addressed this problem during his Vice Presidential term when he served as the chair of the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN)

For a famous exploration of the political uses of language in modern society, check out George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” (It’s not as good as my favorite of his essays, “In Defense of English Cooking”)


January 14, 2008

Oil costs 18 times as much as Coal per unit of heat energy generated!
I guess that’s why 50% of the electricity generated in the US comes from coal, while only 2% comes from petroleum?

Instead of doing useful things at work today, I did the following simple algebra:

Let’s say for simplicity of calculation that 1 short ton of coal costs about $20 in the US, depending on what state you live in, (click here for super fun coal facts)

use this super fun energy converter to figure that 1 short ton of coal generates 20,754,000 Btu’s of heat energy. Put 20,754,000 in for Btu’s in the petroleum segment and you get that it takes 3.58 barrels to generate the same amount of heat energy.

Much to the chagrin of commentators everywhere, especially those who foresee the problem of having to compete for scarce resources with China et al., the price of a barrel of oil just hit $100. $20 times 5 = $100. hence…(3.6 x 5): 1 is the monetary value of oil versus coal = 18.

Most electricity is generated by giant moving turbines, which are pushed by steam, emitting from boiling water heated by some kind of fuel. Since the temperature at which water boils is (more or less) constant, it costs 18 times as much in terms of cash money to generate a given amount of electricity with oil as opposed to coal. Craziness!

Middle East history lesson

January 10, 2008

segment from The Daily Show aired this past summer, but I was on the playa at the time and I only just found it.

It’s a pretty concise explanation of Middle East foreign policy pitfalls in the past 20 years.

I’ve definitely been feeling a renewed burst of enthusiasm for the ole Daily Show now that Primary season is upon us.
Yay Jon Stewart!

Motorcycle Madness

January 6, 2008

Went in to the office this morning to help the staff with a toy drive/outreach stunt for local kids. We were assisted by aging Brooklyn biker toughs known as The Crazy Pistons, in honor of the Puerto Rican festival known as Three Kings Day. I was immediately sent off with co-worker Ann to give out fliers in Brooklyn’s Chinatown on 8th Ave…so here I was, a white kid meandering through the market street yelling in Chinese to advertise a Puerto Rican holiday event. In my naive younger days, this set of circumstances probably would have led me to exclaim, “Only in New York!” But I think the phrase “Only in Brooklyn!” is far more accurate.

When we got back we were assigned to crowd control duty, controlling the mob of toy-hungry parents and kids like bouncers at a bizarre nightclub:

crowd control

The Pistons arrived:


and Ann posed with a gaggle of Pistons dressed as the Kings themselves (with questionable historical accuracy):

Ann + three kings

All in all an unconventional day at work and an amusing way to spend a Sunday.
It does, of course, kind of suck that tomorrow is Monday though…

Jared “Guns, Germs, and Steel” Diamond on consumption

January 3, 2008

Check out this article in yesterday’s NYtimes in which the illustrious Professor Jared Diamond discusses the big problem with worldwide consumption rates.

Jared Diamond

Diamond is a really gifted writer and he’s got a penchant for geographical analysis which you don’t hear often. Turns out that the “Developed” World consumes way more per capita than the “Developing” World and that the later seems to want to become more like the former regardless of the potential shortages. So we can’t all be rich and wasteful forever. Who knew?

In “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, Diamond basically outlines this theory that all of our global inequities as determined by world history, including consumption rates, can be followed back to geographical accident.

Also, according to this article, Europeans have a higher standard of living by every conceivable measure yet they consume far less than Americans. Interesting!

For me though, because I’m becoming something of a China nerd, the most interesting part is the following:

“Among the developing countries that are seeking to increase per capita consumption rates at home, China stands out. It has the world’s fastest growing economy, and there are 1.3 billion Chinese, four times the United States population. The world is already running out of resources, and it will do so even sooner if China achieves American-level consumption rates. Already, China is competing with us for oil and metals on world markets.

Per capita consumption rates in China are still about 11 times below ours, but let’s suppose they rise to our level. Let’s also make things easy by imagining that nothing else happens to increase world consumption — that is, no other country increases its consumption, all national populations (including China’s) remain unchanged and immigration ceases. China’s catching up alone would roughly double world consumption rates. Oil consumption would increase by 106 percent, for instance, and world metal consumption by 94 percent.”

Will China ever catch up? Will people ever start consuming equally? Will our resources run out?
Will scarcity lead to catastrophe?

Things tend towards equilibrium, so it’ll all balance out in the end of course…whether or not that eventual end will allow for human civilization is the question.