In a strange land

This week marks the time when the United States goes back to being The Stupid Country after a blessed eight-year reprieve. Two other things are happening: my grandfather’s yahrzeit, and a trip to Berlin.

My grandfather died when I was 19, so it has been some time, but I’m not sure what he’d make of the state of the country right now. The USA was very good to him. The first generation in his family to break into the middle class, in later life – through government work, at that – he survived polio, became a homeowner, saw my father graduate law school, and became a zaydie to me, my brother, and my cousins. The American dream, cliché as it is, actually became real for him. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have even known my grandparents, because history could have treated the Jewish half of my family so much differently.

When I was sitting in the educational session for Ashkenazi genetic screening at Montefiore a year ago, the woman next to me said she had no idea whether there was a history of breast or ovarian cancer among the women in her family because all her grandmothers and great-aunts died in the Holocaust. But my grandparents were the lucky ones in the United States while so many others, stuck back in Poland or elsewhere, were herded off to their deaths. For the added WTF-factor, the non-Jewish side of my family comes from Oswiecim in Poland, a town just west of Krakow. You probably haven’t heard of Oswiecim and I don’t think you’ll have much luck pronouncing it in Polish on the first try, but I’m sure you know it by the German name of the death camp the Nazis built there: Auschwitz.

So, yeah, I admit to having had a certain wariness about Germany when I was younger. It was the country of Beethoven and Bach, whose works I diligently learned on piano; of Kant (who I skimmed through for school) and Max Weber (who I actually wanted to read); but it was also the country that seemed to have let all that wealth of talent and genius warp its collective mind into the most twisted of ideologies, culminating in an attempt to wipe from the face of the Earth both ethnic groups that went into creating me. History seemed straightforward: a nation of people who had an admirable past, who thought they were so great, failed to cope with a changing world that knocked them off their pedestal, and ended up nearly destroying the world as a result. In a very cracked nutshell, that’s how it always looked. (And it sounds awfully familiar now that it’s happening in my own backyard.)

Germany hangs a strange shadow over many Jews of my generation. Growing up, I associated the country with the wholesale, indiscriminate destruction of all that was good in humanity, and I figured I didn’t owe them anything, let alone sympathy. It’s hard to read about the wall and the supposed spirit of people in East Berlin yearning for freedom when the question rolling around the back of your mind is, Where the hell was that yearning a few decades earlier, when your Jewish neighbors were being persecuted, disenfranchised, gassed? You couldn’t be bothered standing up for the defenseless when they were people like me.

Of course, we know it’s not that straightforward. Many Germans, at tremendous personal risk to themselves, fought back against the Nazis and/or protected Jews. We know all about Schindler, all about Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. We also know that while time doesn’t necessarily heal, it also doesn’t confer guilt upon those who weren’t born, whose parents weren’t born, when the atrocities took place. Guilt is not a mutated gene; it doesn’t pass through generations. Of course I wouldn’t blame today’s Germans for what happened 70, 80 years ago any more than I would expect someone to blame me for the sins committed by white Americans generations before we left Eastern Europe…! Guilt is the most useless of emotions, and in an attempt to not waste any more of my life with it, I decided there’s no way in hell anybody is going to ever make me feel guilt for anything I haven’t personally done. It would be the height of hypocrisy to insist on a different standard for other people.

What time does afford is an opportunity for reflection and for atonement – and more amazingly, for renewal. I began reading a few years ago about the revival of Jewish life in Berlin (and of the bizarre case of how young Israelis now flock there to work in creative industries in a fun city with cheap rent, when in many cases their grandparents did everything they could to get the hell out). There are congregations gathering, sometimes without synagogues of their own but with enough people to form a minyan. All this is a testament to how cities are places of constant change and constant potential, belonging to nobody in particular, and such is their strength and allure. Berlin, cursed with a wealth of history, has built a Jewish Museum and a Holocaust memorial. They have shown they are at no risk of forgetting what was done in the name of their country, by a government that came to power through its citizens and democratic institutions, and that is all I could ever ask. Germany has, as much as it is possible to even do this, atoned for the twentieth century.

And now here we are, sitting in the United States, watching our country fail to remember everything we said we would never forget, poised to do everything we said we would never do because we were a different country, a different people, we had learned, we knew better, didn’t we? How easy it was, as a child reading history books, to think all those Germans should have known better, they should have seen it coming, they should have done something, and obviously they hadn’t, so they must have overwhelmingly agreed with the Nazis, right? How easy it was to think that the dissenters were so tiny a minority as to only be visible when their actions crossed into outright heroism. How simple it was to think that resistance in the face of an instant death penalty could be, well, simple. That if you believed something, it would be easy enough to turn it into action.

I’ve tried to avoid hyperbole since the shock of November 8th, because 1) Panic is never beneficial in an emergency, and 2) I still have confidence that American institutions are strong enough, and the resistance to Trump mainstream and widespread enough, that no, he is not going to become the next Hitler. If I’m naïve or wrong then I’ll eat my words at a later date, but in all honesty, I don’t think we’re in the final days of the Weimar Republic as I sit typing in Manhattan. But what I do know is that for the next four years, the United States will be represented in front of the entire world by a petty authoritarian who didn’t even win the popular vote – yet the world will stare back at my passport and silently think, you wanted this.

I decided to go to Berlin over the Inauguration weekend because I wanted to learn from the past. I wanted to see how a country came to terms with the horrific actions it committed, and how it made constructive lessons of the past. I hope I won’t someday see my children having to apply those lessons in the United States. I will stay away from the media on Friday. I will go someplace in the city far from any television that might be broadcasting the proceedings so that I won’t have to see someone who glorifies ignorance and stupidity ascending to lead the country that once let my grandfather prosper by merit, not blood. I will take a stone from New York City and leave it on one of the plinths of the Holocaust Memorial, as is our custom at gravesites, for those who have nobody to observe yahrzeit for them. And then I will live my life as I want it, because I am lucky that I can.


It Never Rains…

It’s official. I am moving back to New York City later this month. I will be starting work as a senior research executive in the health care division at Hall and Partners. I don’t think it’s really going to hit me until this weekend, when I go looking for an apartment, that this is actually happening – I’m going back to the private sector, I’m going back to New York City. This is a job where I can actually progress and I’m looking forward to it like you wouldn’t believe. I have enjoyed working at Harvard, but I think it’s time for me to cut ties with academia altogether. You can’t get anywhere in academia without a PhD, and we all know I’m not going back to that, so I really want to put my skills to use in private sector research again and make a career there. Not just a job, a career. I need a career now.

It’s a great feeling to be so motivated, to want to dive into things full-on. I’m going to be TurboKite. Powered by tea in the same Spurs 5 – Arsenal 1 mug that has followed me through every workplace since, well, the last time we beat Arsenal 5-1. Look it up. (Please don’t, it hurts. Hurts bad.)

And perhaps this finally marks the last summer in a long time when I’ll have to pack up everything and move. I have done that nearly every summer of the past decade, and it’s getting old. California was completely new to me, Boston was completely new to me – and every time you move someplace new, you’re at an automatic disadvantage when it comes to making a name for yourself. Again and again, having to introduce myself, give my life story, find new places to go and things to do and deal with so many unknown quantities…it just wears me out. I am 29. Enough. This nomadic jumping around, this repetitive uprooting…I am so tired of it. It’s also not the greatest for my personal life. I want roots to grow deep already. If I move again, it’ll only be back to London. Otherwise, I’m staying in New York and having an actual life in a familiar place where I can plan ahead in years instead of tentative months.

With the express aim of seizing as much of life as I can while I’m still young, I’m hoping to live in Manhattan. (You don’t have to tell me that it’s the most ridiculously expensive real estate in America, or that it might make more sense to live in the empty half of my family’s two-family house in south Brooklyn and save money. Now is not the time for sensibility.) Apparently there really are decent places on the Upper West Side in my price range. Not many, yeah, but still: THEY EXIST and somebody has to snag one and this weekend it might as well be me. I want to go for wanders again, the wanders I haven’t had since London because for years I haven’t lived places where it felt right. I want that kind of address again, I want to look at an envelope with my name on it and do that nod of recognition. You know, that one. I don’t need anything fancy. I need a securely-lockable door for when I’m between wanders. And a window for Oscar the parrot.

This feels like rejoining the land of the living. Oh lord, I’m going to cry right here. I should probably go to sleep.

…On the downside, not all is fine and dandy in the world of my writing, as the agent I mentioned working with in the last post doesn’t feel he can get behind my book. So, I’m back to square one there. Back on the unsolicited query letter treadmill. To say it’s gutting would be a massive understatement. All these years of trying, two novels completed and nothing signed, building up and then crashing down again…it would drive anybody bonkers. Then again, knowing that Simon and Schuster just gave a girl a six-figure deal for One Direction fan fiction (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP) riddled with poor grammar and completely derivative of Fifty Shades of Grey, and somebody has already discovered plagiarism from the film “You’ve Got Mail” in it…well, you start to think it might be a badge of honor to not have a big publisher want your work.

Eh, no, who am I kidding, I still want that book deal. I want it bad.

Did a lot of editing over the past few weeks. Over 90,000 words now. And I have absolutely no idea what is going to become of it.

As naive as this may sound, I think by simply being back in New York, better things will happen. When your surroundings are exactly how you want them, you have the impetus to Get Things Done. When you live someplace that feels like an ally, then it feels like the world has got your back. I can only live.

Bits and Bobs for the Week – April 14th

Right, so, it’s April 14th. Tomorrow is a big anniversary in Boston, so I am planning to avoid all news media outlets. In fact, I think I’d better do that until next Tuesday, because the marathon is taking place a week from today. 

I can’t do it. Sorry. Maybe it’s callous of me to say so, but I really don’t want to be a part of any of the memorializing, the eulogizing, the endless re-evoking of memory that’s going to be happening nonstop for the next week. Of course, I feel very sorry for the families and friends of the three people who lost their lives, and I can’t even imagine what the people who suffered life-changing injuries last April are going through. But being part of the constant displays of memory that have been going on since this time last year will not bring back lives or limbs, and at a certain point, repeatedly revisiting trauma stops being helpful and only causes more pain. I didn’t even live here this time last year, but hearing about the bombing and seeing the reminders again and again – it wears you down. For the sake of my own mental health I do not want to get drawn into it, so the only thing I can do is avoid all the various ceremonies and tributes and news articles that are going to come at everybody in Boston full-on for the next week.

Don’t get me wrong – public outpourings of grief and mourning can be very useful: they show people who were personally affected that they are not alone and not forgotten, and that there is a network of people around them who want to show that they care. And a one-year anniversary is extremely important for commemoration of any major event. The problem is, there is another group of people affected by the bombing – a rather sizeable one, I suspect – who are feeling very alone and overlooked precisely because of all the public displays of “Boston Strong,” the memorials, the news pieces. They’re people who were traumatized by what they witnessed, and for whom every recollection of the day’s events re-ignites that horror. They would like to walk down Boylston Street and not be constantly reminded of the bombing, the blood, the suffering. They would like to one day hang out in their city without seeing everything from shoe shops to schoolkids displaying “Boston Strong” on signs and shirts. They can’t heal so long as the bombing is constantly being thrust in their face – and let’s be honest, there hasn’t been one day since last April 15th that the bombing wasn’t in the news in Boston. Things are only going to get worse once Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s trial gets underway. So perhaps the right thing to do – and I know I’m treading some very delicate ground here, so don’t get me wrong – is for, after this year’s marathon, Bostonians to agree to grieve more privately. Acknowledge that there has been a year of public mourning, and that the next step is perhaps to step back a bit and begin to bury the bombing. This does not mean forgetting what happened or forgetting the people who died, or that people should quit giving to the One Fund. Not at all. It’s simply an acknowledgment that, while we all feel very sad about it, there is a time when you have to move the pain indoors. Take down the banners. Newspapers, radio, and TV outlets should only report on the bombing when there’s real news about it. It doesn’t mean you care any less about the victims. In fact, it acknowledges that if you weren’t directly affected, you realize your pain is distinctly different from that of the people who were injured, who lost a friend or relative, or who were on the front lines of providing help. You have done your bit of grieving in public, and that’s enough, and now it is time for you to move on.

I may very well be giving an opinion where I’m not at all welcome, seeing how I only moved here last June, but this is my rationale and this is why I’ll be avoiding Boylston Street until next Tuesday. It is the same rationale for why I treat September 11th and July 7th like any other days even though they are both significant dates to the two places I call home. At a certain point, for my own sanity, I had to say enough. The grief of the people who lost loved ones is not my grief, and sometimes the most supportive thing you can do is return to normalcy.

It is also worth noting – and thanks to for this stat – that 35 people have died from gun violence in Boston since the 2013 marathon. A further 200 have been shot and survived. Those 35 people were no less loved than the three who died at the Marathon, and those 200 people are dealing with many of the same post-traumatic issues as the 260 wounded in the blasts. Though, chances are that unless you knew any of the victims personally or it happened in your neighborhood, you don’t know the names of the people killed by guns. The idea of “One Boston” rings somewhat hollow for many people living in areas of the city struggling with gun violence and general lack of resources, where killings don’t make the news. Whether it happens on Boylston Street or in Roxbury or Dorchester, death is final, life is precious, and all those people were somebody’s children. End of.


I’ll admit it: I really like Kathy Griffin. She cracks me up, and I suspect that a huge part of her appeal is in knowing that even when she’s at her rudest and crudest, and we’re all thinking, “Oh no, you did NOT just say that,” there’s secretly a part of us that agrees with what she’s saying. We just don’t have the balls to say it ourselves, because we know it’s wrong to poke fun at other people, even if they are famous and living in the public eye. 

Now, turn that kind of criticism on yourself. Feels a bit awkward, yeah? Of course, you shouldn’t give out what you can’t take – but when you can be deeply self-critical, and lace that criticism with self-deprecating wit, you might find that, indeed, plenty of people agree with what you’re thinking. And that leads me to this next bit…

I want to plug a project. I love giggling over Your Kickstarter Sucks as much as anybody, but when I find a Kickstarter that doesn’t suck, I feel like promoting it. This has happened precisely three times. Here’s the third: You should give some money to Peter James Field for his book of illustrations from the past decade of his visual diaries.

Field works as a freelance illustrator in Brighton (the one in England, not the one in west Boston). Columbia people, you may have seen some of his portraits in the university magazine. Or if you’ve flown United and paged through their magazine, you’ve seen three portraits of his in every issue, capturing people who have something to say about that month’s destination of choice. On my last trip back to London, Virgin Atlantic gave us copies of the Independent before we boarded, and I opened up my copy straight onto an illustration I immediately knew was his. Something about the government, or banking, or government and banking policy. Field’s freelance work goes all over, but this book he’s putting out there on Kickstarter is an altogether more personal project – it’s 10 years of his visual diary. Every month, Field posts a half-dozen drawings to his website. Several pictures capture what he sees out and about in Brighton. Sometimes he’ll turn the pencil on himself – if not on his face, then on exactly what he’s seeing as he draws, complete with his hands in the frame. The result is a deeply touching chronicle of a life in moments.

What I love about Field’s diary sketches is that they take something intensely personal – a diary – and present scenes and situations in a manner that makes you acutely aware of shared experiences. You watch Field’s technique evolve, see him move from Dorset to Brighton, go through difficult months and happier ones, all with wry and self-deprecating commentary. All the while you take various glimpses at somebody else’s life – somebody who is clearly very interested in pop culture, watching shows like Big Brother, while simultaneously we watch him through his diary sketches. Amidst the anonymity of the internet, Field does not know who his own “Big Brother” is – he simply puts his life on display, warts and all, and lets himself be watched. He has selected which images he wants to present to the world, but these pictures do not seem at all staged. Rather, they come across as candid and honest, free of the artifice that characterizes the “front stage” performances we so often present to the world on social media, choosing to show only our best sides and tailoring our public faces to exactly how we wish other people would see us. Viewing Field’s work, you feel like you’re peering “backstage” without being intrusive. You’ve been let into a life that is surprisingly like your own – but the difference is, he’s showing a side of himself that you wouldn’t be brave enough to show of yourself. Peter James Field’s diary book is like a reality show, minus all the cynicism you feel when the lens of television is involved.

(August 2007,
We all feel sad and lonely, but we’re not willing to admit it. When Peter James Field self-deprecatingly sketches his TV or his empty can of lager and admits feeling unfulfilled, we’re secretly nodding our heads in recognition and relief. Somebody said it! Somebody said what we’re all secretly feeling – we just didn’t have the courage to say it ourselves.

(December 2007,

It’s also a time capsule – in September 2008, at the start of the financial crisis (that was the month Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy), Field captures a billboard for the Bradford & Bingley bank offering 6.7% fixed-rate mortgages. That same month, Bradford & Bingley’s share price dropped to a record low and the bank announced hundreds of jobs would be lost – a scene that would be repeated again and again over Britain. The bank was part-nationalized, part-sold off. Field’s innocuous-looking nighttime scene doesn’t come with any more commentary than its location: Sackville Road Railway Bridge, Hove. A mundane advertisement like this is not a political statement. It’s not something unusual or shocking. Nor is it tinged with anger or resentment at a world gone wrong. In his diary, the billboard is simply what is present before him, displayed without commentary, something ordinary that gains meaning only when time passes. And maybe life doesn’t have to be extraordinary in order to merit being remembered, etched in ink, put into a book – a rather sacrilegious suggestion in an age of celebrity and narcissism.

Also: can we all just take a moment and recognize that this is a pencil drawing. It is not a photograph put through Photoshop. It is a pencil drawing. Considering I can’t draw for toffee (evidence available upon request), I’m in awe. You should pledge. You really should. Art books are not cheap to print – from my [brief] experience in publishing, I know that anything heavily illustrated is incredibly difficult to get printed, and if you think it’s hard getting a book deal as an new fiction writer, it’s probably 100 times harder for an artist when you remember that publishing houses are looking to make a profit and books from living artists generally don’t, no matter how wonderful the content. Self-publishing makes a lot of sense. Pledge. Pledge pledge pledge.


Happy Passover. Oscar ate my chometz.

I’ve been in New York City quite a bit recently. Something might happen, something might not, but I’d be quite happy if something did, and no, I can’t be any less cryptic. What I can say is that New York always feels right, the way London always feels right. I’m essentially a nobody, like 99.999% of the population, but when you walk down a wide avenue and feel like you own the place, you know you’re in your element, you know something has gone terribly right and you’d better do all you can to keep it that way.
This is an old picture, but there’s a bit of me that will always want to be photographed under the bright lights no matter what. Eh, who am I kidding. There’s all of me still there.

My mother’s got this saying that it is fine to be a janitor so long as you own the building. After moving around so much throughout my 20s, I think I understand that a bit more now.

Reading the City

Perhaps it’s a legacy from my time in academia that when I read articles about familiar topics, I find myself asking, “What gaps in our knowledge does this address?” Sarah Lyall’s New York Times article, “Lessons from Living in London,” has been doing the rounds, and I’m afraid that the lesson I have learned from it is that ex-pats don’t always see the parts of a city that make it so unique – the parts that make it different from where you left behind, and which make you fall in love with it and call it home. I’d say that even though you may be geographically within London – and pretty close to the center of it – you can’t get a good sense for what it is to actually live in London if your only experiences are of Notting Hill, Kensington, Hampstead, and Angel.

Unfortunately, at points in the article where I think Lyall is about to launch into fascinating detail, the prose falls short. For example, she writes, “Residents tend to feel more connected to their neighborhoods than to London as a whole.” And that may be true, but unfortunately for the reader, she does not elaborate on how or why. I start thinking, where is her evidence? Of course years spent in a city of over 7 million souls should make evidence thick on the ground. And far beyond simply confirming her claim, I want to read about how and why residents feel so connected to their individual dots on a map. What are those unique features high streets have that set them apart from each other within a sea of identical chain stores? Lyall could have gone into detail here and captured part of why people fall in love with London, but instead, we don’t get anything other than the standard well-off expat experience. We don’t get any sense for what those neighborhoods even are, because she doesn’t go to them. When she says “residents,” who does she mean? Who does she know, who has she talked to? American expats? Native-born Londoners? New immigrants? It’s only my opinion, but I don’t think the rich and unique life of the city is found in Kensington, a place barely anybody can afford anymore.

Now, Zadie Smith is one of those authors you either love or hate, but there is no denying she has a gift for rich description of parts of London that are far from the tourist path. You have people in middle-of-nowhere Kansas who have a rudimentary idea of what Willesden and Kilburn are like thanks to her books. To me, the uniqueness of London is found by going way up the Edgware Road, or any other main route, to where people who moved without corporate backing live. Of course, Lyall’s experiences are her own, they’re completely valid, and I would be dead wrong to criticise anybody for writing a piece that wasn’t exactly what I want to read, but at the same time, an article that is about living in London needs to go beyond what has already been written ad infinitum. If your experience of a city outside the touristed areas is the same as that of a tourist – e.g. very limited – then what is the point of living in that city? Even though the woes of newspaper publishing nowadays are well-known, the New York Times obviously wasn’t going to make her live in the places most new arrivals to London tend to land, but Kensington and Angel are essentially bubbles. They could be anywhere. Only living there and then saying you know London would be like imagining all there is to New York City is Midtown Manhattan and maybe Brooklyn Heights. Meaning, you’re missing out on so, so much.

Go beyond zone 1 and you’ll see what makes London unlike anywhere else in the world. The Tottenham High Road, now widely known for being the birthplace of the 2011 riots, has businesses catering to immigrants from everywhere from Colombia to Ghana to Poland, yet it remains distinctly a part of England with gems like Bruce Castle and the Walthamstow Marshes. Go past Hampstead into Golders Green and there’s a park with wildlife you’d associate more with Australia than North London. I don’t mean to get all “Bro do you even North London,” because Sarah Lyall can only write about what she has experienced and everybody’s life is going to be different and this isn’t a bloody competition, but it is the fact that her article seems to indicate she didn’t experience very much of what the city has to offer off the beaten path that really gets me. The article is about living in London, but I see little of the London I lived and loved. Have you had a wander through Crystal Palace Park? Gone up the hill to Alexandra Palace and looked out at all those rooftops and wondered about the people beneath them? Have you walked the canals and the reservoirs and the places where it’s hard to believe you’re actually still in a massive city? Have you gone past Canary Wharf to the little farm in Mudchute? Then walked through a public tunnel underneath the river to Greenwich? When those riots erupted, did you hear people talking about Broadwater Farm and did you know it not as someplace grown, but someplace built? Ever navigated using the Wembley Arch? Felt guilty about the nice clothes you got so cheaply at the market in Bow because errrrrrrm maybe they *cough cough* fell off the back of a lorry? Found free orchards behind a council estate in Stoke Newington and in the corner of a park in Ealing? Just got onto a bus for the hell of it and waited to see where it would leave you? Because that’s what living in London means to me. An opportunity to always find something new.

Or, stay within the center of the city, but look around the corners. Even Kensington itself is more multi-faceted than this article depicts. Notting Hill may be known to most Americans as that genteel little place from a horrible movie (sorry, I have something against Hugh Grant, it’s irrational but don’t try to convince me otherwise), but have you ever wondered why the West Indian carnival is there? Because in the middle of the last century, in a racist housing market, immigrants from the Caribbean who had little choice of where to live found one of the few places they were welcome – albeit in exchange for exorbitant rents for run-down, subdivided flats – was W11. Of course, Notting Hill is now too pricey for the vast majority of new arrivals, but the carnival is just one reminder of the movement of people around the city both within and throughout generations. 

When Lyall recalls a lost man in Soho who is fumbling with a map of Brussels, I wanted more. Because, well, I honestly don’t find anything interesting about someone’s experience of culture shock being that dry-cleaners don’t deliver to your door, or that you have to say “rubbish” instead of “trash.” Maybe the NYT editors were aiming for what they thought their average reader would identify with – though, to be honest, having almost never gotten delivery of anything in NYC, I found myself really not caring. London is an extraordinary place. Tell us an extraordinary story. 

I was hoping that when she said “geography is destiny,” we were going to be taken into a discussion of how London is growing increasingly polarized, how places like Kensington and Angel are far beyond the price range of the vast majority of native Londonders, but again, Lyall failed to elaborate. If you want to know how geography is destiny in London, I recommend reading Danny Dorling’s The 32 Stops, part of Penguin Books’ collaboration with Transport for London to publish 12 distinct books tied to the 12 lines of the London Underground. Dorling, a geographer at the University of Sheffield, writes accessibly and succinctly, using the stops on the Central Line to illustrate the extent of inequality in London. It is a quick read, but insightful and chock-full of information. The Central Line begins and ends in the suburbs, and through vignettes about imagined individuals and families, he paints tiny pictures of what matters in the lives of everyday Londoners. It is short, to-the-point, and most importantly it achieves its aim. You can borrow my copy.

Of course, this was just a short article in the travel section. It can’t go into massive detail. It’s not supposed to. And I can’t tell anybody how to experience a place. But I feel like piping up and saying that life in London is more vibrant and offers more experiences than the article might indicate. Strangely, the closest I felt to New York was in Golders Green, one of the few places in London with a visible Jewish presence. To me, it’s fascinating that despite their physical distance, I found commonality between the two cities I consider home in an ethnic enclave that resembled so much of the American counterpart. And I don’t care if the shops there don’t deliver, because the 210 bus that took me there and back crossed Hampstead Heath just fine, with a view to kill for from the front seat of the upper deck.

From “NW” by Zadie Smith

The view was cross-hatched. St. Paul’s in one box. The Gherkin in another. Half a tree. Half a car. Cupolas, spires. Squares, rectangles, half moons, stars. It was impossible to get any sense of the whole. From up here the bus lane was a red gash through the city. The tower blocks were the only thing she could see that made any sense, separated from each other, yet communicating. From this distance they had a logic, stone posts driven into an ancient fields, waiting for something to be laid on top of them, a statue, perhaps, or a platform. A man and a woman walked over and stood next to Natalie at the railing. Beautiful view, said the woman. She had a French accent. She didn’t sound at all convinced by what she’d said. After a minute the couple walked back down the hill.

Natalie Blake looked out and down. She tried to locate the house, somewhere back down that hill, west of here. Rows of identical red brick chimneys, stretching to the suburbs. The wind picked up, shaking the trees below.

She’s describing the view from Archway Bridge, Hornsey Lane. Also known as the suicide bridge. I never noticed the three swords and the crown, the banner of the old Middlesex County Council, on the side of it until a summer evening when I was running downhill from Highgate into Holloway so fast that I was afraid to even try slowing down because I knew I would only trip and fall. In the next chapter she talks about the market on the Kilburn High Road, and I know that when she mentions the pet shop she’s referring to the exact same one where I bought the cage and toys for my budgie Trevor. The old Woolworths and the McDonald’s and the shuttered Gaumont State Cinema are not some throwaway names just there to flesh out an idea of what a high road should look like – they are the places I used to shop, used to pass by all the time. It’s funny knowing that millions of people will read the same sentence in that book and not have the same mental image of the Kilburn High Road that I do. It all seems so clear, so salient to me. She is talking about X and I know X and if I went to X then I might walk right past one of these characters, and if I may be so bold as to inject a bit of dreamy narcissism, then maybe when X is going to Y then there’s somebody in the background who’s an awful lot like me because I used to be there. I’ve walked past stories like hers and not noticed because I was just trying to get to the bus stop. When you live someplace like London, someplace where Zadie Smith can describe that same view you used to have from your bedroom window when you hoisted yourself up onto the too-high ledge on your forearms, and you can remember it perfectly and know that she’s got it spot-on…well, you can’t just go quietly into something less, can you?

Why am I always so homesick? Because if I’m going to aim high then I’m going to aim for the very top. I call it ambition, not looking backward.

The view from Alexandra Palace, summer 2012:


Serious Nerds Only: Qualifying Exam Reading Lists

In spring 2013 I’ll be taking my oral qualifying exams, which I need to pass in order to formally advance to PhD candidacy. The exams themselves are not a big deal, because your faculty advisors will not let you in to the conference room unless they know you’ll pass. The big deal is the sheer amount of preparation the exams require. Chalk these up as another reason why American PhDs take so long.

The rationale behind these exams is that you should be able to teach a complete undergraduate sociology class in each of three fields by the time you sit them. Everybody at Berkeley is required to take an exam in sociological theory, which is my NIGHTMARE. I am not a theory person. I am A Policy Person. The other two substantive areas are up to the student to decide. I chose stratification and political sociology, the latter with an emphasis on urban sociology. What follows is my reading list for political sociology. I have not yet drawn up the theory one because, like I said, NIGHTMARE. The stratification list needs a few additions. Anyway, here are approximately one-third of the books and journal articles I’ll be going through between now and April. I’ve already read some of them, but…well, I think I’m going to completely burn out what is left of my eyesight. And my bank balance. My poor, poor bank balance. If any of you reading this have been through the process before and you think there are any glaring omissions, please tell me. (Obviously, I can’t cover everything in depth because I would like to finish this PhD before I’m 50.) Otherwise, if you need me, I’ll be trawling the used offerings on Amazon and listening to John Head doing Shack’s “Cornish Town” solo over and over. The latter is waiting for you at the end of the list.


Essential Theory

Marx (1978) [1846]. “The German Ideology,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton.

Bourdieu. (1994) “Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field,” Sociological Theory  12:1-18.

Foucault. (1991) “Governmentality,” in The Foucault Effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gramsci. (1971) “State and Civil Society,” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks.

Lukes. (2005) [1974] Power: A Radical View. New York: MacMillan.

Weber, Max. 1958 [1919]. “Politics as a Vocation” “Bureaucracy,” and “Class, Status, and Power,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.


State Formation

Bendix. (1969) Nation Building and Citizenship. New York: Anchor Books.

Poggi. (1978) The Development of the Modern State: A Sociological Introduction. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Skocpol. (1979) States and Revolutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tilly. (1992) Coercion, Capital, and European States. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.


Welfare States

Brady, Kiser and Beckfield. (2005) “Economic Globalization and the Welfare State in Affluent

Democracies, 1970-2000.” American Sociological Review 70: 921-948.

Esping-Andersen. (1990) The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Huber and Stephens. (2001) The Development and Crisis of the Welfare State: Parties and Policies in Global Markets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Korpi and Palme. (1998) “The Paradox of Redistribution and Strategies of Equality: Welfare State Institutions, Inequality, and Poverty in the Western Countries,” American Sociological Review 63: 661-87.

Marshall. (1963) “Citizenship and Social Class,” in Class, Citizenship, and Social Development.  New York: Doubleday.

Pierson. (1995) Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher, and the Politics of Retrenchment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Piven and Cloward. (1972) Regulating the Poor. New York: Random House

Quadagno. (1987) “Theories of the Welfare State.” Annual Review of Sociology 13.

Steensland. (2006) “Cultural Categories and the American Welfare State: The Case of Guaranteed

Income Policy.” American Journal of Sociology 111: 1273-1326.

Weir, Orloff, and Skocpol. (1998) The Politics of Social Policy in the United States.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

Policy Development

Campbell. (2004) Institutional Change and Globalization. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dobbin. (1994) Forging Industrial Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Domhoff. (1996) State Autonomy or Class Dominance: Case Studies on Policy Making in America. Piscataway: Aldine Transaction.

Hall. (1993) “Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State: The Case of Economic Policymaking in Britain,” Comparative Politics, 25(3):275-296.

Sewell, Jr. (1992). “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation,” American Journal of Sociology, 98(1): 1-29.

Weir. (1992) “Ideas and the Politics of Bounded Innovation,” in Structuring Politics; Steinmo, Thelen, and Longstreth (eds). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press .

Weir and Skocpol. (1985) “State Structures and the Possibilities for ‘Keynesian’ Responses to the

Great Depression in Sweden, Britain, and the United States,” in Bringing the State Back In. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Governing Process

Bartels. (2008) Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dahl. (1961) Who Governs? New Haven: Yale University Press (selections)

de Tocqueville. (1969 ed.) Democracy in America. New York: Harper Perennial. (selections)

Mills. (1992 ed) “The Power Elite,” in Social Stratification : Class, Race, and Gender in Sociological Perspective, D. B. Grusky, ed., New York: Westville Press.

Schumpeter. (1962) Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, New York: Perennial. (selections)


Urban Sociology: Formation, Positioning, and Globalization

Hamnett. Unequal City: London in the Global Arena

Hannerz. Exploring the City: Inquiries Toward an Urban Anthropology

Logan and Molotch. (1987) Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sassen. Cities in a World Economy

Sassen. Global City: New York, London, Tokyo.

Wirth.  (1938) “Urbanism as a Way of Life.” American Journal of Sociology 44:1-24.

Park and Burgess. (1967)[1925] The City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Urban Sociology: Crisis and Social Problems

Gamm. (1991) Urban Exodus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Harvey.  (1973) Social Justice and the City.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harvey. (1978) “The Urban Process under Capitalism: A Framework For Analysis.”  International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.  2:101-131.

Massey and Denton. (1993) American Apartheid. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sampson. (2012) Great American City.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

South and  Crowder.  (1997) “Escaping Distressed Neighborhoods: Individual, Community, and

Metropolitan Influences.” American Journal of Sociology 102:1040-84.

Squires  and  Kubrin. (2005) “Privileged Places: Race, Uneven Development, and the Geography of Opportunity in Urban America.” Urban Studies 42:47-68.

Sugrue. (1998) The Origins of the Urban Crisis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tach. (2009) “More than Bricks and Mortar: Neighborhood Frames, Social Processes, and the Mixed-Income Redevelopment of a Public Housing Project.” City and Community 8(3):269-299.

Teaford. (1986) The Twentieth-Century American City. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wilson. (1990) The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson. (1997) When Work Disappears. New York: Vintage.


Urban Sociology: Community and Spatial Outcomes

Briggs. (2010) Moving to Opportunity: The Story of an American Experiment to Fight Ghetto Poverty. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brooks-Gunn et al. (1993) “Do Neighborhoods Influence Child and Adolescent Development?”

American Journal of Sociology 99: 353-95.

Gans. (1965) The Urban Villagers.  New York: The Free Press.

Morenoff and Sampson. (1997) “Violent Crime and the Spatial Dynamics of Neighborhood Transition: Chicago, 1970-1990.” Social Forces 76:31-64.

Sampson and Raudenbush. (1999 ) “Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at

Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods” American Journal of Sociology 105, 3:603-651.

Swaroop and Morenoff. (2006) “Building Community: The Neighborhood Context of Social Organization.”  Social Forces 84:1665-1695.

Power and Houghton. (2007) Jigsaw Cities. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Ravetz. (2001) Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment. London: Routledge.

“Close your eyes and come and cross my street, and I will take you there if you will come with me.” That’s a great line, everyone. That. Is. A. Line.

Now this is cool

See the Guardian’s interactive map of where bombs fell on London on the first night of the Blitz.

I love maps. I love London. Not so big a fan of war, but it’s important to know history, so here you go: Where bombs fell on London this day in 1940 – the first night of the Blitz.

The northernmost bomb hit Eade Road, off Seven Sisters Road in Finsbury Park. I would say that Eade Road still looks like a bomb site today, but…eh, it’s not that bad, just dull. Second northernmost hit just down the street from where I used to live in Holloway. Reckon they were aiming for the railways…

Today, Eade Road is home to the appropriately-named Low Profile House. Hurr hurrrrrr.

Chicago, Maps, and a Mess

Today I arrived in Denver for the 2012 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. I’m presenting a paper on drivers of neighborhood satisfaction in London regeneration zones this Saturday. It’s my first time in Denver, and so far, this is my impression of the city: take the Chicago Loop, shrink it both in spread and height of buildings, and abandon a chunk of it, and that’s Denver. Disclaimer: I’ve been here six hours, and my taxi took me through one hell of a rough patch. That being said, ranch dressing makes sense here. The amount I put on vegetables for dinner was truly sickening and I am proud.

I’m also finishing up Robert J. Sampson’s fantastic book Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, which is the product of years of meticulous, large-scale research into the persistence of poverty and inequality. This is the kind of book that proves social science is a field as worthy as any other. I won’t summarise it here (GO READ IT), but I want to mention that I hold a special place in my heart for Chicago because it was where I first really became fascinated with cities in and of themselves – the start of an obsession that has led me to become an urban sociologist. I lived there for a good chunk of my childhood. All the neighborhoods Sampson mentioned are familiar, if not from actual memories then at least by name.

Chicago, despite being the third largest city in the United States, has a parochial feel to it. People cling to their neighborhoods. The city has 50 official administrative wards, each represented by an alderman who may or may not be entirely corrupt, but there are 77 “community areas,” and, depending on who you ask, nearly 200 informally designated neighborhoods. Here’s a map of the community areas. Bored in school, I memorized this map and loads of more detailed ones to the point where I was able to write out the names of 308 Chicago streets entirely from memory (and not the numbered ones, those don’t count. I mean the names that sing in your head and which tourists don’t see: Ponchartrain Boulevard. Throop Street. Menomonee, Oleander, Armitage, Seely, Ainslie, Kedvale, Caldwell, Argyle, Lamon, Laramie, Larabee, Montrose, Rosemont, Kinzie, Kedzie, Stony Island, Cottage Grove, Washtenaw, Racine. Commerce Parkway. Solidarity Drive.) Yes, I was a very bored child in school. But the point is, these places in Chicago had an intrinsic meaning in their names. For me, they represented a hell of a lot more than just the boundaries drawn by the street grid. They were each their own self-contained world.

Unfortunately, the downside to this compartmentalization is that, in Chicago, it translates to extreme racial segregation. Sampson repeatedly illustrates this and shows it to be at the heart of why so many Black Chicagoans live in the kind of poverty that barely touches even low-income White people. I lived in a neighborhood that was very White, with a significant Asian minority. My mother, a native New Yorker who never lived outside the five boroughs until she was 30, couldn’t believe how segregated it was. A working-class woman from a Polish family, she had worked as a nurse alongside women from Jamaica and Haiti in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and now she was sending her kids to a primary school that had one Black student among over 300 White and Asian. She never liked Chicago and was glad to leave. As a kid, whenever I spoke with a little too much of the nasal honking the city is known for, she would quickly correct me and make me pronounce the word properly – that is, with anything other than those Midwestern vowels. Chicago would not become my voice. I’d have to get that somewhere else.

Our sister school on the West Side was entirely Black. When the students came to ours for a day, they spoke in awe about how clean our bathrooms were, how we actually had paper towels and working locks on the doors. You know, the basic things American schoolkids should take for granted. We thought it was strange then, but hey, we were kids – we understood that they were poor and we were middle-class, that they lived West and we lived North, they were Black and we weren’t and these things weren’t a coincidence, and even at a young age we could put two and two together. But look at the data – especially Sampson’s data about where people move – and it’s clear it will take a lot more than twinning schools and throwing kids together for a couple of days each year in order to address the fact that Black and White so rarely interact meaningfully in Chicago.

Having been educated in both the US and the UK, it’s amazing how uniquely American this kind of segregation is. In Britain, a lot of people have a hard time believing that so many explanations really do boil down to the implications of race in America. “Why is everything about race?” they ask me, and then Americans ask me, “Why are Brits so obsessed with class?” While racism is of course an issue in the UK, the extent and institutionalized degree of it there was never so vast as in the United States. I truly can’t overstate that.

I’m 27 now and I still love maps. Once upon a time, a big glossy one of Chicago neighborhoods hung on my wall. The colors were arbitrary – pinks, yellows, blues, greens, all the names in the same even hand, not the slightest hint of the implications behind each demarcated place name. There’s a picture of me standing in my bedroom on a council estate in West London, and taped to the wall behind me, blurry but recognizable, is the entire London tangle of Tube and rail. Now in my San Francisco apartment there’s an old style New York subway map tacked on the wall down the little hall from where pre-war North London bus routes hang in a sturdy frame. Crouch End, Wood Green, Finsbury Park, Hornsey, Harringay – all the places you’ll go along those red lines, all the places I’ve been more times than I can remember. The buses will take you there and then who knows what you’ll find, what you’ll get up to by yourself? Then down on the floor are the great big wooden panels where I’ve been painting and sculpting and suspending scraps of maps that I’ve transfered onto sheets of acrylic and cut up with a Stanley knife until they’re just how I want them, trying to make a bit of art out of my life so far. Trying to convince myself I still have a bit of those places in my heart even though I’m not walking those streets and may not be again for a long time.

Having a specific spot in space is important to me, as is knowing exactly where I stand – literally – so that I can never be put in the vulnerable position of not knowing where I’m going. When you name a place and claim it as where you’re from, you pick up more than an address. You get a bit of tangible history, and automatically you’re a player in that story. There are some places where I’ve spent years living but which don’t feel like part of me as well as spots I’ve merely passed through in the grand scheme of things but which somehow have gotten into my bones.

I could never go back to living in Chicago. By that I mean, I’m not willing to do so. When I think of Chicago I recall small-mindedness, corruption, segregation, and really REALLY cold winters with flat grey landscapes that could not have been bleaker if they’d been illustrations from a Victorian novel.I remember how cruelly people treated my mother when she was nothing but kind to everybody. I remember how my family was resented and scorned for no fault of our own. I remember finding out that all those years when I’d been cheering on my older brother from the sidelines when he played soccer, other children’s mothers were laughing at “the Jew.” I remember wanting to get out of there so, so badly, and never looking back. Maybe some people could choose Chicago over New York or London, but I’m not one of them. I don’t want to be the capital of the middle, I don’t want to be the cozy warm heart of things – I want to be in the great big mess teetering on the edge. That being said, Chicago’s lack of pretension was refreshing sometimes. It knew it couldn’t compete with New York or Los Angeles, so it didn’t try. Nelson Algren said there was never a city so real, and I’d have a hard time arguing with that. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may find lovelier lovelies, but never one so real. But it’s not my reality now. Chicago was someplace I had once, and it was useful, but it outlived that role for me personally and so I’ve folded it up and put it away. I have no family there. Almost all my friends are elsewhere. It’s a place I can read about and shake my head and understand, but it’s not me.

Some people have perfect pitch. Others have uncanny photographic memories. I have perfect direction. Wherever I go, I always know which way is north. I always have at least that much of an idea where I am going and where I have been.