Flippin’ Flip

Funny that I should appear on a podcast called Biology of the Blog when, as you can see, this blog has been pretty dormant for two years, but here I am:

http://www.btrtoday.com/listen/biologyoftheblog/week-of-120816-4/

My phone connection unfortunately lets me down a bit on the voice front, but you can still hear me talk about writing and the masochism of trying to get published, cities, transportation, and the realization that a quarter of my life has been chronicled on Twitter. Enjoy, and big thanks to Taia Handlin for featuring me. True to my word, I am a tremendous nerd. And I promise I’ll get back to proper blogging…soon.

 

In other news, I’m going to be on Jeopardy on December 20th, so watch for me!

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Bits and Bobs for the Week – April 21st

So, I decided to watch the marathon after all. It didn’t make sense not to, seeing how I live just down the street from the final part of it. I got lucky and snagged a spot against the fence just before the banner announcing runners were one kilometer from the finish line. It’s rather humbling to see so many people doing something you know you have no chance of ever achieving. Big respect to the man who looked about 80 years old but is probably healthier than I will ever be.

Highlights included:

  • The man running in a Celtic FC top. I hope somebody buys him a munchy box or two as soon as he gets back home. After running 26.2 miles, you’ve earned a few thousand calories of indulgence.
  • Some people write their names on their bibs or tops, and some people write them on their arms with a Sharpie. That way, the crowd can cheer you on. One true Masshole decided that instead of his name, he wanted to hear the crowd shouting YANKEES SUCK, so he wrote that on his skin.
  • A leg amputee did the course on forearm crutches. WHAT ARE YOUR WRISTS MADE OF AND WHERE CAN I GET SOME OF IT?
  • I got to chill out next to two whippets, who are perfect dogs because they’re just greyhounds in a more manageable size without all the hyperactivity of those tiny Italian greyhounds. Also, they look like marathon runners.

Anyway, without getting all mushy, it really was a beautiful day. The world came to Boston; the four winners were a South African, an American adopted from a Russian orphanage when she was 6, a Kenyan, and an American who emigrated from Eritrea as a child. Tatyana McFadden took home the women’s wheelchair title on her 25th birthday, and immediately handed her gold olive wreath to Carlos Arredondo, hero of last year’s disaster who has seen more than enough pain in his lifetime. McFadden’s story is fascinating – she was born with spina bifida and somehow survived her first three weeks of life with a gaping hole in her back before a surgeon could operate. Then, given up by her birth mother, she was left in a St. Petersburg orphanage that didn’t even have the money for a wheelchair, so she walked on her hands for her first six years. She was adopted by an American government commissioner for disabilities. She’s a summer and winter Paralympian – she won a skiing medal in Sochi, then won the London Marathon a month later, setting a record in the process. What a wonderful 25th birthday present for somebody who was lucky to have survived her first month considering she was so neglected by everybody around her. A few days ago, she met with the family of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died in the bombing. Martin’s sister Jane survived, but had her leg amputated. With a prosthesis, she is now getting involved in basketball, running, dance, and swimming. She has probably the greatest role model imaginable. 

Ernst Van Dyk, men’s wheelchair winner, just secured his 10th Boston title. Yes, tenth. Rita Jeptoo made history by being the first woman to win the foot race three times and breaking the record while she was at it. Considering she took a few years off to have a baby (which isn’t particularly easy to do when you’re built like a distance runner) it’s all the more impressive. And as for Meb Keflezighi, he’s now Boston’s fourth sports team even though he lives in California. I hadn’t heard of him until I saw all the ads on bus shelters that said GO MEB GO starting a few weeks ago, but he was the highest-placing American marathoner in the London Olympics. Again, not to get all mushy, but along with McFadden he is the American dream in action. His father walked from war-torn Eritrea to Sudan, then moved to Italy where he worked multiple jobs for five years until he had enough money to send for the rest of his family. They later immigrated to the United States, where Meb excelled academically and athletically, eventually getting into UCLA. A naturalized citizen, he was the first American man to win the marathon since 1983, and, at 38 years old, the oldest winner since the 1930s. And he is every bit as American as anybody else here. He planned to run last year, but got injured, so he watched from near the finish line on Boylston Street. And he left to go do commentary at a Copley Square hotel only minutes before the bombs went off. He too has become close to the Richard family, and raised ten grand for the foundation named after their son.

So, yes, yesterday was a great day for Boston to show off the best of America and welcome the rest of the world. I think this city did them proud. Hopefully now the marathon can be known more for the resilience of the people who ran in it, rather than for what was forced upon it last year.

The law of little things

Now well-settled in Boston, I’m happy to report that I don’t have a single regret about quitting the PhD. It would be premature to say I’ve put it all behind me, because – let’s be real – you don’t shrug off nearly three years of dashed expectations and disappointments that drove you into a depression in less than three months. But all in all? Life is smooth enough for my liking and that’s really all I can ask for right now. The students are all coming back to town now and I am just so, so relieved to not be one of them.

I had a bit of a rocky start. I was sitting around minding my own business one night about a week into my tenancy when I saw something scurry along the side of the room. Then another thing. And another thing. Furry little brown things. Mice. Instead of being a tiny annoyance that I should have shrugged off with one call to the exterminator, this knocked me sideways. Boston was supposed to be a new start, everything was nice and clean, and in my mind an infestation contaminated the fresh new life I was putting together for myself. To me, I might as well have been back in the Tenderloin. Everything seemed ruined for a while. Let’s just say that disposing of live mice stuck to glueboards was not what I envisioned myself doing in June, and I was just so stressed out from the move. Fortunately, they’re gone, and with a little luck they won’t come back. The new apartment is feeling like a home. Got a big tank of fish and some plants on the fire escape and whatnot. Nothing wrong with creature comforts, so long as nothing related to the creatures is furry with a long, bare tail.

 

In a country as big as the United States you have to realize that there are simply some places that suit you better than others. The past several weeks have reinforced my belief that it has to be the East Coast for me. The attitudes here just fit. I love the bluntness, the implied acknowledgement that we’re all busy and need to move quickly and life is too short to care about meaningless crap. It’s so…refreshing to not have put my guard up every time I set foot out my front door. In particular, I don’t have to run a gauntlet of crackheads just to get to the subway or deal with creeps who think I want their attention. It’s amazing. I got “hey-baby-how-ya-doin'”-ed in line at the supermarket today for the first time in yonks and it reminded me that it’s not something I have to put up with several times daily anymore. And let’s face it, getting “hey-baby-how-ya-doin'”-ed is harmless. In San Francisco it was a constant OH YEAH BABY LEMME GET SOME OF THAT ASS that never, ever relented. You can only tell yourself to ignore things so much. I didn’t suddenly become a different person when I moved to Boston, and while I know I’m always the first one to remind people that correlation does not imply causation and you need to rule out as many extraneous variables as possible (hi, I’m a researcher), I think the reason I don’t constantly get catcalled and harassed now is because I’m not living in a total hole of a place where people having nothing better to do. Simple as. 

It is the little things in life that can really stress you out and bring you down, for the simple fact that lots of little things add up into one big massive thing rolling down the hill with you in its path. And San Francisco, as we all know, has got loads of hills. I spent way too much time dealing with one thing after another, one broken promise and disappointment and shortcoming after another, to the point where I just stopped expecting anything to get better out there. That’s not good for anybody and I’m not going to romanticize it. Life in Boston is, quite frankly, normal. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If your circumstances are normal you have plenty of energy for going wild in your imaginative life, which is good news for me as I have quite a bit of overdue writing on my plate.

 

Fortunately, the law of little things is commutative; it works in the opposite direction, too. Boston is SO CLEAN. I don’t have to dodge piles of poo (dog or human) when I walk down my street. I don’t have to ride buses that smell of urine and on which I’m probably going to see people beating each other up over nothing. People don’t walk up to me on the train and tell me their miserable life stories. Nobody is smoking crack or meth outside my building or shooting up in broad daylight. Nobody is waking me up with their screaming in the middle of the night. Nobody is whining about their sacred human rights being infringed just because somebody looked at them the wrong way or served them the non-organic vodka. I live right near the center of Boston, yet I look outside and see more trees than heaps of trash. All these little things mean I can enjoy life just that bit more, and it makes more of a difference than I expected.

 

In a perfect world we all know I would have ended up back in either London or New York, but for now Boston is fine by me. The litmus test for me is whether I can find someplace in a city where I can kill time and not feel preoccupied by anything at all. The Public Garden, full of ducks and people all minding their own business together, is that place for me in Boston. I get on a bike and wind through streets here just to mentally map it all out, which I never felt the need to do in San Francisco because I simply didn’t care enough about the place and it didn’t feel like mine. Again, there’s nothing like riding your bike up the canal in London until you’re in a field in Northolt, or wandering out to the middle of the Walthamstow Marshes, or riding the NYC subway to the end of the line and walking along the shore with everybody speaking Russian in Brighton Beach, but right now it’ll do. I really wouldn’t mind staying here a few years – I’ve had enough several-thousand-mile moves to places where I know absolutely nobody. My closest friend from San Francisco, who went to college out here, is moving back tomorrow and it’s going to be fantastic.

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(I have lost track of how many people ask us if we’re related.)

 

My life in California was not normal. I had come to expect all those dysfunctional things as part of my normal routine, and that’s just messed up. No wonder I was bloody miserable. Everybody in San Francisco is all about the freedom to do whatever you want, be whatever you want, but there’s something to be said for having freedom FROM constant hassle and lack of social boundaries, too. I simply don’t have to live like that anymore and it makes all the difference. That’s not to say everything is sunshine and roses now – let’s face it, I’m one of those people for whom there will always be something lingering around, I’ll never be able to just let things go – but I’m a hell of a lot happier with my life than I was a few months ago. This feels more like what I wanted for age 28. 

 

In other news, I went to Chicago for a couple days last month when my friend Zach, who I’ve known since we were the two five-year-olds getting plucked out of class because we’d already taught ourselves to read, got married. I’m so happy for him and Regen, and it was great to catch up with people I hadn’t seen for the better part of a decade.

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Chicago is strange. Cabrini-Green has completely vanished. The South Loop is full of new-build apartments and townhouses. Downtown, Donald Trump has built himself a massive monument to his feelings of masculine inadequacy. The whole place is simultaneously familiar and foreign. Nice to visit, but I can’t see myself living there again.

 

A few weeks ago I went out to LA for a few days to do something fun and new which I can’t say anything else about at the moment, but you’ll hear about it sooner or later.

 

I’m considering getting a Quaker parrot. I’ve loved these birds for ages, ever since I was a teenager with a weekend job in a pet shop, but they’re considerably larger and longer-lived than the ones I’ve had before, and they were out of the question in California because the state banned them. But now that I might be here for a while…I dunno. They’re known for being remarkably good mimics:

 

The last one I met seemed to like me well enough.

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So that’s that. I’m willing to accept things changing little by little.

(EDIT: two minutes after I post this, I find a mouse trying to eat his way through a bag of chips in my kitchen. The above may be temporarily null and void, because I say so.)

I’m still here!

 

And you should expect something nice and long within a few weeks, hopefully.

 

But in the meantime, have the kids from Gladesmore School in Tottenham, North London, performing their single, because they’re incredible:

 

The BS Detector System

Now that I’m teaching undergraduates, I’m supposed to come up with a “statement of teaching philosophy.” It’s a bit preposterous for me to even think about that, considering I have never taught a day in my life, nor have I been trained to do this (sorry kids). I’ve sat through enough lectures and seminars, so I suppose I should have a vague idea of how to not put a class of 20 to sleep. I just hope my students are gentle when I get them one-on-one tomorrow.

If you had to ask me what my purpose in teaching sociology is, I have a very basic answer:

I want you to be a fantastic bullshit detector.

There’s a lot of bullshit in this world. Ideologies. Politics. Sound bites. Misleading statistics. People who want you to accept their statements unquestioningly. Decisions that affect the lives of millions of people in this country alone are made on the basis of this bullshit. What I want you to gain from being in my research methods course is the skill to be able to dissect these arguments, ask the right questions, know what to be skeptical about. I want you to be able to shoot down nonsense from a mile away, and then bullet-proof your own arguments so that you can go toe-to-toe with someone who thinks they’re the business.

 

In sociology you’re always getting the side-eye from people who think it’s a Mickey Mouse subject. And yes, you grow tired of having to refute that. Tough. Sociology teaches you how to think about perpetual problems. In an election year in particular, this is crucial. You need a good bullshit detection system now more than ever. Don’t run into full-fledged adulthood without one, kids. If someone can’t charm you with nonsense, then they can’t take advantage of you. The world’s your oyster. Eat it raw only if you can be reasonably certain it won’t make you sick with e. coli from…bullshit.

Hello there

I finally realised there was no good reason for me to not have a blog. In an age when social media is so important to both capturing and sustaining an audience, my usually-locked Twitter feed just won’t cut it.

Blogging – it’s a bit of a narcissistic exercise, isn’t it? When I write fiction, I’m creating worlds and personas out of thin air and attempting to make them interesting enough for people to want to read about them. But real life – oh dear, that’s a totally different animal. After all, my teenage LiveJournal experiment came to an anxiety-packed end when nasty anonymous comments left me frantically deleting my angsty/whiny/downright embarrassing-in-retrospect memoirs from the annals of the internet. Now I’m hoping that keeping a blog can be not just a way of collating and communicating things I find interesting, but also a means to force myself to continue writing and editing outside my usual methods.

I am a doctoral student in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, concentrating on housing and urban regeneration, particularly in a comparative US-UK context. What this means is that I have lots of useless (I mean, pub quiz-worthy) knowledge about buildings and neighborhoods where people never actually wanted to live. My goal, once I have the all-important “Dr.” in front of my name, is to work in policy to improve those buildings and neighborhoods where people don’t actually want to live. In my previous role at a large social research firm, I quickly learned that the most effective way to figure out how to do this is to actually listen to the people affected by large-scale policy initiatives. (The same job also introduced me to the weird and wonderful world of stepping into the homes of complete strangers and prodding them with intensely personal questions, which I can now do with 90% less blushing!) My current research focuses on the quantitative analysis of regeneration policies that have attempted to address the psychological sense of community – with continuing detours into the ongoing debate about what “community” actually means – and determining the drivers of neighborhood satisfaction in highly deprived urban areas. It all sounds rather straightforward on paper, but I’m afraid that Everything Is A Bit More Complicated Than That, and thus you have this blog as a forum for me to make the odd post about what I find along the way.

As of autumn 2012, I will be teaching methodology to undergraduates. I am way too excited about this.

I also write. I am currently in the heartbreaking and humbling process of shopping my novel around to literary agents. You’ll probably hear a bit about that as the months continue to go by…*sob sob*

I live in San Francisco’s notorious Tenderloin neighborhood. There is a LOT of crack around here. To answer your question: it’s affordable and it’s within walking distance of the train to Berkeley, and I managed to grab a rare gem of an apartment. When people ask me where I’m from, I honestly find it difficult to answer – New York and London is the most straightforward, so that’s what you’re going to get. For consistency’s sake, I’ll be blogging in American English.

If you have never met a Polish folk dancer, well, you have now.

Other topics you will find here eventually include:

— General rants about current affairs and social issues

— General rants about the state of Tottenham Hotspur FC

— General rants about the status anxiety of a PhD student; or, what happens when you go from being financially independent in the world’s most expensive cities to feeling like a teenager again in a city you don’t particularly like.

— The odd cringeworthy pun or two

— Pictures of the ridiculous things I encounter in everyday life (If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, etc etc)

— The strange things people yell at me on a daily basis

— Ebullient guides to my very favorite places in the world and why you should go to them

I hope I can entertain you. Enjoy!