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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Child Rearing Tips from the Pros

I am sitting here wearing a D.A.R.E. To Keep Kids Off Drugs t-shirt. I don’t know what D.A.R.E. stands for and I don’t really know what it means to dare to keep kids off drugs. I found the shirt at a thrift store. What have you done lately to keep kids off dope? You probably don’t even care if kids are on drugs or not, do you? At least I am wearing a second-hand t-shirt that purports to keep kids off dope. I feel pretty good about my new stance on this issue. When it comes to kids and drugs we need to be “pro-active” and if that means paying $1 for a used t-shirt then let’s just do it, people.

If I know one thing about kids it’s that if you dare them to do something they will probably do it. If you double-dare a kid to stay off drugs you may as well light up his joint for him yourself. No self-respecting kid can pass up a double-dare, so don’t even try that one. I may not be Dr. Phil, I may not be a bald, sanctimonious blow hard, I may not be an ultra-pretentious know-nothing…OK, I guess everyone now knows how I feel about “Doctor” Phil. Let’s just say that I know kids. With kids you have to use something called “reverse psychology.” Let me explain this complex theory for those of you who don’t have my vast experience in the field of psychology. I did get a B+ in freshman Psychology 101, after all.

If you want a kid to do something, you have to encourage him to do the exact opposite. If you want your kids to stay off drugs, encourage them to smoke your dope. Just in case this tactic back-fires, make sure you don’t leave your good weed lying around. If reverse psychology doesn’t work on your kids, then congratulations: You have raised intelligent children. Instead of reverse psychology you can try to threaten them with physical violence, which usually doesn’t work on kids with an IQ over their K grade. It’s worth a try and you don’t even need to get off the couch to do it. Staying on the couch is one of the most important rules of parenting.

The final, most drastic tactic in trying to bend kids to your will is to threaten them with military school. At first don’t even mention this to them directly. A more effective technique is to leave a few brochures from various military academies lying around the house. If your kids are particularly maladjusted, military school will seem like a cool idea to them. If this is the case, I suggest that you start locking your bedroom door at night.

The D.A.R.E. program came after my school days. About all that I know about it is that it was a program to keep kids off drugs. I would imagine that it was about as effective as the Rock the Vote program that was supposed to encourage young people to exercise their right to vote and lead to the reelection of George W. Bush. It’s hard to imagine a comparable failure in youth drug abuse.

There is an ad from a group called Partnership for a Drug-Free America that asks you to tell your kids the “truth’ about marijuana. The ad infers that pot is the source of all evil in teenagers from pregnancy to severe acne. If I had kids, and if I had to tell them the truth about marijuana, I don’t know what I would tell them. Would I tell them that I smoked less dope than anyone on my dorm floor yet most of the stoners went on to become doctors and lawyers? Would I tell them that I don’t know a single person who has been arrested for driving under the influence of pot, yet many people I know have been arrested for driving drunk? Most people who are too stoned to drive will sit in the parking lot and entertain themselves with the windshield wipers. Either that or they will waste so much time trying to tune in a radio station that they’ll forget why they are driving anywhere in the first place.

Speaking of the military, that organization is about the most virulently anti-drug environment you are likely to find in this country, yet they heavily promote the use of alcohol and cigarettes. The irony of that position is lost on few servicemen and women. With every pitcher of beer you buy at a service club you are made to feel that you are doing your part in the war on drugs. I remember reporting for a urinalysis after a heavy night of drinking when I was stationed in Greece. My blood alcohol was about 93% Metaxa, a Greek brandy. Thank God I didn’t have any drugs in my system. I got a congratulatory pat on the back for passing the urinalysis. I went to the other side of the infirmary for some Percocets for my hang-over. There is a lot to be said for working in a drug-free environment.

How about if we start an organization called Partnership for a Hypocrisy-Free America? I guess that is just too fucking obvious. We can start by telling kids that more people die from Coors Light than from Marijuana. We can run an ad showing a frying pan. “This is your brain.” Then we dump a few pounds of raw sewage into the red-hot pan. “This is your brain on five Long Island ice teas.” Any questions?

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

No Complaints

I wake up, I get a cup of coffee, and I wait for something to tick me off enough to write about it. What will it be today? My coffee is too hot but by the time I’m a paragraph into that essay it will have cooled down to the perfect temperature. I accidentally hit the Caps Lock key and I typed the last sentence in capital letters, but Shakespeare couldn’t weave that into a 500 word essay. Look at that big jerk talking on his cell phone. That used to bother me but now I have a cell phone so it’s OK to talk on a cell phone now. This coffee is excellent, by the way.

I didn’t bother to pick up a newspaper this morning and from where I sit there is no internet connection, so I sit here in blissful ignorance of the horrors of the outside world. Life is pretty good these days, which would be fantastic if I were writing Christian rock ballads or I was a game show hostess, but I am a humor writer and all of the cheeriness around me is conspiring to strangle my muse. It may already be dead—at least for today. This is where I could just say, “Have a nice day,” and sign off, but I’m no quitter. Something will piss me off.

If I had to put my finger on what is most responsible for the good mood I’ve been in I’d have to blame my new piano song book, Best Songs Ever by Hal Leonard publishers. I defy anyone to be in a lousy mood when you are working through a thoroughly cheesy collection of torch songs and lounge lizard classics. I even put a tip jar on my piano and primed the pump by putting in a few bills, so don’t forget to tip the piano man. Sure, the country is going to hell in a hand basket, but when was the last time you heard a good piano arrangement of A Time for Us (the theme from Romeo & Juliet)? Would you rather bitch about the war in Iraq or sing along to Moon River? Just try to be grumpy when you are skipping around all day singing Edelweiss or My Funny Valentine. You might get beat up, but you won’t be pissy.

The usually grim weather this time of year has certainly been nothing to complain about here in Seattle. I had to trade my raincoat for a pair of sunglasses today. Mount Rainier loomed spectacularly large over the Seattle skyline this afternoon. This lack of annoyance is starting to really bug me. I need to start getting in a foul mood or I’ll have to start writing greeting card copy. At the very least I need to wake up hung-over tomorrow morning, because being in a great mood sucks.

Maybe I am still feeling the positive mental effects of visiting a friend who has two kids, ages 6 and 7. Their house is basically a three bedroom toy box with an amazing view of the water. I asked the 6 year old which of his toys was his favorite, which one he would pick over all of the others. He started getting worked up like a first grade Captain Queeg from The Caine Mutiny. “You aren’t going to take my other toys, are you? This is just pretend, right?” I find it hard to be around any kid under the age of about 12 without them doing something that absolutely cracks me up.

For the time being I’ll just have to wait out this phase I’m going through. I’ll find some dreary Chopin dirge to play on the piano instead of peppy show tunes. I’ll steer clear of kids and dogs. Maybe it will rain tomorrow. Things have to get worse; I’m nothing if not an optimist.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

It's Probably Tofu

This is the second time in my life I have lived on the west coast, three if you consider the entire American land mass, but I won’t count my Latin American residence in this discussion. I have noticed that the west coast breeds a lot more people who feel their way of thinking is somehow ‘alternative.’ A lot of people out here will ask me what my ‘sign’ is and they are actually serious about it. They feel they are somehow more ‘aware.’ I won’t even touch that one. I have noticed—and maybe I am wrong on this—that there are a lot more vegetarians out here than on the east coast.

On the west coast you run into a lot of people who say they won’t eat anything with a face. A face-free diet seems even sillier to me than it sounds (and it sounds pretty silly). What about clams and mussels? What if we could genetically create a pig without a face? I’ll be that would be delicious. I have some restrictions in my diet. I absolutely refuse to eat anything with a social security number, even if they have a fake number they bought from a guy called Hector “el bigote.”

If you have ever been to the huge Asian grocery store in Seattle you soon realize that in China they eat absolutely everything under the sun. I like to think back to when man was foraging for food and got to the point of starvation that drove him to eat a dried jellyfish. Does a jellyfish have a face? If jellyfish do have faces I’ll bet there is an entire aisle at the Chinese market devoted to dried jellyfish faces. I’ve seen weirder things at the Asian grocery store. Follow an older Chinese woman around the store and you’ll see her calmly put stuff in her basket that would put that Fear Factor show to shame.

And then there are vegans: no meat, no dairy, no fish, no faces, no legs, no body parts whatsoever . Traveling as a vegan must be particularly tiresome. It is like having some grave physical handicap. For a lot of vegans their diet seems to be a big part of their identity—for some it is their identity. You are what you eat, as they say.

Trying to find acceptable vegan fare in Europe must be a dawn to dusk quest. I’ll bet that Neanderthal man spent less time foraging for food. “I can’t visit the Louvre; I have to find a vegan restaurant in Paris.” Good luck vegans, and don’t expect Europeans to understand your food aversions, or eating disorder, or whatever it is you have. Europe is pretty far from the hip west coast.

What I find curious about vegetarians is that they are always trying to disguise their food to look and taste like meat: veggie dogs, tofu sausage, tofu cheese, tofu ribs, etc. I don’t ever recall meat eaters making sculptures out of hamburger to make it look like broccoli or cauliflower.

I don’t believe that vegetarianism is all that healthy, as I believe that a balanced diet is essential. From the crazy studies that doctors come up with I don’t think anyone truly knows what is the optimal diet for Homo Sapiens. It seems to me that we need a lot of variety and meat definitely is a component of that variety. I recognize my own hypocrisy when it comes to my diet. I just finished lecturing on the lack of sustainability of suburban life and SUV’s, yet my diet is the moral equivalent of a Hummer made out of bacon and cheese driving on a four lane highway paved with steak.

I’ll be the first to admit that my own diet is a bit of a disaster. I have been blessed with a white trash, cast iron constitution that seems to run best when fueled with lots of pork, booze, and coffee which are all essential elements of the newly-revised food pyramid. A food pyramid seems inaccurate when describing my diet as a pyramid conjures up an image of stability and strength. My diet is more like a kid’s tree fort, made with rotten planks, rusty nails, and built on a very precarious branch. My dietary tree house may not be too safe but it’s been a lot of fun and it tastes great.

Friday, February 11, 2005

MEAT MARKET SURVIVAL GUIDE

Your second divorce has finally come through and you’re looking to find a little action. It’s not like you are above paying for sex but you were thinking about trying to trick some young lady into giving it to you for free. Free: whatever that means. You thought you were getting it for free from your two ex’s and look at how much that cost you. So no, you definitely aren’t above paying for it, but you are in the prime of life and you should be able to revive that old charm. You look pretty good, too, if you do say so yourself. Then again, you aren’t going to say that paying for it is your last resort. It is more like the fifth or sixth from the last resort. You shudder in fear at what is your last resort. Please don’t let it come down to your last resort.

Just thinking about what your last sexual resort encompasses made you feel a little icky so you took a shower. That’s a good start for a night out on the town. If you aren’t going to shave your back at least shave your ears and weed-wack a little around your eyebrows—ditto with nose hair. As far as cologne goes here’s a simple rule: if it costs less that table wine don’t wear it; that stuff is only fit to deodorize your bathroom. No sneakers or tasseled loafers—this isn’t casual Friday at the office, this is about you overcoming overwhelming odds and getting laid. You’re a big boy so we’ll let you dress yourself, but remember: if you don’t have a body, don’t show it off.

In the cab ride to the new, hip, pick-up bar, try to commit a few foreign phrases to memory. This will put you way ahead of the rest of the rabble when you are dealing with beautiful eastern European women. Bulgarian, Russian, and Ukrainian are difficult languages but you should be able to memorize such useful expressions as, “I want you to want me, I need you to need me,” (worry about the Cheap Trick copyright infringement after you get some action) and “Can you unlock these handcuffs, please. I have to go pee.”

It may be too late to tell you this as you pull up in front of the chic bar you have chosen, but you should always have a wing-man when you are out on the town and trying to score. Your wing-man should be someone who is much better looking than you and infinitely more appealing to the opposite sex. This is why I always try to tag along with Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp. A division of horny marines could keep busy with the women those two guys leave in their wake. If you have one of your buddies with you try this fool proof scam. Have your wing-man approach two women at the bar. Have him be incredibly obnoxious to the women (probably not too tough an assignment for him). You pretend that you don’t know him and come to their rescue. “Why don’t you just leave these two alone, pal.” As he slinks off in shame you put yourself into position by saying to them, “Can you believe that asshole?” Is this tactic ethical? If you are really serious about getting laid this will probably be about the most truthful scenario you will manufacture during the entire evening.

If you are alone don’t make the fatal mistake of getting into a conversation with another single dude because he is probably a bigger loser than you. You are here for one reason so stay focused. Keep telling yourself that you are a devastating sexual predator; you are like a lion in a petting zoo. Even the king of the jungle needs a good cocktail but keep it simple. If Humphrey Bogart wouldn’t drink it then neither should you, and Humphrey Bogart wouldn’t drink anything that hasn’t been around for at least 100 years, so stay clear of the fad drinks. This isn’t an ice cream parlor so don’t go looking for something that tastes good.

So you are standing at the bar sipping your martini when directly to your left are two gorgeous women. Holy shit, your knees almost buckle as you get a load of the amount of cleavage on display, but here is the cruel thing about cleavage. You can’t look at cleavage, at least not until you get to know them (the women, not the cleavage you idiot). Think of looking at cleavage as the same as looking at the sun; pretend that it actually hurts your eyes to focus on the cleavage. If things go well there will be plenty of time for looking, but for now you have to act like the cleavage is no big deal even if the cleavage is a really big deal—if you know what I mean.

From this point on you are on your own. I forgot to mention that I’ve always been pretty lousy at picking up strange women. I was just trying to keep you from making an ass out of yourself. The thing is, everyone knows that being an ass never kept anybody from hooking up in a meat market bar; it’s actually an asset if you’ll pardon the pun. So forget everything I said and just go out and be yourself. I’m going to call an escort service.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Fear of Needles

As both of you who read this web site already know, I live in Seattle, Washington. More specifically, I live in the lower Queen Anne area of Seattle. More specifically still, I live one block from the Seattle Center. The Seattle Center is a sort of campus that is home to the Sonics’ basketball arena, the Frank Ghery Experience Music Project, the Science Museum, the Seattle opera and ballet, the terminus for the monorail, and the Space Needle built in 1962 for the World’s Fair.

The Space Needle is without a doubt Seattle’s most recognizable architectural feature. I would go so far as to say it is one of the country’s most recognizable architectural features. An elevator whisks you to the top. Once you are there you can enjoy the revolving restaurant which has commanding views of the city and the surrounding Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges—so I’ve been told. I’ve never been up there.

I have lived in Seattle now for six years. I live so close to the Space Needle that for most of my day it is in full view, but I have yet to make the pilgrimage to the top. Don’t rush me.

I was on a date a while back and we were going to do the touristy, kitschy thing and go to the top of the Needle, but then we learned that when you get to the top there is no longer a bar, only a restaurant. I can’t do kitsch without a drink or two. I have thought that I probably could live here for a lifetime and not make it to the top of the Needle, and I wouldn’t feel unfulfilled in any way. I had never bothered to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower until a couple of years ago and I regret doing that to this day. Had the Eiffel Tower pilgrimage not been so insanely over-crowded I probably wouldn’t have hated it. The Space Needle doesn’t seem to attract the appallingly large hoards as does the Eiffel Tower; it just seems like a corny thing to do.

The thing about going to the top of the space Needle is that when you get there you can’t see Seattle’s most recognizable architectural feature which is the Needle. If I want a bird’s eye view of the city I just have to pedal my bike to the top of Queen Anne hill. The view from Kerry Park is as spectacular as the view from the Space Needle and you can see the Space Needle from Kerry Park. Kerry Park isn’t much to look at so who cares if you can’t see it from the space Needle? It doesn’t cost $11 to get to the top of Queen Anne hill, all it takes is a car or a lung-busting bike ride.

As with a lot of the other tourist attractions in Seattle, I will probably make it to the top of the Needle when I am entertaining out-of-town visitors. I have done a lot of other corny tourist things around town when I’ve had visitors. Some of them I have actually enjoyed, like when I took my nephew to see the Russian submarine docked down on the waterfront. But until one of my guests insists on dragging me up to the top of the space Needle, I’ll keep looking at it from the ground.

The World's Classiest, Most High-Brow Humor Essay

Insert Unfunny Caption Here
We are unable to accept your submission, despite its evident merit. Thank you for allowing us to consider your work, and we sincerely apologize for the delay in responding.

Best regards,
The Shouts and Murmurs Dept.


I just got a rejection from The New Yorker. I submitted one of my essays to their Shouts & Murmurs page. My writing has been somewhat influenced by what I have read over the years on that short essay forum. I realize that most of the humor essays I write are a little low-brow for the The New Yorker so I chose one that didn’t contain content that I figured would automatically disqualify it from being considered for publication in that hallowed tome. Just the thought of The New Yorker makes me use words like “hallowed tome” so I made sure that the essay I sent in didn’t have the words “turd” or “fuck stick” in it, even if though those are a couple of my favorite words.

To get published in the The New Yorker I have to start thinking like a New Yorker writer. A writer for that magazine wouldn’t even think that “crotch” is a funny word, nor would he think that death and permanent injury are topics suitable for humor. There is no room in that magazine for a gag about a flock of soon-to-be-defrocked priests trying to run down an altar boy who is hobbled by his pants pushed down around his ankles in some sort of twisted, Vatican 4-H rodeo. It’s time for me to start writing thoroughly high-brow and sophisticated humor. Let’s see what I can come up with.

During the intermission of the Verdi opera Il Porco Capitalista two wealthy industrialists were at the bar enjoying horribly expensive glasses of champagne. If you have to ask how much the champagne costs you probably aren’t even sophisticated enough to enjoy this essay so perhaps you should go pick up a copy of Guns & Ammo and stop bothering us with your annoying questions. Over their glasses of champagne (Which represent more than a week of your wages—are you still here?) the industrialists were playing an amusing game of one-upmanship over who had out-sourced more jobs to China. They called it a draw because although one industrialist had out-sourced more jobs the other had slashed all benefits for his remaining U.S. workers. The opera was about to resume so they both poured the remainder of their sinfully expensive champagne over the head of their hapless immigrant waiter and returned to their box seats.

Did I mention that all proceeds from the Opera go to a local charity? This isn’t part of the essay but have you ever noticed that rich people always have to stage some incredibly self-congratulatory process whenever they give to a charity? They always have to put on a black tie event or a golf tournament to cough up a few pennies for a “good cause.” I would imagine that you’d have to have a pretty strong stomach to hold down your sushi if you had to listen to all of the banter that goes on at one of those events. After the event, when we read about it in the society pages, the rest of us are expected to practically fucking faint from gratitude.

This isn’t going very well, is it? I started out by trying to write a high-brow essay and now I’m about one paragraph away from exhorting the hapless immigrant waiter to rise up with his coworkers against the elite opera patrons. I’ll be the first to admit that trying to make an armed proletarian revolution funny is a pretty tall order, so I’ll back off of that one. Besides, I’ll also admit that without spell check I could never pull off a word like “guillotine.”

Maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture. Maybe the wealthy industrialists patted the immigrant waiter on his champagne-drenched head and pressed a crisp dollar bill into his palm. “Thank you, Urdiboo. Perhaps that will help you with your family back in Urdiboostan.” In his other palm the industrialists extinguished their lit cigarettes and returned to their seats. Urdiboo shoved his blistered palm into his pocket. He would savor the unfinished cigarettes when he quit working at 4 a.m. Out of gratitude, Urdiboo vowed to use part of the dollar to erect a cathedral in Urdiboostan in honor of his benefactors.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Free to Choose the Biggest

The following is a paid advertisement

The Ostensobile, with 5,000 horse power, is the biggest, loudest, most gas-guzzling internally-combusted vehicle on the planet. The Ostensobile has emissions so toxic that it makes the Bhopal disaster seem as harmless as a baby’s fart. The Ostensobile can destroy an entire wildlife habitat while idling at a traffic light. It comes in one color: Red, white, and blue. You got a problem with that, you terrorist fuck?

Not only does this car have all-wheel drive but all the wheels pull in different directions to optimize fuel inefficiency. Besides that, it has no passenger seats, so you can take your car pool idea and stick it in your tailpipe where it belongs. If you want to car pool then take the bus with all of the other loser cruisers. The USA doesn’t wage an expensive, bloody war so that we can ride the bus. Public transportation is for communists.

Perhaps we should start measuring fuel economy by how many Middle East countries we have to invade to make sure your Ostensobile is topped off with gasoline. This goes along with the military nature of the Ostensobile, a vehicle so enormous that the Environmental Protection Agency calculates its emissions as collateral damage.

But the war isn’t about oil. The war is about freedom, our freedom to drive gargantuan off-road vehicles. Small cars are for poor people and Europeans. Old, outdated Europe with its trains that run at 300 kph and its dependence on efficient city subway systems that borders on slavery. We fight to be free, free to sit in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic. Take comfort in knowing that you will be causing maximum environmental damage while you idle in traffic. Think of the Ostensobile 5000 as an internally combusted landfill or a four wheel drive strip mine.

The Ostensobile will make you feel safe because in a collision you will come out on top, grinding lesser vehicles into your wheel wells. The makers of the Ostensobile guarantee that if don’t survive no one else will either. When the Ostensobile sees that your vital signs have flat-lined it emits a cloud of toxic nerve gas which will take all of the other victims of the accident into the void along with you, as well as a few onlookers and rescue workers. That is what I call piece of mind.

Sure the Ostensobile is a disaster, but it’s your disaster and you deserve it. What better way to show the world that you are successful than by showing your complete contempt for the environment, and the best way to do that is to drive this 3 ton leviathan. What good is it to be successful if you can’t say “Fuck you” to everyone else on the planet? Say it by driving the Ostensobile 5000.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

I, Pontiff

It looks like the pope is finally a goner. I had my suspicions that he had been dead for years and the Vatican elite was pulling some sort of Weekend at Bernie’s stunt with the carcass of John Paul. I never watched Weekend at Bernie’s II or whatever the fuck the sequel was called, I don’t think that I even saw the end of the first one, so perhaps the Papal charade has finally come unglued and it’s time to get another figurehead.

Soon it will be time to choose a new leader of the Catholic Church, a new man to preach against contraception in over-populated Latin American countries and against the use of condoms in a world ravaged by AIDS. It’s time for a new leader to tell the world to “pray for peace” while the church has allied itself with despots and tyrants whenever that course has served the financial goals of Catholicism. We need a new Pontiff to carry on the centuries-old misogyny of the church in Rome.

The election of a new Pope is a ritual of this Dark Ages religion that goes back to the time of the Renaissance—an epoch that the Church never fully accepted. The Cardinals lock themselves into the Sistine Chapel with only bread, water, a case of Viagra, and a Cub Scout troop and they don’t leave until they have elected their new leader (but they often send out for another Cub Scout troop). The election is a grueling process of deliberation and Cub Scout conga lines that ends when the new Pontiff has been selected. A puff of gray smoke emerges from the Sistine Chapel and only then does the cleaning crew enter the cathedral and the exhausted but happy cardinals return to the Vatican. After a short hospitalization and subsequent Vatican debriefing, the cub scouts return to their homes where they all undoubtedly reconsider their thoughts about becoming altar boys.

I have e-mailed my resume directly to the Sistine Chapel so that I may be considered for the position of Pope of the Catholic Church. As a former Catholic I don’t see why I shouldn’t be considered even though I have a few strikes against me. For one, I was absolutely the world’s worst Catholic. I can never remember a time when I believed anything that I was taught about religion. Baby Jesus? Sure, man, whatever you say. Heaven and Hell? No thanks, but if it works for you then go knock yourself out. Church on Sunday? That sort of conflicted with the Marx Brothers movies they played on TV when I was a kid. I’d tell my parents that I was going to the early mass and go play baseball for an hour. Then I’d hang out with my buddies laughing my ass off to Groucho’s one-liners while the folks were praying or whatever it was they did at church. I was always in too much of a bored stupor to pray while I was there.

I was actually an altar boy back in the day. I was the world’s fucking worst altar boy if memory serves me. There was no corn-holing of little boys in my parish. The kids survived although I’m sure a few of the priests needed psychological counseling after dealing with me and my hoodlum friends. My favorite gag as an altar boy was when we helped the priest during the communion service. As the priest put the host into the mouth of the kneeling parishioner, my job was to hold a plate under their chin in the event that the host fell out insuring that the “body of Christ” didn’t unceremoniously hit the floor. When my hoodlum buddies came up for communion I would push the plate against their throats to make them choke on the dry host wafer. A bit juvenile and stupid but what do you want from a fourth grader?

I would only volunteer to be an altar boy for the cool high masses like maybe Easter or Christmas. When you worked that mass you were supposed to be the altar boy for the following weekday masses which began at 7 a.m. 7 a.m. Sure Father, let me put that in my palm pilot so I don’t forget. Needless to say that the exigencies of fourth grade life prevented me from ever showing up for one of the 7 a.m. shifts. I figured that the priests were big boys and could handle it on their own. The responsibility would be good for them.

So I think I have a good shot at being elected as the new Pope. If I’m elected I am going to change the clothes he wears, I mean come on, you’re in fucking Italy. Wear some cool clothes. There will be some big changes in the church. I won’t go into all of the details but let me just say that I already have some major investors in my churches-to-nightclubs idea. If I am Pope all of the child sex scandals will end immediately but nun consensual sex scandals will explode.

If I don't make Pope then how about Michael Jackson? He likes funny clothes and little boys so he's completely qualified.

Friday, February 04, 2005

A Few More Thoughts on City Life

I thought that the comments to my previous essay were outstanding and deserved to be posted here in the text of this page. The whole urban/suburban issue is extremely complex and I often come across as flip, but I think that the important thing is that we are at least having the discussion in the first place instead of blindly plowing ahead without any sort of dialogue. Less than 10 years ago the downtown area of Seattle was a lot less of an inviting place to live than it is today. The change was brought about by aggressive zoning laws that encouraged a mix of residential and commercial buildings. The street floor of all new apartments and condos now has to include space for businesses. In the six years that I have lived in downtown Seattle there has been a tremendous expansion in population density. With this density has come a host of new businesses. The city block that I mentioned in the last essay was built during this expansion and represents one of the best uses of a city block that you will find in Seattle.

I am not suggesting that everyone live in a city but I do think that more people need to consider it. A lot of problems that readers have pointed out concerning city life are the direct result of people in this country abandoning the cities over the past 40 years. It is hard to think of a large American city that didn’t experience decay during the past generation. In the short time I have lived in Seattle I have witnessed the revitalization of the downtown area. We voted on a mass transit system that should begin construction soon. High rise apartments spring from vacant lots, new businesses appear, choices increase. Seattle should be a model for other beleaguered cities across America.


The comments from the previous essay:

I have lived in a small town, the suburbs, and a large urban center. I cannot ever imagine living anywhere else but a large urban center any more. But that's just me. -Matt


Downtown Seattle is my Walden Pond. I love it. -Management

#3

We get out eggs from a local farm and no two of them are the same shape or color. They range from beige to light blue and some are so big the carton can't be closed.
They are delicious. The yolks have an intense color and flavor unmatched by any egg I've ever had from a store, including the expensive, 'free-range organic' variety.

Now, on those occasions when we do buy eggs from the store, I can't help but wonder how they get their chickens to lay eggs so uniform in size and color, and short of any problems closing the lid, why such uniformity is desirable. The store eggs are uniformly bland. In our house, they get used for baking only, never for eating.

In our quest for uniformity, consistency and fungibility in all things, we seem to be squeezing the flavor out of life. What do we get in return for that? - kevin m.

#4

I lived in a city for 5 years - my apartment was too small and too expensive. For whatever reason I didn’t get to know really anyone in the building.

I moved to the suburbs and was able to afford a much nicer place in a nice neighborhood. Its quiet and I know all the neighbors - we have cook outs during the summer. I work from home for a high-tech company so no commuting for me - most of my necessities are fulfilled nearby. I go into the city rarely.

For me the fresh air and open space of suburban life coupled with a nice area to live and pleasant neighbors worked better. I have a 6 month old son and the idea of allowing him to run around outside without fear of traffic is nice. And I am married so hitting the bars and the nightclubs isn’t that interesting to me anymore. You suggest this isn’t sustainable however I just don’t see it (comparisons to ancient Norsemen are easily refuted - I have plumbing after all). With telecommuting becoming more popular the place you live is less important than perhaps access to broadband internet.

The "sameness" you mention is a bit exaggerated - a New England town in New Hampshire (Plymouth for example) feels so different to me than Fort Lauderdale. And the difference between them and the neighborhoods of Chicago land are night and day. I think you overstate the argument - I used to travel every week for 6 years to a different place depending on the client and I was always surprised by the differences.

I admit I see the allure to the building you mention - however I really enjoy waking up, brewing a cup of Joe and going out to my deck with the nearby stream bubbling by and breathing in the morning air before I start my day. I don’t miss city life - although I do dress up once in a while for a night on the town (not in the last 6 months though). I would suggest that the suburban lifestyle still has legs - maybe not on the west coast where they have reeeeally taken urban sprawl to new heights - but there are plenty of areas where it works.

If I need sushi - I'll go out for it. - Marty

#5

Part I

Marty makes some nice points to defend the suburban lifestyle, but I would counter that living in the city isn't just about bars and clubs and picking up chicks. There's live theatre, the symphony, superb non-franchise restaurants, cafes, galleries, museums, professional sports teams, and a whole host of other cultural outlets that the suburbs do not—and will never—have, and certainly not as accessible to them as in the city. I can walk to more cultural outlets within a few city blocks from my house than Marty has within a twenty square-mile radius from his home.

Perhaps you don't go out as much, Marty, mainly because you do not care to, but also because to reach the better places to go it's just not worth the long drive, the hassle, paying for parking, and etc. I think suburban living ultimately makes people live their lives from their homes for their cultural outlets, making cable television, video movies and gaming, and the Internet the primary cultural activities of suburban dwellers. Or when you venture from the home you have to drive fairly long distances to reach even the most basic necessities.

Obviously this is a generalization, but I do know in my own life that my city-dwelling friends watch much less TV and go out way more than my suburban friends. Moreover, we city dwellers drive less, if at all; not much of my life is spent in gridlock. All of my suburban and country-dwelling friends complain every day about the awful one-to-two-hour commute on the highways and byways of suburban Philly. Meanwhile my commute consists of my sitting on a train, sipping coffee, and reading the Philadelphia Inquirer or New Yorker. When I get to work I am already at peace, while the private vehicle drivers are already stressed because some idiot cut them off or ran a stoplight and nearly crashed into them.

So how Marty defines what makes his life interesting and peaceful and happy is that he likes to stay at home with his family and not venture out much beyond his suburban enclave. And that's cool. I am not one to try to tell people how to live. We all have our personal preferences. Judging from his excellent articulation of what makes his life tick, I’d say Marty has a good grip on life and I’d be hard pressed to challenge him on that point. Far be it from me to judge how another chooses to live.

However, I think Leftbanker's point goes beyond lifestyle issues.

Because anyone with even a little bit of common sense can step back and see that this way of living wastes land, resources, and energy. It’s crazy. At some point in the future it is going to collapse, and the cost to fix it at that time will be thousands of times greater than if we start planning and changing—and spending—now. But first we have to recognize the pitfalls and admit there are problems.

Personally, when I lived in the country or in the suburbs, while it was nice and quiet, it was also boring and I had to drive everywhere to more or less do nothing, because there was really nothing around worth doing. I didn’t want to spend a vast majority of my life sitting in a car, stuck in traffic, with the probability increasing that I’d be one of the 40,000 Americans who die in car crashes every year. So I practically ran to the city.

Like I said in the first comment, I am not one to claim cultural superiority to my way of living. But there are some serious issues with suburban sprawl that we first must admit exist, and secondly must figure out how to fix, and thirdly come to the conclusion that it is just not a sustainable way to live for the future for all Americans.

Sometimes in America we choke on our own hubris and enthusiasm and egocentric outlook. These qualities make America great but can also lead to great peril if left unchecked. Like the Vikings in Greenland. - Matt

#8

\\ lived in a city for 5 years - my apartment was too small and too expensive.\\

A reasonable retort would be to argue that perhaps the high cost of city apartments is due primarily to the fact that too few of them are built, energy going into the big new sprawl-divisions in outlying areas. If more effort were put into city spaces, then perhaps costs would come down...

\\For me the fresh air and open space of suburban life coupled with a nice area to live and pleasant neighbors worked better.\\

Again, more a flaw of modern urban "planning" than city life itself. Parks don't generate appealing tax revenues, so they're often left out or neglected in planning phases. Although I'm sure anyone who lives in a decent city will tell you how wonderful their park systems are.

[I know some people would complain about parks, saying how much they don't like them or don't like being bothered by all the people, but those people then, I would argue, will never be part of the solution. Having theirs is obviously their dominant value [i.e. my own private yard v. a public park; private car v. public transportation] and they'll never be happy with a solution to this very pressing problem.]

Hugh

#9

My downtown apartment is small, old, and fairly expensive—at least when you compare it to an apartment out in the suburbs. One way to more than make up for the money spent on rent is to do without a car. Out of the 54 units in my building I would say less than 20% of the tenants have a vehicle. Living without a car is all but impossible if you live outside the city limits. You certainly don’t need much of a car if you live where I live because you probably won’t drive very much. Basic transportation I think is what they call it. The driving environment in the city is much less intense than in the sprawl areas surrounding Seattle.

I will admit that the urban area of Seattle isn’t very kid-friendly but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are lots of kids in Amsterdam, Madrid, London, New York, and Paris and those can be wonderful places for children. I’ll never forget one time walking through a gallery at the Louvre and coming upon a class of French grade school kids being lectured on Renaissance sculpture techniques. Their teacher had a collection of the actual tools used by the masters. I never had a field trip to the fucking Louvre growing up in a small town.

I don’t claim to have any of the answers on this whole urban/suburban issue; all I want is to start asking the right questions. Once we have the right questions we can then come up with a host of solutions before some archaeologist is sifting through our ruins determining where our culture made the wrong choices and failed to sustain itself. - Management

Yo Matty Poo,
The city is cool, but the school system in Philly is the pits. And, I mean armpit stinky! Both of my neighbors have taught at various downtown schools for more than 30 years. They say the kids are getting more and more difficult to teach and that parents are becoming less and less involved with their kid's educations. Their pay scale is also much lower than it is here in the burbs. So, they are not rewarded generously for teaching under sometimes very stressful circumstances.

They both had to move out of their beloved city twins because the Germantown section in which they lived has become so crime ridden. My grandmother also lived there many years ago and decided to escape to this town 10 minutes west, after her place was robbed.

And it does sound an awful lot like you are chastising Marty for his lifestyle preference. This discussion shouldn't be about city vs. suburbs vs. country. It should be how about how society as a whole can better design of all of the above landscapes and the transportation modes to improve both safety, air quality and space issues.

We all have the same basic forms of entertainment at our disposal, minus great live theater and upscale restaurants in the burbs and country. I commute downtown by train from the Noble station in Jenkintown and can enjoy plenty of culture in just a very short train ride. I began making this trip downtown several times a week with my girlfriends in high school and we had a blast. The city is a hot place to party and shop, etc and I still go downtown on occasion to dance at clubs with my girlfriends. - Jessica

#11

I think it’s also a generalization for you to say that people in the burbs stay home more often. The only reason that may be somewhat true is because there are more single people downtown that have the freedom to go out on the town whenever they choose. Those of us that are raising a family have to hire a babysitter to be able to go out and party.

I would also bet that city people spend just as much time online as those of us a few minutes outside of the city. Most downtown and suburban people take their laptops with them to cafes nowadays.

What about those that have vertigo and cannot imagine living in a high rise situation? What about the fire hazards that these buildings can pose? What about elevator malfunctions and noisy neighbors? What about the fact that cities are usually a beautiful metropolis surrounded by ignored slums? What about the fact that there is heavy noise and air pollution downtown? People have more asthma and anxiety attacks that live in the city. People are also at a much greater risk to be mugged or raped downtown. In my own experiences on the Temple and University of Penn campuses I have faced these very scary issues. I never felt afraid and no one ever tried to attack me at the Penn State Abington Campus.

I do not propose that the suburb is crime free, but incidents are certainly much less frequent. I am also friends with police officers that work both in various sections of the city, as well as the suburbs. The guys around here have a whole lot more free time and much less to complain about.

I also can speak of my experiences with inner city kids at proms and inside the walls of their schools. A lot of them speak very poor English and have even worse manners. My dad’s company has also never been robbed doing jobs in the suburban areas, but downtown must hire an off duty police officer to protect the money box.
- Jessica

#12

Many sections of Philadelphia are also guilty of being a trash ridden mess. Every time that I go to watch a sporting event, concert or go to a club or restaurant, I notice that there is trash galore sitting on the side of the road. Delaware Avenue is atrocious at times. Why is this a chronic problem in the city, but not in the suburbs?

I do love the city of Philadelphia but it needs a lot of help to feel like an appealing, wholesome, safe place to live for families. Maybe if cars weren’t a part of our lives that would help. But there are many other issues involved.

I'm going to have to read John Raulston Saul's book to satisfy my curiosity and to educate myself. I realize that there will be space issues in the future. People in America continue to buy bigger and bigger homes and vehicles. I’m not sure why people cannot live in a more modest more manageable, less of a tax hog home. The wealthy end up selling off and paring down as they get older. But even at 30, I have no need for 3 guest rooms and 10 bathrooms.

Society needs to examine its desire to over consume stuff, as well as space.

Jessica

#13

Wow - you make it seem like the only things worth doing happen in the city. Really isn’t true. I live about 5 miles from the local town - which is tiny by most standards. I am about 15 miles from the nearest city (within that 20 mile sq radius you mention) and about an hour from nearest metropolis. I would argue that since I view the city center as a comfortable drive I am far more able to experience a true variety of activities than a city dweller who is typically more contained to a few city blocks - and I doubt a city dweller will head out to the country on a regular basis when s/he views driving as such a pain (and perhaps they don’t see the benefit?). I can go into the city for the events you describe - or go to the local farm to pick up fresh food (there is actually a fresh food market down the road from me that sells fresh produce grown on their farm - the excess is sold to the local Wal-Mart). I go to AAA ball games- if you have never gone to a AAA baseball game I highly recommend it since they spend Far more time catering to fans than they do at pro games (pro games are bit too expensive and hyped up anyway) . A nearby horse farm allows for horseback lessons/riding and we have a water park near here too for water events (big slide, swimming ...). For those of you in cities without cars you really are confined to the city and have no chance of experiencing the countryside.

The town has tons of regularly scheduled events year round - as does the neighborhood in which I live. In addition there are plenty of healthy outdoor activities which do not require a city - yes including bike riding. Plenty of City folk lock themselves in their apartments and are stressed out by :
Loud neighbors (upstairs / on both sides)being yelled at by neighbors for being loud
crowds.

Don’t get me wrong - I did enjoy parts of living in the city - ironically at the time though my employer moved OUT of the city into the suburbs. Which meant I had a reverse commute - very frustrating. And this is very common - Chicago had a raft of employers leave the city and relocate to the suburbs to accommodate a larger suburban worker community, cheaper land and room to expand. The room to expand is often the driving requirement for moving businesses out of city centers.

40,000 may die in car crashes (probably many of them in cities!) but city life is no safe haven - crime rates tend to be higher in cities. Pick your poison. I understand that unchecked suburban sprawl leads to significant problems. Doesn’t mean suburbs are evil - planned growth needs to be a major focus for any city council and can and does lead to a pleasant environment.

I do appreciate the fact that there is a large city nearby - I get a lot out of that without having to actually live there. I do prefer living with a bit more space around me - I much prefer the scenery of the suburbs with its manicured lawns and trees, to the often dull grey of city streets. To be honest though, having said all that, if it were cheaper to live in the city than in the suburbs I might do it again - the advantages mentioned are not without appeal. It definitely is NOT cheaper though - from taxes to property values to incidental costs city living is just more expensive. When that turns around I would bet you would see an urban migration - before then don’t hold your breath. - Marty

#15

I don’t want to argue over whether one lifestyle is superior to the other; I am asking which one is more sustainable. I’m sure the Vikings in Greenland thought that raising cattle was superior to the fishing done by the native Inuits but livestock wasn’t a wise choice in that eco-system. As attractive as a 5,000 sq ft home with a half acre of property may seem, it is not a viable option for a large segment of our population in the future. We need to address these issues related to growth as soon as possible or we could go the way of ancient Greenland. - Management

#17

I'm not sure either model is more sustainable the way they are currently designed. Both have positive and negative aspects.

I agree whole heartedly that using several thousand square feet and having a football field for a yard for a single family is ridiculous. It's as ludicrous as driving a Hummer if you're not in the military or driving through the outback.
I just want to point out that you and Mat are both single men and the city is a viable option for single men. However, most American cities are not particularly family friendly living situations.
I’m proud to be an American, but my northern European roots are still a big part of who I am. I think that Holland and Sweden are countries with more forward ideas about remodeling and changing things for a better future. - Jessica

OK - the Viking comparison needs to be rethought. To compare today’s economic drivers to the trials and tribulations of ancient cultures can lead to wild conclusions. Greenland is a harsh inhospitable climate that SHOULD have been called Iceland - the fact the Vikings didn’t quite make it is nothing less than ... well ... expected. Proclaiming the end of civilization as we know it because I live in the suburbs and proving this with analogies to the ancient Vikings in Greenland is quite a stretch. - Marty

#19

I've been tempted to move to NYC more than once, but a weekend visit, fun as it is, usually cures me of that. For the same money we're spending now to own a 1,900sq ft house on 2 acres, we could afford to rent a crappy two-bedroom walkup in Brooklyn under the BQE. Ugh.

I agree with you about the suburban lifestyle not being sustainable, but Americans always opt for more value for their money, and that's why so many of us live outside of cities. Oh, and to get away from the smell of piss, if memory serves. - Kevin


#20
I live paycheck-to-paycheck in a Dominican neighborhood of Manhattan, and I feel I'm getting more bang for the buck than I'd be getting in the 'burbs. Why? Well, because I get to witness things like a Latino kid with his little Japanese friend, bicycling over to the Latino kid's mom to ask if the Japanese kid can come over later, in English -- even though he doesn't have to -- just so that his friend will understand what he's saying. I've never seen that in the suburbs or the country.

A homeless man on the subway once offered me banjo pointers for nothing in return except conversation. He said his own banjo was "still out in Iowa". I've never seen a man light up so -- let alone a man who doesn't know where his next meal will be coming from -- and I've certainly never seen that in the suburbs.

Sometimes I, myself, don't even know where my next meal will come from, but I do know that when I walk out my door, there will be hordes of three-generation families conversing on every stoop I pass between here and the subway, and that any single one of them would take me in for dinner without batting an eye, if the need arose. How many electronic fences would I have to scale in the suburbs for that to happen, only to be mistaken for a GameBoy villain & shot at by junior with daddy's hunting rifle?

I don't have or need a car, but it's true that my family is within a two-hour train-ride upstate. And whenever I visit them, I'm disconcerted by the new BestBuy that's gone up, or the extended WalMart parking lot laid down where some farmer's cows used to graze.

Kevin, the smell of piss is harder to come by nowadays, as the poor & homeless are being crowded into tinier & tinier projects and neighborhoods. Those who dare to venture out of their cages to mark their territory are quietly whisked away and numbed down with meds until they've accepted their fate, or until a luxury hi-rise can be completed on the vacant lot in which they used to set up camp.

The scent of piss isn't what's responsible for the skyrocketing rents. You can blame l'eau de riche for that. I'll take the scent of piss over that any day. - Bess