31 January 2007

What Will Never Cease to Amaze Me

I've reconciled myself to the fact that most smokers don't seem to regard their cigarette butts as trash, but instead throw them on the sidewalk or in the street when they've taken their last puff. (Though I was incredibly touched recently, when out with some guys from work I discovered that they'd all taken up smoking -- that wasn't the touching part; they were all over-stressed from working late nights and weekends -- and when they were done with their cigarettes, they each of them walked to the nearest trash can, stubbed it out, and put it in.)

I'm even over the fact that people spit their gum out on the sidewalk, leaving it to be stepped in by the next person who walks by. The black blobs the size of a Oreo you see on every sidewalk, street and subway platform? Those are all from people spitting out their gum. Don't ever contemplate how many there are; on an average block there are hundreds. If I were capable of being amazed by this, I would be amazed that a) so many people chew gum in the first place, and b) that so many people think it's okay to spit it out where they stand rather than wait to get to a trash can, of which there is one on practically every street corner. Oh, you say you have a job interview in this building in the middle of the block, and you're worried there won't be a place to throw out your gum before you get up to reception? That's what the tissue in your pocket is for. Or the corner torn from one of the five extra copies of your resume you brought with you, which, I can assure you, no one in that office building will want to see.

But I'm, uh, over that. No, the thing that will never cease to amaze me is that smokers, when they have taken their last puff will not only throw the butt on the sidewalk, but fling it out to the side, or behind them (as happened to me on my walk to work today, and yes, I realize that not everyone does this), still lit.

Don't mind me, or my coat, or my hand, or my EYE, Mr. Smoker Man. You just get that butt away from you as fast and as far as you can.

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30 January 2007

This Has Been a Metropolitan Diary Moment

Sunday afternoon, the M72 bus after a few hours of sale shopping. We're stopped at the corner of 66th and Fifth, waiting for the light to change, to turn into the park, homeward. On the opposite corner, a group of five nuns wait for the light to change as well. I didn't know there were young American nuns anymore, but there they are, in their long black-and-white habits, laughing, having fun on their afternoon off. I look down at my black-and-white Barneys bags; my afternoon off cost me $159.

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Time to Get the Donuts

My excellent graphic designer at work, Chris, is leaving today. We have only been able to give him two days of work a week for the last year, and oddly enough, that wasn't enough for him to live on. I'll miss him. Working in an engineering firm as a non-engineer, I am always speaking a second language, one I learned too late to be completely fluent in. But having worked in publishing for a long time, I understand designers, and Chris and I have a good rapport. He understood what I wanted; he always took everything in a direction I could never have thought of on my own; he inspired me with his focus and discipline in a chaotic environment.

The only thing Chris complained about was that, since he didn't work on Fridays, he felt he was missing out on the donuts that sometimes appear in offices on the last morning of the week. We're not really that kind of office, the donut-in-the-kitchen-on-Friday kind, but for his last day, I decided we could be.

Where was there a Dunkin' Donuts near my office? Despite their popping up all over the place in the last few years, I never go into them. I have a weakness for donuts; if I told myself I was just going in for a coffee, I'd inevitably come out with a Bavarian Kreme as well. I keep my donut consumption to two a year by just pretending they don't exist.

I looked on the Dunkin' Donuts website, and would you believe that there's no direct mention of donuts on it, apart from the name? It focuses on their coffee, where it comes from, how you can buy it online, what kind of subscription services they offer. In tiny type on the upper right hand corner, you can click on "nutrition." The chocolate donut I just finished eating had 270 calories, less than I would have suspected. I hope they weren't sneakily claiming that one donut is actually two servings.

There was a long line at the Dunkin' Donuts on Eighth Avenue and 36th Street. Most people were just getting coffee, but a few tacked on a low-fat blueberry muffin to their order. None of the 10 people ahead of me ordered a donut, and when it was my time to order, I felt a little self conscious about it. Everything is fast in Manhattan, but nothing so fast as the morning coffee line, and I was about to slow it down by deliberating over a half-dozen donuts. Jelly, fine; glazed, fine; what kind of donuts do people in the office like? Too much pressure. I ended up asking for three chocolate glazed in the end, just because I could feel the people on line behind me going into caffeine withdrawal.

My friend Marianne volunteers at The Adaptive Design Association, which occupies a street-level space on 36th Street, just around the corner from the Dunkin' Donuts. (I've written about them before.) I knew they were there, but was still surprised when I passed their window, which had on display several of the cardboard chairs and stools that they make for children with physical disabilities. Also on display was the tiny chair Marianne had given me to paint for the ADA to auction. If you're passing by, it's painted to look like a park bench, with flowers at the base. The label tells you that it is for sale for $150, and that it was painted by an artist. Considering how I've been feeling about being a non-engineer in an engineering firm lately, seeing that was a nice way to start the day. That, and the chocolate donut.

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17 January 2007

Two Minutes to Go

The Doomsday Clock has been moved forward for the first time in two years. We are now at 11:55pm.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists invented the clock in 1947, as a symbolic representation of the danger the world faced from major man-made catastrophe, namely nuclear war. If we get to midnight, it's because the world done blowed itself up.

In 1947, near the beginning of the Cold War and its concomitant arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the clock's big hand stood at 11:53. The closest it has come to midnight was in 1953, when both countries tested nuclear weapons. The Atomic Scientists then set it forward to 11:58.

The clock has moved forward and back over the years. The earliest it has been was 11:43 in 1991, when the US and USSR signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the official end of the Cold War. 1998's nuclear bomb tests by India and Pakistan and the United States' withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, among other things, brought the clock forward to 11:53, where it had started back at the beginning.

These two minutes announced today are the result not only of increased nuclear instability in the world -- North Korea, Iran, the U.S. and former-Soviet Union's non-diminishing stockpiles -- but of global warming.

So, for 60 years, this group of concerned scientists has assessed the main threat to the world's safety in terms of nuclear weapons, which, even in the democratic United States most people don't have any control over. But today they tell us that we're two minutes closer to total destruction in part because of climate change brought about by our own ordinary daily lives. Tick tick tick.


15 January 2007


Shamu is back.

Last June, the New York Times published an article in their weekly Modern Love column: What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriageby Amy Sutherland, who had recently written a book about exotic animal training.

Within a few hours, it was at the top of their "most emailed" list. Modern Love columns frequently make brief appearances on the list -- this week's I Fell For a Man Who Wore an Electronic Ankle Bracelet isn't there yet, but it may be before the day is out -- but fall off after a day or two, replaced by Baby-Boomer health news and righteous editorials decrying the latest Bush Administration outrage.

Not so with Shamu. It remained number one on the list for nearly the entire summer, inspiring countless blog postings, and at least one radio program devoted to its idea.

Which is this: that husbands can be trained out of bad behaviors, and into good ones, by applying the principles used by exotic animal trainers. Your husband doing the dishes, a seal jumping through a hoop -- same thing.

Most of the conversations I had about the article dismissed the idea entirely, and for good reason. Contemporary marriages are supposed to be built on communication and respect. Those things might be undermined if one of you suddenly becomes the star in a SeaWorld show. Have we made no progress at all, or are we stuck in the '50s?

One of Sutherland's approaches is "least reinforcing syndrome," which is essentially not having a reaction when an animal (or a person) does something you don't like; ignore it and it will go away. Which might be okay if your husband is in a different room from you when he's ranting about his lost keys, but across the dinner table, can you imagine? A blank stare when he says something that annoys you? This is the basis of a good marriage?

Shamu has reappeared at the top of the most-emailed list six months after it was first published; I'm not sure why. Maybe the author has written something else that links to it. But I don't think people are sending it to their friends for the inanity factor alone. Aren't we all trying, all the time, everyday, to figure out how relationships work? That's all life is, in the end. Can I make you understand what I want, will understanding what I want make you act in the the way I want you to, and if not, can we at least agree on what we don't agree on and where do we go from here?

But that kind of rational discourse is the ideal. In reality, when you live with someone, they never wash the dishes the way you want them to, or, if you don't care about dishes, it's the pile of mail on the desk, or letting the cat jump on the kitchen table, or staying up too late, or getting up too early, or why don't you just do everything the way I do it because I love you but my way is right and yours is wrong.

Anything that purports to have a solution to these everyday annoyances -- and friends who have been married for as many as ten years say they never go away -- is worth reading, right? But secretly, I think there are more people who think there's something to the animal-training approach to marital harmony, as risible as it is, than are comfortable admitting it. Which says... something.


11 January 2007

No-fly zone?

Now that we've had two sub-freezing days in a row, I've been thinking about how nice it would be to take a vacation somewhere warm. I'm sure I'm not the only one. Macy's has changed their windows from Christmas to bikinis overnight.

But to get anywhere warm, I'd have to fly. I'm not a big flier. Last year, I took one plane trip, to Denver to see my college roommate. The year before, I went to Puerto Rico in February. The year before that was London. In the years before that, I flew frequently for work as well as vacation, to Africa, to L.A., to Pittsburgh. That last was most definitely for work, though I'm sure Pittsburgh has charms that were hidden from me.

Last summer, the Bishop of London called air travel sinful and urged people not to fly for any other than emergency reasons. A recent estimate by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in Manchester estimated that 7% of Britain's pollution is caused by airplane emissions (in the United States, it's closer to 10%), which may not seem that high, but there's evidence that high-altitude emissions affect climate change differently from those made on the ground, and forecasts for air travel in Europe are that it will increase substantially in the next 20 years.

How do you define an emergency? Attending your mother's funeral? Checking into the Mayo Clinic for heart surgery? Lying on the beach in the Caribbean for a week to reduce your stress to the point where you won't kill your boss? I'm fortunate that I don't have to travel for work anymore -- it's exhausting and disorienting after a while -- but if any one of the people in my company who do suddenly announced they weren't going to fly anymore, his job would be in immediate jeopardy.

I want to go back to Africa. I haven't been to Italy since I was in college and every time I watch A Room with a View or The Godfather, I have to restrain myself from booking a flight immediately. I've long wanted to visit New Orleans, and it seems like right now would be the ideal time: they need the tourist income, and after a few more bad hurricane seasons, it might be impossible to visit ever again.

I can buy carbon offsets to ease my conscience a bit, but how directly they mitigate the climate effects of flying is debatable. I imagine my finances won't allow for more than one far-flung trip a year in any event. I'm not ready to give up flying altogether. But I do think it's worth thinking about and maybe taking a closer look at the Amtrak routes.


08 January 2007

Piecing it together

I first smelled the burning rubber -- or maybe it was spilt gasoline -- on the 2 train between 42nd and 34th Streets. The entire block of 34th Street from Eighth to Ninth Avenues was evacuated as I walked past on the way to my office on Tenth; people were too calm for it to be anything life threatening, but the smell persisted. A co-worker's F train was diverted to the A line. My 10am appointment was flustered because his building on 32nd and Broadway was full of firefighters and the rubber/gasoline smell. A woman fainted and was carried out on a stretcher.

OK, what's going on?

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06 January 2007

How you know it's January

This was the scene just an hour ago in Central Park. Notice all the bare legs? The temperature got up to 74 degrees today. This is the first week of January, people.

Fortunately, there aren't any leaves on the trees, otherwise I'd have had to keep reminding myself I didn't move to Los Angeles or fall asleep until May.

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Things move really fast

Until recently, there was a supermarket on this corner, 100th and Columbus. Recently meaning, oh, a few weeks ago. It wasn't a supermarket I shopped at; none of the stores that were part of this now-demolished complex were. But probably the people who live in the Frederick Douglas housing project catty-corner to it, and the people who live in the Mitchell-Lama building next to it, did. Its place will be taken, no doubt, by yet another high-rise condominium, which, really, do we need this?

Apparently we do, because the church around the corner from me whose charming bells I hear every half hour sold its own retail complex -- which included a rug store and a tae kwan do studio, neither of which I'll miss -- for the same purpose. They're still demolishing it.

I wonder how long it will take the church to sell this vacant lot? Are there really going to be enough people to buy all these condos? I don't want them -- the people -- in my neighborhood. I don't want them waiting with me on the subway platform, shoving me out of the way in the tiny produce section at Gourmet Garage, making my Chinese food delivery 15, instead of 10, minutes away, because they're ordering from the same restaurant.

I realize progress is still defined by growth, and if Mayor Bloomberg's prediction that our city will be bigger by 1 million people by 2030, those people are going to have to live somewhere. I hope they open another Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood by then.

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02 January 2007

New Year's Resolutions

I love making New Year's Resolutions. Mine are usually of the go-to-yoga-find-volunteer-work-remember-people's-birthday variety, and I have the usual sort of success with them, which is to say: moderate at best.

But I do think spending a little time taking stock of our lives, and at least thinking about making changes, even if those changes never make it past the planning phase, is a worthwhile exercise. How else would we know what to feel vaguely guilty about when we're sitting on the couch watching Veronica Mars instead of doing something productive and world changing?

Last year, my resolution, such as it was, was to stop being ambivalent about everything. I needed to commit to my job or leave it; seriously pursue a long-term relationship or stop bitching about not having one; finish the book I started writing three (now four) years ago, or give it up; move to Brooklyn if I wanted a bedroom or stay in Manhattan with a Murphy Bed.

My success rate has been 50% -- I've got Manhattan and the man, but am still torturing myself about the job and the book.

Since I've still got those two to gnaw on, I decided that this year I would make only one new resolution, and that one is: to stop using exclamation points in email to relative strangers (thanks for your help!), just because I want to make sure they know I'm being nice, not sarcastic (thanks for your help, bitch).

Why this one? It encompasses so many others. I know my thanks are genuine. I should have enough confidence in my powers of communication to know that they are being conveyed without resorting to punctuational theatrics. I don't believe in using exclamation points, except in an emergency, so why should I compromise my belief system, on the off chance that another person might feel bad? I should be who I am, and not worry so much about the impression I'm creating. As it happens, it's a false impression, or at least, I would like to think it's a false impression. I do not want to be seen as a glibly enthusiastic person, and an exclamation point at the end of an email is one step away from a inspirational quotation in your sig file, and only slightly better than a smiley.

OK, so it's a little dorky and over-precise. But unlike finishing the book, or figuring out what to do about my job, this is a resolution I think I can keep.

Resolutions considered that didn't make the cut, but that I might give a thought to trying now and then:

1. Tidy desk before leaving the office at night;
2. Drink office coffee rather than buy cup at the downstairs deli;
3. Walk to work 2-3 times/week;
4. Replace all household cleaners and cosmetics with organic versions of same;
5. Pitch article to Seventeen or similar on real careers high school girls should be thinking about
6. Do only one thing at a time, well, especially at work, even if it means getting less done;
7. Watch Netflix dvds within a day or two of their arrival; and of course,
8. Go to yoga;
9. Find volunteer work; and
10. Remember people's birthdays.

Black Tuesday

The BBC World Service reported this morning on "Black Tuesday," and since the BBC broadcasts from London, they weren't referring to October 29, 1929, but rather the first day back to work after the long holiday, i.e., today. Most people in England had nearly two solid weeks off, and coming back to their day-to-day lives after the expenses, physical, emotional and financial, of Christmas and New Year's, is, according to the BBC, in a word: depressing.

Well, duh.

Apparently today is a bumper day for divorce lawyers, credit counselors and car mechanics in England. I only had a few days off, but looking back over the last few weeks, all I can see is a blur of parties, booze and fancy chocolates. And my family. I somewhat managed to stick to my budget for presents, so the January credit card bill won't be a surprise, but there's no way I'm getting on the scale.