July 18, 2010

The Times does it again

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 1:28 am by chavisory

It’s funny the things you miss when you’re in tech and preview week for a new musical….like a Times article that scores spectacularly in not one but two of my big journalistic pet peeve departments: picking bad poster children, and grossly mischaracterizing the Millennial generation.

The article is “American Dream is Elusive for New Generation.”  It profiles Scott Nicholson, who supposedly has been fruitlessly looking for work for two years out of college.  The only problem?

He hasn’t been.  He received an offer for, and turned down, a $40,000 per year job with an insurance company, because he thought it was a dead-end job.  Still living with his parents (and thus not worrying about rent) and sending out a handful of resumes per week, he also started a small lawn-mowing and garden business to pay some of his living expenses.  He’s had a good shot at at least two jobs in two years:  the insurance job which he thought was beneath him, or expanding the lawn and garden freelancing (the article says he’s got half a dozen clients, which would seem to me to portend the potential for further success).  He hasn’t struck out in the job market at all; he’s failed to find a job straight out of college that will provide him with the easy success and standard of living he’d come to take for granted.

I don’t want to pile on to Scott too much more; I think he’s an entitled brat, but over 1400 comments on the original article have now eloquently pointed that out to him, and the fact that his name will be forever linked to this article and the picture he painted of himself in Google’s search algorithms is probably going to prove more than sufficient reproof.  I want to discuss some of the problems with his kind of lazy reporting and the responses it engenders, its effects on the rest of us, and how–in spite of itself–it points to what we really need to do.

The comments on the story were really fascinating, and I dare say more enlightening than the article itself, and they almost all fell into one of these categories:

1.  Scott’s a spoiled brat who needs to learn that no work is beneath him in times like this.
2.  This just proves what I always knew, that Millennials are entitled narcissistic losers who think everything in life should be tailored to be “fulfilling” to them.
3.  Uh, I’m a Millennial, and no, Scott does not represent us or our difficulties or view of work.
4.  Good for Scott for holding out for a decently paying job, and shame on everyone telling him to compromise! (This was a very small minority of responses.)

And one of the big problems with reporting like this is its ability to engender response #2; it feeds the confirmation bias of people who already want to believe this.  It doesn’t shed any light on actual obstacles to getting living wage jobs for recent college graduates; it only provides fodder to those who would prefer to believe that we’re just unrealistic and spoiled and therefore to blame for all of our own problems.  And if the paper of record succeeds in confirming this fact to enough of our elders?  It’s scary.  I really can’t tell at this point whether the Times is just being hapless in its selection of article subjects, or if it’s actually intent on promoting this kind of prejudice against young adults.  Or if its writers and editors truly have no effing clue how hard it is out there for 20-somethings who aren’t incredibly privileged and so this was really what they thought was a good example.  Really, in a city with over 200 Starbucks locations, they couldn’t send a reporter into one to find a college-educated 25-year-old working a $16,000/year job and ask why?

Also, there’s the potential for this to embolden lawmakers who claim that extensions of benefits like unemployment and food stamps aren’t necessary, or are actually prolonging joblessness, because they encourage dependency and a sense of entitlement to collect a paycheck for nothing.  Who really believe (and there are those who do) that people on unemployment would rather just sit around collecting government money than take a non-perfect job.

But most people on unemployment are not sitting around happily turning down $40K jobs.  They actually cannot find a job.  Most people on unemployment do not have their parents paying their rent.

Then I’m also troubled by response #4, and its presumed polar opposition to response #1.  Because in part of its basic observation, it’s correct: wages suck.  Wages have been stagnant since the late 1970’s.  Service sector wages particularly suck.  And young adults are not wrong to make the case that we need to be paid more, as the cost of a college education has grown disproportionately large compared to expectable salary in return.  (Particularly disturbing is the phenomenon of entry-level jobs masquerading as unpaid internships.)  But the attitude that we should just hold out to be paid what we’re worth doesn’t get us anything: not credibility, not work experience, not independence, not the self-knowledge and resilience that comes from doing a job and doing it well in order to survive–not because it’s necessarily your dream job.  It does zero good at this point to refuse to take basically decent jobs to protest that we aren’t being paid what we should be, because millions of older, more experienced, more desperate people are lined up and happy to take them.  And we’ll still wind up looking like clueless brats.

And those comments, and the off-base posturing of the whole article, really go straight to the question of what the American Dream is.  The Times would have us accept that the American Dream is to waltz into a corporate finance job straight out of college with no work experience, with a salary sufficient to support a consumptive upper-middle class lifestyle, and the fact that Scott can’t do it even with all his family’s connections on his side, shows that the American Dream is dead for 20-somethings.

I really hope that that’s not what the American Dream is.  I don’t think it is.  And I think that we need to be able to articulate what it is to us in order to counter the notions propagated by this article.

July 12, 2010

Frustrations in urban container gardening, part 2

Posted in City life, Uncategorized tagged , at 8:40 pm by chavisory

In late March/early April this year, I was overjoyed to see little strong dark green shoots of peppermint starting to come up in my railing box from last year.  Even though I know that mint is a perennial, and an invasive one at that, the ability of such seemingly tender and vulnerable living things to thrive in a city like this never ceases to take my breath away.  Though there were a couple cold snaps, we were having a much warmer early spring than last year, and I was excited to try to grow a few more things out on the fire escape.  In the box of herbs, last year’s peppermint, English thyme, and basil.  In the next box, arugula/mixed baby greens, and strawberries.

And then the pigeons struck.

I had taken the boxes inside for a few days during a cold spell; the peppermint especially liked the warmth inside, and in a few days, the box was nearly filled with bright green stems a few inches tall.  I put them back outside when it was warmer again, came home from rehearsal one day, and to my horror, found almost all of them tattered, harassed-looking, or snipped off almost completely at the soil line.  The strawberry had been putting out a couple of huge brand new leaves, which were gone, and the arugula had been practically uprooted and looked battered within an inch of its life.

The pigeons didn’t do this last year…and I still can’t understand why this year.  When I first put in plants last summer, they did nip at them mildly for a few days, but then stopped.  So I was frustrated, but figured that they’d get bored of it this year as they had last year and stop.  I replaced the first arugula, which did soon perish, with four more robust looking plantings of baby greens.  The mint started to regrow, and I put everything back outside again.

And they did it again.  The greens just vanished, not pecked at but uprooted entirely, and the mint got bitten back down again, many of the remaining shoots tattered and broken.  The basil was picked at, too, but not damaged nearly so badly.

The one thing that pigeons don’t seem to enjoy is thyme.  It was not touched.

A confession here: Yes, I could get metal wire cages, or one of those plastic decoy owls…but, being usually pretty broke, I was reluctantly unwilling to spend far more money protecting these plants than I spent on the plants themselves, or the value that I was ever likely to get from them in harvest.  Looking online for cost-effective solutions, I found that supposedly, there is no natural pigeon repellent.  At all.

Unwilling to accept this, I thought “I’ll bet I could download an owl,” and sure enough, some Googling found several solid black owl silhouettes.  I printed one out and blew it up a little, cut it out and taped it to the window in front of the planters.

It looks really good, a little bit sinister, from inside–and even frightened one of my roommates one night.  And I held out hope for a few days that it was sort of working; I wanted to believe I was seeing less pecking damage over the next few days.

But from outside the window, I could tell that it was so much dimmer inside than out that this black silhouette was not very scary looking.  Still, I hoped that pigeons were more innately owl-aware, and this vague shadow might prove dissuasive.

Then my other roommate caught sight of this thing one morning while working at home.  She said this pigeon was the size of a chicken, and not apparently afraid of anything.  Shadow-owl fail.  My best option was starting to seem like catching this monster pigeon and wringing its neck.

The next thing I tried was a simple physical barrier–we have lots of clear plastic salad containers, so I set a few over the newly recovering shoots, in a way that would allow them both light and a little air.

This did prove a little more effective.  The covers proved just enough of a hassle to the pigeon hoards that they must’ve judged that the food value they were getting for the effort wasn’t worth it.  They could push them around, but after a couple of weeks, it looked like they’d actually gotten bored and more or less given up.  And the new shoots were getting too tall to be smushed under the covers.

But I was disheartened.  The thrice-destroyed mint was growing back much more slowly than at the beginning of the spring, I had one remaining little salad plant, and it looked so lonely that I couldn’t bear to eat it.  The strawberry has shown not one flower; I think I will probably not get a single berry this summer.

And then I made a pot of black-eyed peas one weekend.  I’d been craving them.  I soaked the pot overnight, as per package directions.  But it was a hot night in June, and in the morning, the whole pot of beans was not just softened, but sprouted.  Feeling like a gleefully experimental kindergartner, I took three of them, while I boiled the rest, and planted them in a little glass pot outside.  They grew so fast, the white shoots turning green in the sunlight and then flourishing unbelievably-sized leaves for such a short time, that I had to transplant them within a couple of days.  Within 48 hours, I couldn’t believe that these things had been dry peas in a plastic bag in the grocery store barely a couple days ago.

I have no idea what the time to maturity of peas is, but they’re now little bushes and still rapidly growing.

Figuring I better get something to salvage the rest of the space in box number 2, I finally got a tomato plant, whose pungent and toxic leaves I thought would be less likely to be found acceptable food by the pigeons (I admit, the smell of tomato plants has always been one of my favorite smells).  So far, so good; they don’t seem interested.  The variety is “Mr. Stripey,” which I’ve never heard of before; I’m sort of excited to see how they’ll come out.

So it’s been an experimental but not very productive summer.  Since most of my now-successful plants went in so late due to false starts, I don’t know how much if anything I’ll get by fall–maybe a few handfuls of peas and tomatoes.  Maybe enough mint for a cocktail; it’s all grown back again, but nowhere near as tall and robust as it should’ve been by this time of year.  The basil is just starting to get bushy, so I’ll have it with some pasta or eggplant.  The thyme alone is doing wonderfully.  I like snipping it over grilled lamb or pork chops, or just on tomatoes with a little salt.  I had good results earlier this year with a rosemary-infused simple syrup I devised, which I think I’ll try next with thyme, to use in some kind of drink with Hendricks gin and berry herb iced tea.

That sounds like a good plan for August, no?

July 11, 2010

Frustrations in urban container gardening, part 1

Posted in City life, Uncategorized tagged at 4:04 pm by chavisory

I like to believe that if the economy or food supply chain were ever to seriously, catastrophically tank, I’d be one of those hardy people who’d be able to grow or forage enough of my own food to get by.

Sadly, this hypothesis is not supported by the results of my efforts at fire escape container gardening this summer.

The location presents several not-insurmountable challenges: first, we’re north-facing, but with tall buildings on both sides.  I guess the resulting light situation would best be described as “part sun,” in that it’s fully sunny from dawn till about noon…and then it’s shady.  (I haven’t been able to sustain anything inside; the apartment is very long and narrow–what’s termed a “shotgun” apartment–and gets almost no real sunlight since we’re faced on both sides by adjacent apartment buildings across narrow alleys.)

Challenge #2: The landlord.

I had put out a window box and a couple pots the second summer I lived here, mostly of flowers.  Shortly, we got a letter from our management office stating that all objects had to be removed from the fire escapes, or they would be removed.  I thought I would be a little recalcitrant and see if they actually meant it, so I ignored about three of those letters.  They did mean it.  Disheartened, I didn’t try to have window boxes again for a couple of years, but finally, the demands of my mental health to have plants won out.

I thought I’d get smarter and put them up on the railings of the fire escape; that way, they’d have no excuse that anything was blocking fire egress.  So I got one box and a railing bracket, and as detailed below, battled the bizarro weather all summer to grow a few herbs.

Sure enough, about September, we got another letter from the landlord.  Remove all objects from the fire escapes.  This time I fought back, though.  I wrote a letter back to the effect that a.) there are no city fire codes that prohibit railing boxes, only boxes that block fire escape walkways, and b.) that there is no provision in our lease prohibiting railing boxes, so, therefore, please leave my stuff alone.  And so far, it looks like I’ve won.  I haven’t heard back from them, and my boxes haven’t been bothered.

Anyway…last summer was complicated in New York by very late cold weather (like, it didn’t really stop feeling like winter until about May), followed by daily torrential rain through July.  The peppermint did just fine; it’s an invasive weed that behaves much like kudzu and is almost impossible to kill.  The basil was okay–it will put up with a lot as long as it’s consistently warm, being a Mediterranean plant.  The sage did not do okay.  I actually did not detect any growth from the time I planted it until it died in November.  Sage is a dry weather/desert plant, so although it was warm, eventually, I think it was just in a state of near-drowning almost constantly, and couldn’t recover.

But somewhat happy with what I did get–a lot of peppermint (which mainly went into Firefly sweet tea vodka lemonades) and basil (snipped over fried eggplant with tomato sauce, or on top of egg/cheese/tomato sandwiches)–I wanted to try to expand this year into some of the 12 feet or so of railing space I still had and try some more varieties of produce.

I wanted to go for baby eggplants, but the sunlight situation, I thought, probably wouldn’t serve them well.  I had always shied from tomatoes in window boxes because of their tall gangliness.  Some other commenters over on the Possum Living blog suggested that lettuces working surprisingly well for containers without consistent sun.  And I had had good luck with strawberries in my Midwest backyard as a teenager, despite woefully neglecting them.  So I settled on some arugula mix baby greens, and an alpine strawberry plant (I just got one, because they send out runners like mint does, so I figured I’d have a whole box by the end of the summer from one plant.)  For the herb box, there was plenty of peppermint coming up again (it’s a perennial, which will return year after year), and I added basil again, and thyme.

And then came challenge #3: The Pigeons.

I have never hated pigeons before this summer.  People call them flying rats that eat trash, but I couldn’t blame them for doing their ecological part in cleaning up the mess that humans make of this city.  People accuse them of carrying like 120 different diseases…but I was at a loss as to how that makes them more disgusting than humans.  And I’ve always found them pretty, especially here–we don’t just have the standard gray ones, but all shades, patterns and combinations of white, black, brown and violet–and even sometimes unnervingly intelligent.

And then they destroyed everything.

{To Be Continued……}

July 6, 2010

Postcards from my neighborhood~More little reasons I love living here

Posted in City life, Uncategorized tagged at 12:58 pm by chavisory

For a late Happy Independence Day, this little structure sits in the middle of the woods in the north end of Central Park; I’d been living here several years and thought I was thoroughly familiar with what I consider “my” end of the park when I stumbled upon it off one of the little trails I’d neglected.

It is officially known as Blockhouse #1; it was built in a hurry by neighborhood residents during the War of 1812 when English attack unexpectedly came from the undefended north of Manhattan instead of the already heavily fortified south.  Originally it was one of six such impromptu fortifications throughout Morningside and Harlem, but all the others have been destroyed.

In the Conservancy Garden, a little sparrow sat waiting impatiently against a perfect blue sky for me to get it together and take his picture already.

Wisteria entwined with the wrought iron rails of the covered walk.  The tenacity and insistence of living things amazes me.

And finally, cute x 6 in the Harlem Meer.

Algae, yum!

July 3, 2010

Holy hell, the KCMO school district does something right

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 4:48 pm by chavisory

The Kansas City, Missouri school district, which could kindly be described as eternally struggling, is instituting reforms which would allow all students to progress through all subjects at their own pace.  (Forget grade levels, KC schools try something new.)  They’re doing away almost entirely with age-grading, in favor of grouping students in each subject by ability regardless of age.  Students who finish the high school curriculum in any subject early will be able to move on to college work.  (I would also hope that if students who finish early don’t wish to or aren’t ready to start college classes, they’d simply be given the free time.)

(Incidentally, I grew up in the Kansas City area but did not attend the KCMO school district; my town was served by the Park Hill district.  It was considered a “good” school district–it’s probably still ranked among the best in the state–but I was miserable.)

Superintendent Covington is brave and brilliant for making this transition.  A high school diploma will mean something again–that students have actually mastered something of their own initiative–whereas right now, in most places, it means that you sat there for 13 years and didn’t try to do anything too hard.

I could have finished the high school English curriculum by the end of 8th grade, in the time that I spent reading the whole textbook by the end of the first week of school every year and then sitting through the rest of the year zoned out and angry while the teacher tried to control the discipline problems of kids who just didn’t care.  The math curriculum between 3rd and 8th grade was meaningless–you just had to sit in math class because most kids had gotten long division and fractions but weren’t ready for algebra.  No more in downtown Kansas City.  I just about want to cry when I think about all the art classes I didn’t have time to take, that I could have if I weren’t stuck in classes that meant nothing to me or were absurdly below my ability level.

What might this end…  Labeling kids failures for not learning the same things the same way at the same time as people who just happen to be the same age.  Teaching to the lowest common denominator.  The busywork required to keep all students in a class achieving on the same mediocre and arbitrary level.

What might this create…  Respect and encouragement rather than punishment for independence and self-direction, active learning and risk-taking rather than passive obedience.  A healthier social environment, with kids able to befriend and work with a diverse set of other students continually and based on shared interest, instead of being confined almost exclusively with people only their own age for 13 years.  Invaluable mentoring relationships with teachers who will be able to spend time guiding students independently in their own goals.

If I had to name a single policy change that would do the most to change the public school institution from a place where I would not dream of sending a child, to one that I’d be thrilled to support, this would be it.  Merde to Kansas City, and may many others follow their example.