August 28, 2010

An economic snapshot

Posted in City life, Uncategorized tagged , , at 2:02 am by chavisory

As many people probably noticed, the New York Times Magazine did another long piece (“What Is It About 20-Somethings?”) on the Millennial generation’s struggle for economic independence and continuing failure to meet “markers of maturity” last week, which I actually give some credit to for being slightly more nuanced and objective than most of the Times’ coverage of the topic, investigating the work of social scientists who say that “emerging adulthood” is a whole new stage of human development that needs to be accounted for versus those who disagree, and the history of how life stages have been classified as necessary states of psychological development rather than cultural phenomena.  Salon.com ran a companion piece from one of their bloggers, a more stereotypical lament (“I became an adult at 22: Why can’t you?“) that 20-somethings can’t seem to grow up and get out of their parents’ houses.  Both garnered many hundreds of responses.

A lot of commenters say that the problem is that 20-somethings are either entitled or spoiled; we just won’t or can’t figure out how to do what it takes to be independent: we won’t accept a lower standard of housing, we won’t live with roommates, we won’t work multiple jobs, we won’t do without our luxury coffee drinks and expensive toys, we have to have our parents paying our iPhone bills, we just don’t understand how harsh real life is and how hard the future will be for us, having grown up so coddled and with no work ethic.

And there are a lot of people, bless them, attempting to be helpful and supportive, insisting that no, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to survive out there on what entry-level jobs pay.

This culminated, for me, when I commented tangentially on a Times comment board (for an article concerning people whose total 99 weeks of unemployment insurance is about to run out) in response to someone who had insisted that it was not, that yes, it IS possible to survive in New York on under $400 per week.  That actually, I was doing pretty well in the weeks that I made $400.  In reply, another commenter said that I must be “either 20 years old, living in a cardboard box, or a liar.”

Except that here I am, and a lot of people my age, not 20 years old, not living in a cardboard box, doing what one faction says we just won’t do and what another says we can’t.

And I don’t write this to claim that everyone should be able to do what I do, or that I’m necessarily representative of more recent college grads (the economy hadn’t yet *completely* sacked out when I graduated six years ago), or that scarcity of fair living wages isn’t a problem for young workers, or to belittle 20-somethings who can’t find a job right now and/or have made a rational and well-informed calculation to live with their parents for a while, or to complain about my situation.  Just to point out that a lot of us ARE doing what almost every side of this increasingly boneheaded debate says that we are not: growing up, becoming independent, and doing whatever it takes to stay that way.

So here’s the snapshot of my experience: I’m 28 years old and I live in New York City on under $400 per week:

I live in upper Manhattan, in a lovely neighborhood which, as I’ve said before, I will not name, since it remains relatively undiscovered (and therefore relatively affordable) and we like it that way.  Our apartment is rent-regulated, meaning that the rent can only be raised a certain percentage per year as long as the household income is under $170K.  Even so, I spend more than half my income on rent most months.  (As a yardstick, “affordable” and secure housing is generally considered as costing no more than one third of your income.)

The neighborhood is lovely, but the building management is not.  It’s an old building, probably about 90 years, as we were told by a repairman working on the gas lines that originally powered the light fixtures, and it has problems common to old buildings, but our management company does not know how, nor do they care, to actually maintain and take care of it.  We’ve had repeated and chronic issues with leaks, collapsed ceilings, buckling floors, electrical outages, gas leaks (one that nearly killed a neighbor and left us without cooking heat for a month), and lack of heat and hot water in winter.  Our bathroom pretty much falls apart every six months, because our building management is unclear on how grout is supposed to work.

Why don’t we just move?  Well, moving’s expensive and disruptive, and for our price range, we could only afford a building with different problems, and it wouldn’t be across the street from Central Park.

I work in the performing arts, and no, I did not expect to leave college with a drama degree and get a job with a living wage in my area of expertise.  I worked a lot of different jobs to support myself while I worked my way up in my field.  For four years while I worked gigs that paid no more than small stipends, I supported myself working in coffee shops, and then doing temp work.  When the market for temp workers tanked in early 2009, I had little choice left but to support myself by my theater work alone.  Some substantial gigs materialized in the nick of time.

I stage manage full-time now and make my living doing it.  I am almost always working multiple jobs.  I am well-acquainted with 12-14 hour days and 80-hour weeks, though those are becoming less common now that I don’t have a “day” job.  (I actually had to be reminded by a friend that in most quarters, it is not considered “spoiled” to be able to make a living from one job.)  It’s hard, but I’m thankful to be this busy, because it means I survive.  I like my work; I’m thankful for all of it that I can take.  My income isn’t stable, though; in particularly good months, I save as much as I can for the inevitable slow times.

I split rent on a tiny apartment with two roommates.  We don’t have a television, so we don’t pay for cable, let alone flatscreen, high-def, DVR, whatever.  I have a radio, and otherwise get most of my entertainment online and from the public library.  Since I work at night, I don’t go out much to bars or movies.  I don’t have an iPhone; I have a 3-year-old cell phone, the one that came free with my calling plan.  I have a Macbook, which I saved for a year and a half for, and which isn’t a luxurious toy, but a professional necessity.  The one I was using before this was 9 years old and 4th-hand.

A confession: I finally have an iPod.  I wouldn’t even have bought one; a friend gave me her old one when my 12-year-old knockoff discman finally broke.

I don’t have a car, and will probably never own one again.  Public transit is everything here, but the MTA wants to raise the monthly fare from $89 to $130 and do away with unlimited rides, which will be a real hardship for me since I’m often working multiple jobs per day.

I don’t buy new things very much.  I use things until they’re not usable anymore.  I have kitchen utensils and pots that date from my parents’ marriage.  I only buy clothes on sale.

I don’t eat out much.  I know how to cook, and I cook large dishes that can get me through a week: roast chicken and potatoes, casseroles, quiches, squash, rice and beans, and stews.  I eat a lot of pasta, cheese, apples, and peanut butter.  I buy produce in season.  Still, my credit card is sometimes my grocery safety net.  (I have hypoglycemia, so I can’t just eat less when my budget gets stretched thin.)

We don’t have a microwave, and we don’t have air conditioning.

Almost needless to say, I don’t have health insurance.  My union does offer incredibly affordable insurance, but the way it’s allocated makes it problematic–you have to have worked a certain number of contract weeks semi-annually to remain eligible.  It would be a great deal for someone in a long-running Broadway show.  For someone in my situation, however, it would provide no continuity or security whatsoever, as I’d always have to be looking backwards and forwards three months to see if I’ll still have insurance at any given moment.  I’m enrolled at a community clinic in Chelsea, with a generous income-based sliding fee scale, where I pay $30-$60 to see my doctor.

I don’t have a gym membership.  My job entails a lot of physical activity, and I walk for both pleasure and exercise.

I get my hair cut once or twice per year at most.  I do my own laundry.  I’ve had the same pair of winter boots since I was 15 years old.  It’s probably way past time for me to see a dentist.

So that’s it.  I don’t think I’m whiny or entitled; I’m a fairly low-maintenance person who doesn’t need a lot of entertainment outside of my work, which I know I’m fortunate to have.  I don’t think I’m living a luxurious or coddled existence here.  I take care of myself, but I do without a lot of things that many people consider necessities, and that a lot of older people take for granted.  This is just my reality, and I’ve worked hard for it, and so it peeves me to no end to be told that young adults just don’t have the work ethic or discipline or value independence enough to do this.

Because we are doing it.

August 22, 2010

Why I support the “Ground Zero mosque”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 8:59 pm by chavisory

I want to address a lot of the misrepresentation, careless thinking, and downright asinine argument surrounding the plans for Cordoba House, a Sufi-affiliated Islamic cultural center to be built in lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center site.

To start with, I think there are two big honest misunderstandings driving a lot of the bluster of this debate.  First, what this project actually is–and it isn’t a mosque (though it shouldn’t matter even if it were, but I’ll get to that).  Its organizers describe the concept as an Islamic cultural/community center modeled on the 92nd St. Y, a huge, multi-use community center of Jewish affiliation (itself modeled on the YMCA–same concept, nominally Christian).  It has Jewish cultural and religious events, but also continuing education classes in music and the arts, performance space (where the dance company I work for recently participated in a festival of new work), gym facilities and a pool, child care, summer camp and after school programs, and classroom space–with everything open to everyone in the community.  This establishment is pretty well-known in New York, but I don’t know that other cities have similar, equally prominent organizations, so I wonder if a lot of people across the country aren’t really understanding what the analogous plans for Cordoba House are.

The second big misunderstanding is much more massive, and less excusable, though hardly limited to this particular debate.  It’s that Americans don’t really understand religious divisions and the difference between religion itself and fundamentalism.

Islam has militant fundamentalist sects, and peaceful progressive sects, and everything in between, much like Christianity does. The 9/11 perpetrators were of the former bunch, the people trying to build this Islamic cultural center are of the latter bunch…. Islam, like Christianity, is not one monolithic, homogeneous group that all believes the same things. For instance, Presbyterians and Mormons both consider themselves Christians, but they do not believe the same things, and their concrete ideas of what Christianity should accomplish in the world are wildly divergent.  This is so in just about every major religion; even Buddhism has had violent radicals.

So asking the Sufi sect of Islam not to build near Ground Zero because the bombers were “Muslim” makes about as much sense–zero–as would asking Presbyterians not to build a church near the ruins of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City because Timothy McVeigh was a militant nationalistic “Christian,” out of some kind of misplaced respect for the feelings of victims.  It’s not respect, it’s cluelessness.

They’re not the same group. They don’t have squat to do with each other.  The progressive Muslims trying to build a cultural center are not responsible for the fact that many Americans don’t understand the differences between their group and the handful of crazed militant radicals who flew planes into buildings, and let themselves be ruled by fear of the unknown.  They should not be held emotionally or morally responsible, just like we don’t hold Christianity collectively responsible for what McVeigh did, or that guy who flew his plane into the IRS building, or Fred Phelps’s hateful funeral protests, or the people who bomb women’s clinics and murder abortion doctors.

Then there’s the widespread argument of opponents that they’re not saying the Cordoba Initiative shouldn’t have the right to build at that spot, it’s just that they shouldn’t, out of sensitivity or respect or understanding for the feelings of 9/11 victims.  Or that they should just choose a different location, not so close to Ground Zero, which is “hallowed ground.”

But freedom of religion in this country does not have a geographic limitation.  We do not indulge freedom of religion only in approved zones.  We have freedom of religion–the assurance that our government does not discriminate against its citizens on the basis of religion–period.  How far away would be far enough?  And hallowed to whom?  Only the white Christians who died there, and not the Muslims who also worked there, died there, lost family and friends in the attacks and suffered terribly with everyone else in the aftermath?  Where is the respect and sensitivity to their feelings?  They not only lost family and friends like everyone else; now they’re tarred with suspicion and guilt by false association with the killers.

The Muslims who live here are just as much New Yorkers, and just as much Americans, as all the rest of us.  The protection of their Constitutional rights is just as sacrosanct as those of all the rest of us.  They have just as much claim to any piece of ground here that any New Yorker or any American does.

And to say that they should have the “right,” to build there, it’s just that they shouldn’t out of consideration for others’ “feelings” is just about as bad as saying they shouldn’t have the right. It’s saying that they should consider themselves second-class citizens when it comes to freedom of assembly and freedom of worship, that they should curtail the exercise of their own rights out of deference to the irrational and incorrect portrayal of themselves as violent extremists. It’s saying that they should regard themselves as not worthy of equal protection under the law, out of respect for others’ ignorance and fear.

They shouldn’t.  They should stand up and proclaim what they stand for, that the hijackers are not representatives of their Islam, and that they will not be ruled by others’ ignorance.  And I cannot think of a better repudiation to the ideology of the 9/11 perpetrators than to have this cultural center, a representative of peaceful religion and interfaith respect, an emblem that America will not be scared out of honoring the rights of all of our citizens equally–which is what makes us the great country we claim to be–so close to Ground Zero.  I look forward to visiting as soon as they’re open.

August 18, 2010

Headlines that should be from The Onion

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:12 pm by chavisory

I’m having a really difficult week, so to strike a lighter note…I’ve been collecting these for a little while.  Headlines that you would think should be from The Onion, but they’re not; they’re all too real, real stories from real media sources.  Some are unintentionally ironic or satirical.  Some frame a ludicrous situation with hilarious dryness or understatement.  Some convey a completely different story than I think they were intended to do.  Some make me wonder where some of these people went to journalism school, or if there are any copy editors alive anymore.  In this installment, the ones that just made me laugh.

So here is the first installment of “Headlines that should be from The Onion, but they’re not…they’re real.”

“Gin Blossoms to headline party for Delta employees” –Salon.com, 5/14/09

“Think tank accuses Ahmadinejad of distorting facts.”  –AP, 5/30/09

“Study: Twitter next to useless.” –AMNYork, 6/5/09

“Digital TV Transition inspires anger, fear, other mongerings.” –mail.com, 6/11/09

“Why round sunglasses?  A style investigation….”  –New York Times, 6/12/09

“Billy Joel’s daughter is as shocked by split [from 27-year-old third wife] as you are.”  –mail.com, 6/18/09

“Gangsta gene identified in US teens.”  –New Scientist, 6/19/09

“Che Guevera’s granddaughter poses semi-naked for animal rights.”  –Daily Mail, 6/19/09

“Albany Democrats sneak into Senate and lock Republicans out.”  –New York Times, 6/23/09

“Seriously, where’s Governor Sanford?”  –Salon.com, 6/23/09

“Incoming Alaska governor to Tweet less than Palin.”  –Salon.com, 7/7/09

“Wanted:  Late Columbian drug lord’s escaped hippos.” –Salon.com, 7/10/09

“Rufus Wainwright’s first opera: Diva issues.”  –New York Times, 7/13/09

“Lost British teenager says he was ‘total idiot.’” –AP, 7/19/09

“Pakistani Taliban leaders fighting amongst themselves?” –Time, 8/10/09

“Austrian woman reports otter attack in Wisconsin.” –Salon.com, 8/11/09

“Broadway’s Westside Story has a minor lyric change.” –Salon.com, 8/25/09

Guitar Hero 5 makes rocking out easier than ever.” –New York Times, 9/2/09

“Hindu and Jew urge Madonna to take up Gypsy cause.” –AP, 9/2/09

“New IKEA catalogue angers typography fans.” –New York Times, 9/5/09

More to follow.  Enjoy.

August 2, 2010

Cities need gardens

Posted in City life, Uncategorized tagged at 1:19 am by chavisory

This is so frightening, and sad.  (Crusade to Protect Public Gardens)  A 2002 law that saved hundreds of New York City community gardens from sale to developers is set to expire in September, and while the Department of Parks and Recreation says they have no specific plans to sell off or develop any of the gardens, they’re losing much of their legal protection from such destruction.

The community gardens of New York City are what keep this place sane and livable.  My 3rd floor apartment overlooks one, and in the summertime I love the peace and solitude of sitting outside perched on my fire escape, with a drink and a book, looking out over the garden where our neighbors grow roses, sunflowers, peas, and tomatoes.  They have a rainwater collection system whereby run-off from a bordering apartment building’s storm gutters is saved to water the garden instead of going to waste.  Dogs lounge in the shade.  Neighborhood cats stalk rats and pigeons.  Fireflies turn it into a dark green twilight fairyland in June.  Even though we live one block from Central Park, it’s not a substitute for the little pocket of quiet and privacy tucked between the apartment buildings.  A few months ago during a recurrence of our leaking bathroom ceiling horrors, our building management even offered to let us move into a vacant apartment one floor up in our same building.  We said no.  Only because the new apartment faced the street, not the garden.

Looking or stepping into the garden in an unfamiliar neighborhood as I go about my often-hectic freelance work all over the city is a powerful glimpse into the personality of the neighborhood, and also into how the people there value their environment, and the protection of peace and solitude and nature.

The profusion of gardens and greenspaces here is, ironically, one of the reasons I finally realized this past year that I can never move back to Kansas City.  There are parks–large, beautiful ones–but they’re isolated from the places where people actually live.  Lots of the suburban areas are okay, but in the downtown areas where I could reasonably live, work and shop without having to own a car, there are just no trees, no green space.  While in many other respects, the city is becoming much more of a place that I might like to live, with an exploding theater and arts community and a lot of great redevelopment.  But over Christmas last year I visited my brother’s downtown loft, and looking out over the city, I couldn’t see a single tree, or square of green space, for blocks and blocks.  I’d been trying to figure out why I felt so depressed driving through downtown looking at the sidewalks and historic buildings, even though the neighborhood looked vibrant and well-kept.  And it wasn’t just that it was winter; there was really almost no vegetation.

So thanks to the Times for bringing this to our attention, and I hope plenty of people will write the mayor and city council to remind them of the value of our community gardens, which are more priceless to the character of the city than any development they could possibly put in those spaces instead.  I hope that a new plan can be agreed to which would give the gardens secure, long-term protection.