Category Archives: places

The Grand America: kind of it is

I may at times be guilty of dismissing the place where I grew up in line with my experience. What I mean is that since nothing about my youth was fancy, I assume there was nothing fancy there.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

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Transacting the Humanity out of Society

Commerce. Transcations. Goods. Units. Revenue. Profit. Growth. Market. Market share. Margin. Money. Money. Stuff. Stuff. More. More. More.

More work, more money, more time, more things. So much. So-so, much.IMG_0044

I walked through LA’s Santee Alley in the fashion district. There were crowds of us walking right next to each other looking at $1 sticks of lipstick that claimed to be MAC and $10 shoes that looked exactly like Chuck Taylors save the Converse logo. T-shirts, piñatas, skin tight pants and bustiers went on for blocks and blocks. The people behind the counters or in the isles hocking goods did not appear to be particularly concerned with makeup or fashion, they were interested in transactions. They were merchants, not artisans.IMG_1475

That same day, only a few miles away I strolled through The Grove. The street is wide enough for the double decker trolley to roll on its tracks and still allow the crowds to meander in safety. There the MAC lipstick is $25, the Chuck Taylors are $50. You can easily find skin tight jeans and bustiers (maybe not piñatas) but they will all be much more expensive. Still, the people selling them were just retailers. They may be better funded consumers, but they are not artisans, just merchants.

It is hard to comprehend or appreciate the grand scale of how many dollars and units pass through these places daily, monthly, yearly. The volume of dollars, the hours spent creating, shipping, distributing and retailing is almost incalculable. Almost. No- not true. They are absolutely calculable and that is why they, we, go through the trouble. We are making calculations and transactions because that is what we do. It is how we live. It is who we are, or at least it is who we have become. We are a society of consumers on a grand scale.

Walk through any mall in any suburb in any state and amid all those people buying, selling, and transacting, what you will rarely find is a person behind the counter doing what they love. So many of them, of us, me, are not following passions but just doing things and tasks to get by. We are trying to make it, and by make it I mean pay the rent. Maybe pay for our kids to do something they like. Maybe. Some of the people doing the buying may appear a little happier, but they are only visiting, this isn’t what they do to survive. Many of the buyers in malls are simply enduring. They are on an errand to get some sort of affordable necessity, meaning it is what the other kids are wearing and not conforming will cause discomfort. Maybe they are like me and have gained ten pounds and two inches resulting in the need for a new pair of Hagar slacks. Navy blue non-iron with those invisible stretchy side tabs allowing for the 5 extra pounds still to come. But in that mall is a fountain that no one stops to look at, a sculpture by an artist with no name, and performances attended only by parents and friends.

And the scale is astonishing.

Commerce. Transcations. Goods. Units. Revenue. Profit. Growth. Market. Market share. Margin. Money. Money. Stuff. Stuff. More. More. More.

More work, more money, more time, more things. So much. So- so, much.

I see all those widgets and things and the time and the effort and the dollars going strictly to transactions and I feel dread.IMG_4296

I feel that dread because I have also seen people struggle to pay the rent or buy food. I have known people whose entire existence is a struggle for the day to day necessities of life. I have seen people turn to crime or medication, or wish for death, because they cannot get their hands on enough money to flush the toilet, or heat the stove, or pay tuition, or drive a car. These people will never have need of a financial planner or investment manager. These people will never need a real estate agent, stylist, or consultant. There are plenty of things they will need, they are obvious, but they won’t, or don’t, get them. And what is even worse, is that these people will likely never be able to spend their hours doing things they love. They will look inside themselves and see their own value, and they will feel passion for this or that, and they won’t ever get to go there or do that, for any meaningful period of time.

Anything neglected over time will wither and die. Plants, muscles, passions, and self worth.

I was and have been told, that there is no helping others, at least not on a societal level. I have been told that the problem is the poor themselves. I have heard and been told and been taught, that the answer is God and that things must stay this way till God comes to Earth and everything becomes heaven by magic. I am quoted the scripture that says the poor will always be with us and that I should just do my best to care for me and mine. It is odd that despite my belief in God, real, actual belief, I don’t believe that. I can’t and I won’t.

I cannot believe that we humans must wait for divine intervention because we lack the knowledge will or ability to help the poor huddled masses- because I have seen Santee Alley and the Grove. I have seen and watched and participated in the wonder of producing, shipping, distributing, warehousing, selling, and consuming of piles and piles and dollars worth of stupid pointless things. The drive for dollars and plastic toys or mascara, or a fourth pair of shoes, has made distance from China to Arizona irrelevant. It has made the state of oil in the ground and rubber solidified into soles of shoes the monetary equivalent of a night at the movies. We pay millions to individuals, and billions to businesses, whose sole purpose is getting a ball through a hoop. We spend millions of dollars and millions of hours to risk our lives climbing mountains for the sole reason of saying that we did. We do all of that all of the time.

And we have to wait for God to come to Earth to find jobs for poor people? It will take Jesus and Armageddon to educate immigrants?

It makes no sense at all. None. No sense in that I see the merchants in the alley who do not love these little trinkets and have no passion for taking money in exchange for toys- but yet they do it. Every day they do it. I see the people buying things at the mall and they don’t really love that stuff and the teenagers who work there hate the stuff, and even the manufacturers who make the stuff could care less what stuff they make as long as there is profit. There is no love in it at all and I cannot stand it.

We have sacrificed passion, craft, and humanity on the altar of efficiency and revenue. We killed the unblemished lamb and blessed it with the name of free market capitalism. We have slaughtered the scapegoat and called it communism. We have made these sacrifices and at the end I fear we don’t have blessings just dead animals. I have this fear because I know so many good people doing great things, yet they, like me, remain a foundational part of the problem.

I know a doctor who spent decades studying and suffering to earn the ability to save lives, and now that he does in fact save people’s lives, he bought himself a motorcycle in addition to his every day car just for fun and because he has earned it. Meanwhile the life of the person whose life he has saved is in shambles because the insurance won’t cover the procedures and now he cannot afford to sustain his newly saved life. I know of a farmer who toiled with dirt and with books till he accumulated enough money and knowhow to industrialize. Now he makes a fortune producing food that is shipped around the world to feed the poor yet those who still work on his farm are mostly undocumented because those with rights cannot afford to live off the wages the farmer pays and those without rights have no choice but to try.

We have inhaled so completely the myth of American meritocracy that we feel we deserve the good we get and that others deserve the bad. We believe that the freedom we covet is inherently tied to private property and capital yet turn a blind eye to the correlating truth that tying freedom to those things robs the poor of all hope to be free. Every business person I know will parrot the axiom that it takes money to make money, knowing full well the poor don’t have any, and the act of loaning anything to the poor is so remarkable that doing so at a non-predatory rate will win you a Nobel Prize. Watching and hearing this is infuriating and it is easy to see why so many who care for the poor from some religious obligation could lose hope in humanity and resign themselves to wait for deity. Not me. The deity I know has never really forced the human hand and while there is definitely drama in divine interactions, they are not normally mixed with direct compulsion. Destruction maybe, but not forced action. In addition, humanity has an amazing, even godlike capacity, to strike out and accomplish whatever it is they, or we, decide we wish to do.

So the question is not, nor has it ever really been, “how do we solve world hunger?” or just, “how do we help the poor,” but rather “how do we decide to help the poor?” or “How do we convince ourselves to put people above profit?” It is all about the will. And this lack of will, or our misplaced will, is where my feelings get hurt. Because we, as a whole, have so readily and foundationally dedicated ourselves and our will to something, or everything, that so many of us simply don’t care about.

We dedicate ourselves to daily work, because we believe we have to, and our heart is not in it. Meanwhile, we gloss over or walk past, things, or activities, or people, in which or in whom we would and could so easily invest, but we do not. We cordon off our hearts and passions as extracurricular or as hobbies and see charitable donations as a tax exemption, viewing poverty as a political issue. Some discover and chase passion projects or are lucky enough to synchronize fulfillment and career, and they are almost always beginning in the middle or upper class.

If we can create a world where we can pull oil from the ground in Wyoming, ship it to China where it is formed into a Shopkin, then ship it back to California and sell it by the truckloads at Target for $2 per trinket, we can do anything we want.

Is it possible that we could restructure in a way that those who are currently laboring with transactions with no heart at all could instead follow their passions and still fill their belly? Isn’t that what a 1st world society should be? Would we be less efficient and productive? Probably. Could we craft a true meritocracy that enables the ambitious without crushing the lost and lowly? Maybe. But maybe we would also be better. Not better on an income statement or maybe not even better quality products all the time but possibly we would be better people.

Maybe. I don’t know. I do not have the detailed answers but I am convinced they exist. Maybe the one who has, or who could, decipher the answers is right now making change from a five dollar bill for someone who wants to buy a one dollar stick of lipstick.

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Confrontation Calculus

I am pretty sure everyone involved here knew the math.anaheim

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Hidden Figures… and Signatures: Black History Month

William Benjamin Gould was a slave in Wilmington North Carolina. His owner Nicholas Nixon would rent Gould out as a plasterer working on mansions and public buildings around town.  When he was finishing up the interior trim work inside the luxurious Bellamy mansion, he did a risky thing for a slave, he signed his work. He scrolled his name on the inside of a section of some ornate molding before he attached it to the wall. No one knew of it till 100 years later when his signature was uncovered during a mansion renovation. It was quite the find, not just because it was unexpected, and not just because slaves weren’t supposed to be able to write, but mostly it was unexpected because historians actually knew who William Gould was.bellamysignaturebetter

In 1862, one year after that mansion was completed, William and six other slaves stole a small boat and rowed it out into the Atlantic Ocean where the Union Army had a series of ships blockading the Southern coast. They were scooped up by the USS Cambridge and now finding himself a free man, Gould joined the Navy.

At the war’s end Gould settled down and started a family in Massachusetts. He became an active member of the community and his story appeared in occasional articles in various periodicals. Not long after the signature was discovered in Wilmington, Gould’s diary was published as a book titled, Diary of a Contraband.

Remarkable story.

Even more remarkable is that out of the millions of black people who have lived in North America since the late 1600’s, we have such comparatively few records of their names or their stories. We know some, like Fredrick Douglass, but there were so many more. There was Henry “box” Brown, or Crispus Attucks, or William Gould. Black people have been present and participating in every step of the United States’ evolution and it is when we consider the level of that contribution that we realize how they are disproportionately invisible; so few names and even fewer stories. But if we learn to look closer, there is still a legacy.whole-hand

Trinity Church in New York City was built by black men. So was the U.S. capital. Dozens of universities, Harvard, Princeton, UNC, UVA, were built by black people. We can imagine that somewhere, even if only symbolically, in all these buildings, hiding under the plaster molding, are thousands of signatures just like Gould’s. The dome at Monticello, the columns at Mt. Vernon, and the masonry walls of St. Augustine, all built by people with hidden names. Look for them. Ask about them. On Bourbon Street, in Charleston, or even St. Louis, look for the black people. They were there.

But you have to look.

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That One Place Everyone is so Excited About: Disneyland

When my first child was old enough to understand words and look at pictures, I began showing her images of Hawaii and calling them Disneyland. I did this in hopes that when her peers and surrounding adults would inevitably begin celebrating and pushing this fabled “land”, she would be under the impression they loved Honolulu and that she would imagine herself there… not Anaheim. img_7173

Because I would rather spend all of my money taking my child to the North Shore than some manufactured place with people dressed up as cartoon characters. I figure both places are about as equally expensive (truth), so I might as well trick my children into making me happy.

As with most preconceived notions of parenting, my plan failed.

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Upon realizing that in large part due to current proximity, my children and spouse would full-on demand a Disneyland visit, I full-on planned to send them along without me. Yes I love my family and truly enjoy watching them be happy, but I am not sure my being there to see it is worth $200.

Do you know how much prosciutto I can buy for $200?

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I understand that the things I have typed so far, already qualify me for some sort of firing squad. I do not intend to be sacrilegious, seditious, or even traitorous, I just don’t want to spend $800 for my family to see someone dressed up as Snow White.

Everyone tells me it isn’t just that. But it is in fact also that.img_7204

Let me attempt to be objective about this. I will admit that:

The production value of everything they do is far above and beyond whatever “par” is.

The rides, especially roller coasters, are fun.

There is at any given time and in any given place, something to do or see.

The crowd management systems and procedures are surprisingly effective, and do in fact minimize the horrors of waiting forever behind hordes of everyone to do something fun for a brief moment.

The food while not being cheap, is not bad.

My wife and children loved the place almost more than they love me. They might strike the word almost. I added it to make myself feel better.img_7210

So, having admitted all of that let me list what Disney is not:

Near the beach.

Affordable.

An actual kingdom.

The Devil.

Heaven.

As good as Six Flags.

 

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Solvang: mancation IV

Solvang is a little town in Southern California that pretends to be in Denmark. It was founded around 1900 by Danish immigrants who liked sunshine more than snow, but apparently still wanted windmills, wooden shoes, and Hans Christian Andersen.img_1345This is made “apparent” because if you go there today what you will find is windmills, wooden shoes, and Hans Christian Andersen.

Most people would describe it as cute more than quaint, and in concept it is simply odd- but in execution it is surprising in its level of commitment to a theme. It isn’t like there is just a main street with similar facade, the imitation game goes multiple blocks long and deep.img_1324They have bakeries and gift shops, a town square with a scaled reproduction of Copenhagen’s round tower, a mermaid statue, and a museum dedicated to Mr. Christensen and his fairy tales.img_1327

 

All of that is fine. Very nice. Whatever.

Th real reason to go there is because this place called the Succulent Cafe has hands down the best charcuterie and cheese platter I have ever experienced.

Go there. Eat it. Wear some clogs, have two blonde braids, read about a princess and a pea, or show up on a Harley, any of those things… just make sure you have what they call the 4+4 for $44. (four cheeses, four meats, and a whole bunch of great little nuts, peppers, spreads, jams, olives, etc.)img_1349

 

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That Place With All the Lights: LACMA

The first thing I saw when I walked in the doors of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was a giant portrait of a guy wearing a kilt. The little plaque at the bottom said the subject shared my last name which obviously required me to like it.

But it wasn’t my favorite.peoplelights

I gravitate toward American artists, like the Eakins they had there, but at LACMA this was also not my favorite. Nor the Rembrandt. Not even the Picasso exhibition which came complete with a guard who tells you to stop taking pictures, even though the painting were picture worthy- still not my favorite.people0

I think LACMA had squeakier floors, more construction, and just plain more wear and tear than most of the museums I have been too, definitely more than the Broad or the Barnes, but what made up for it, what became my favorite, was the people.people7

It wasn’t quite like some other places where you go inside and the only people there are retirees wearing clothing from the gift shop and bus loads full of middle-schoolers on field trips. No. This was more like if all those people who run up the Rocky steps in Philadelphia, then proceeded inside the museum. No one in Philly actually goes inside that place, in LA, they do.people5

I will not forward that the art is better, or that the patrons appreciate it more, just that there were more of the folks you see out on the streets- inside.people4

People of all sorts are always my favorite.people6

But aside from them, what LACMA did best, at least in my Philistine opinion, is what California has always done best.

Mid-mod.surfboard

The Eames duo were not LA natives, but no one is. But those chairs go with those paintings, which work in those normally awful (shall we say severe) buildings, and they then find themselves in LACMA.eams

Yeah… they have other stuff there too:picassoclaw

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