My mother is in town this week, and much of the talk at dinners has revolved around Google buses, condo developments, and the changing face of San Francisco. A Stanford communications professor offers a critical examination of the economy for which his institution has been largely responsible.
I had plans to write an epic post about the Google bus situation and the social divides and false meritocracy of the tech economy (titled “Class: Warfare, Bus Fare, & What is Fair?”) — but then Rebecca Solnit beat me to it. Her essay reaches beyond the typical technocratic solutioneering on the topic that has populated my Facebook feed (Change zoning laws! Eliminate rent control!) to meditate on what cities and society actually mean, and it is phenomenal.
Haven’t you heard? Classical music is dead. Again. Another time.
I just put on “Pictures at an Exhibition” (on vinyl, no less) — “Symphony for a New World” was still spinning, restless and soundless on the turntable from which Dvorak had emanated just minutes earlier. I may still be living on a couch but I’m at my aunt and uncle’s for the moment, and on Saturday my aunt and I — brutally hungover from red wine and laughter and serious conversation into the wee hours the previous evening — rummaged through bins and bins of records at an antiques warehouse, coming away with treasures for absurdly little money. The ease of digital music is certainly nice, but sound on vinyl is uncompressed and its richness is incomparable.
But I’m not here to proselytize about listening to records — there are enough hipsters and sanctimonious audiophiles already doing that lord’s work. No, my purpose here is to defend another sonic dinosaur, not the media but the music itself: classical.
My parents always listened to classical and perhaps it helps to be raised on such fustiness but my brother hasn’t retained much of an interest in it (although my sister-in-law keeps his musical exposures well-rounded). On Saturday night my cousin and her boyfriend came over for dinner and while we tested out our new records, sampling our bits of audio gold, they wearied quickly of Mussorgsky and Beethoven and Beverly Sills. And there are those who discover classical independently, as adults — childhood indoctrination is neither necessary nor sufficient to love this stuff.
That being said, even in my most ardent teenage rebellion I made time for classical, alongside alternative and classic rock and hip-hop of course. I frequently fell asleep to Vivaldi, or an old cassette of Andres Segovia (meanwhile I listened to the Beatles and Hendrix on my parents’ old records), and no matter how fraught the adolescent tension a parent/child truce could always be established with a trip to the Cleveland Orchestra (or more often, for financial reasons, the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra). In college I fell in for Mahler, and I’ve never looked back.
There are aesthetic considerations to loving classical, of course. I remember pulling into an Office Max parking lot in the Outer Richmond district of San Francisco shortly after arriving and sitting in the car for twenty minutes as Beethoven’s Ninth played, spellbound by the music and nothing more. There is nostalgia — “Pictures at an Exhibition” is one of my mother’s very favorite pieces, and to hear the melodic line makes her feel closer than the thousands of miles which typically separate us. There is pride, too, in being a Clevelander, in coming from a maligned city with one of the world’s greatest orchestras, in hearing the sounds of Severance Hall on radios around the world.
But there is something else, too, something bigger and more encompassing than nostalgia and pride, something that contemporary music points toward but has difficulty realizing, what with its emphasis on newness and rebellion, and that is continuity. I am far from politically conservative but I am a traditionalist in certain senses, I suppose, at least on the matter of community: not because communities are precious or inviolable or unchanging things but because the pace of modernity too often causes them to splinter or rupture rather than evolve, to fracture before the bonds have had time to set into durability. I met an elderly woman on the bus a year and a half ago and we struck up a conversation about my suitcase; I told her I was going to my cousin’s wedding in Cleveland and then we started chatting about the orchestra and I’ve now traded emails and gone to concerts with a retired old woman from Hong Kong, with whom I might never have cause to encounter in my “regular”, modernity-mediated life. It is not a failing that the audiences of classical tend to be older, except insofar as it is a failing of the contemporary American economy to give young people the financial resources to afford such indulgences (or “indulgences”) as pricey symphony seats. (I would go if I had the money, but I don’t, and so I can’t.)
But the greyness of the classical audience offers something to younger folks. In going to (free) concerts with Mildred, or visiting the UC Berkeley music library, I’ve learned quite a bit — about conductors, about European orchestras to whom I have less exposure, about great performances. Her knowledge is an incredible resource.
There is an idea that those cultural properties most popular amongst the elderly are somehow stuffy or simplistic or otherwise hidebound, but as the climax of “Pictures at an Exhibition” plays — just now, as I type this — the truth is that the best classical music, like all the best art, transcends such judgment. The drama of this music is fresh upon each listening, just as the drama of great contemporary music is too — but with decades or centuries to sort through the chaff, classical music fans don’t need to put up with Nickelback just to get to Nirvana. Beethoven and Mozart have earned their popularity, and even if you prefer someone a little more obscure (I’m a sucker for Bartok myself), well, that’s like preferring Leonard Cohen to The Beatles. There is no wrong answer.
Classical music is beautiful and powerful and complex, and you can even dance to it if you want to. Some of it is soothing and some of it is dramatic and compelling but contrary to some popular opinion it is never boring; whatever barriers we have built around it are cultural and artificial, products of class and not art, for like any art, all that classical music asks is that you engage with it, that you listen.
You will find sounds that have been rewarding for hundreds of years. They are not quieting anytime soon.
..our biases are mostly unconscious, and they can run surprisingly deep. Consider race. For a 2004 study called “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?,” the economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Marianne Bertrand put white-sounding names (Emily Walsh, Greg Baker) or black-sounding names (Lakisha Washington, Jamal Jones) on similar fictitious résumés, which they then sent out to a variety of companies in Boston and Chicago. To get the same number of callbacks, they learned, they needed to either send out half again as many résumés with black names as those with white names, or add eight extra years of relevant work experience to the résumés with black names.
I talked with Mullainathan about the study. All of the hiring managers he and Bertrand had consulted while designing it, he said, told him confidently that Lakisha and Jamal would get called back more than Emily and Greg. Affirmative action guaranteed it, they said: recruiters were bending over backwards in their search for good black candidates. Despite making conscious efforts to find such candidates, however, these recruiters turned out to be excluding them unconsciously at every turn. After the study came out, a man named Jamal sent a thank-you note to Mullainathan, saying that he’d started using only his first initial on his résumé and was getting more interviews.
-The Atlantic, emphasis mine.
Editors Note: the “depth” of such bias is only surprising to those who aren’t paying attention.
(Subscription required. Apologies, but it’s worth it.)
There is a reason I have been quiet lately. In phrases and allusions I have hinted at other explanations — work and travel and the busy-ness of a day job and pursuit of a creative dream and the demands of brokeness — but there is a truth lurking behind all of these, one harder to admit, one less acceptable than the promise and possibility embedded in so much doing.
I have been depressed.
There are reasons for this, too. Genetic predisposition, of course; it comes from both parents for me, the flip side of the alcoholism that other relatives have grappled with. I’m typically an optimist but I took Zoloft once before, eleven years ago, in between Caltech and Georgetown; at first it liberated me through a regular sleep schedule and enough energy to keep working out in spite of my calorie restrictions (I was coming out of anorexia at the time) but when I went back to school I slept seventeen hours a day and my roommate — my friend — grew concerned.
I’m typically an optimist but it is hard to stare down thirty marginally employed, pulling down less than 25k per annum, living on a friend’s couch and applying for food stamps, waiting for the next paycheck to get your phone turned back on. It is even harder to stare down thirty alone: I have tremendous friends and family but my brother and sister-in-law moved in August, six hours away by car where they were once twenty minutes, their presence offering roots in a place where I came as an adult, to build my own community. Persistent singleness grows tiresome in time but it’s a habit, too, and if depression makes writing difficult it makes the vulnerability of human connection harder still.
I’ve lived long with these same failures, romantic and financial and genetic, and the spur to this bout of I-can’t-get-out-bed-from-the-worthlessness was not only my looming Significant Birthday but also the comedown from my remarkable summer; specifically, the disappointments of America after Australia, even the small inhumanities of our society sharpened by witness of how easily we might live differently, if only we could choose it. And, as the government shutdown made all too plain, our inhumanities are hardly limited to the small.
The hardest truth is this: if a loaded firearm had been accessible to me during the month of September, I would not be typing this now.
Suicidal ideation (I majored in psychology, you see) is a new twist on the old story of my biochemical sadness. It flared briefly, the impulse only momentary, here and then gone; chased off less by my will to live than by my laziness, by all the complicated choices involved in ending one’s life. After last year’s shooting in Newtown we were besieged by ludicrous justifications for gun ownership — you never know who might come after you! — but the fact of the matter is that the most likely person to come after anyone is yourself. A gun safely stored, locked and unloaded, is no use against a sudden intruder; but the sneakiest assailant of all is our own darkest thoughts.
That a thirty-year-old with a college degree would be earning my wages would be laughable Down Under, but then, their minimum wage is set to fifteen dollars per hour; a living wage, one might call it, and it’s not even controversial. But I have chosen to wring my day job from the nonprofit life, to make myself cannon fodder for impossible ideals, to embody the values I was taught in a deeply Catholic household and at Catholic schools, imparted every Sunday at Mass (never missed, never in jeans) and over family rosaries — I thought this was all about love, you see, hope and charity and mercy and justice and love, love above all else. There is love on the front lines of social action, sometimes, bubbling through all the stress, the lack of resources or money, the judgment and the ass-kissing and the need, the bottomless, unending, unyielding need — the need of those whom society has forgotten to care about or for, which is more and more of us by the day, the elderly and the young, the black and the brown and the indigenous, the poor and the working-class and everyone but the rich.
What is so revelatory about Australia is not its difference from the US but its similarities — its culture of fairness is built not on the intellectualism of France or the secularism of Germany or the historicism of England or the politeness of Canada; no, much like America Australian culture is proudly stupid (and I mean that with affection), defiantly rugged, deeply individualistic. It’s where Rupert Murdoch got his start, after all, but he had to come stateside to make it big, stymied by Australia’s commitment to equitable and subsidized health care and higher education. Mass in Randwick was not apolitical but its call to arms was for compassion for immigrants, a blessed respite from the American College of Catholic Bishop’s seemingly endless years of dog-whistle (and often just blatant) politicking against not just abortion but birth control and health care reform. Somehow capital punishment and the violent, anti-human atrocity of America’s prisons — which make a mockery of Australia’s penal-colony heritage — never earn quite the same reproach as a woman’s desire to get laid.
Australia is not without its problems. It is not a perfect place. But it is a better place, and America could be too. Australians, as individuals, were friendly and funny and outgoing and wonderful, but then so too are many Americans — the people of America are not the problem; people in any one country are not inherently better than people in any other. But Australians have made better decisions, and built better systems, than we have.
From my nadir I reached out: to some local friends and to the many who live at a distance. If I believed in universal intelligence I would say that it responded to my need, emails from old friends appearing in my inbox before I could contact them first, and it is wonderful to have so many people to turn to but they are also disparate — writing from different states or coasts or countries, from so many different parts of my life. There is no coherent community to any of it and this is supposed to be a feature of modern life, not a bug. We are nothing but mobile now — not economically mobile, of course, because we have committed ourselves to income inequality and its gross consequences because capitalism! — but we can roam the country, move year to year or month to month; international borders are permeable and technology allows us to carry our social networks with us always. Our affections are mediated across screens and keyboards and cables, relationships etched in facsimiles and simulacra, emotions inscribed by hashtags.
It is not enough.
American society is mean. We have made it mean, by our own choices and by the choices of our parents; we have built something uncaring and resistant towards generosity. The structure of our culture and politics is to split community apart and what technology offers us in its stead is a shadow, a panacea, something less-good and less-effective and just plain less but which we devour anyway because the alternative might be that perfectly legal and fully loaded gun.
There are many justifications offered for this fundamental but not intrinsic meanness of America, especially that we are so many and so diverse; but open-heartedness knows no upper bound, and nobody’s love is finite. It is said to take ten thousand hours to develop a high level of skill and loving-kindness is, if nothing else, a skill — not a feeling, not a rule, but a skill which any of us can cultivate, if only we commit ourselves to its practice. Even the deepest-rooted community is impermanent, but amidst so much digital ephemera there is the clamor for something more and deeper and we can build it, together, if we would submit ourselves first to listening; a monument not to any individual but to our collective capacity for wisdom and compassion, a better and more loving society for everyone.
I have not written much lately but this is why I write now. The gap between the actual and the possible is yawning and painful but beneath the thousand tiny cuts of our daily injustices there is still such beautiful potential, begging to be awakened in each of us. It takes practice; it takes community; it takes reaching out; it takes kindness, not only to others but to our own hearts, to surmounting the deadly thicket of our worst selves.
But it is possible, manifest not only in social policy thousands of miles away but in friendly conversations on the bus and smiles on the sidewalks and hugs between friends, even hugs that look more like emails (or blog posts).
And in jokes, and stories, and all of those other things that I write.
I have not been posting much lately and I don’t know when I will begin posting in earnest again; not because I have nothing to say but because I have too much, too many irons in the fire, and for the past couple months the quietude of this space has felt like an accusation, just another indicator of my inability to get my shit together. But this truth is not so hard, after all: sometimes writing about the world as it is can be exhausting; sometimes other projects take priority, and those other projects can be sustaining, and by that sustenance we might once again find the strength to face the world head-on.
Tom’s “Daria” posts will continue apace. I’ll write if and when the impulse strikes. Others are welcome to share their voices. I am on a vacation of sorts from this blog, but I do plenty of other things. Have you listened to my X-Files podcast yet?
There is no longer any need for quiet. I am still here, and I am listening.
The economy forced employers to trim the fat from everything they possibly could — benefits packages, redundant employees, livable salaries for everyone — while still maximizing output. Even as the economy has recovered and companies are back to making better profits, they’re not hiring back all those workers that were laid off in 2008; they’re not reinstating benefits; they’re not increasing salaries. Why would they? We’ve worked incredibly hard to prove they don’t need to.
We are paid one third of a salary to do the job of three or more people. We’re told to do twice as much work with half as many resources. We’re told that we should know what we’re doing immediately instead of expecting or asking for training, even while we are constantly berated for not having enough experience or expertise. We’re often micromanaged by people whose credentials and abilities are astoundingly low given their titles, because they were less expensive to promote than the high-caliber workers who could mentor and teach us. We have to earn time off — not just paid time off, but time away from having to produce; time away from our smart phones; time to spend with our families or process what’s going on in our lives. We’re told that if we jump ship, not only will we be replaced immediately with someone eager to fit the bill, but our leaving will be a permanent stain on our resumes, and we’ll be docked points for the rest of our lives for being a “job hopper”. We’re told we should be glad to have a job at all, because there are starving yuppies in Brooklyn.
-words of a fellow Hoya on Medium
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the inhuman design of much of contemporary society, particularly in the US — by which I mean society designed around priorities other than human. We build streets (and towns) for cars; we design curricula for test scores; we organize corporations and policy around profit and economic expansion. Agriculture prizes cheapness. In theory, all of these advance the human condition in one way or another, but in practice such priorities become valued above the people whom they purport to benefit.
More to come, I promise.