Saturday, July 28, 2007

Friends with Money.

Back in 2001, my News Corporation subsidiary employer collapsed our office and laid off a large percentage of the staff, including myself. (That was in January. Boy, what a great New York year lay ahead!)

I got decent severance and set out to support myself in Manhattan for the first time since acquiring my sturdy Murdoch paycheck four years previously. It wasn't pretty: My rent got jacked up, so I had to leave my Upper Upper West Side apartment and move into one half the size down in Murray Hill. Then I proceeded to face a string of either freelance or staff jobs that paid just barely enough and, frankly, sucked. Unable to pay for my nights out anymore, but unwilling to give them up, I started to carry a credit-card balance for the first time.

During this time, I would hear about fellow ex-employees. One was spotted lounging at a Greenwich Village cafe with friends. Did he have a job yet? A year later, no. Another one was splitting his time between New York and Florida, where he had just bought a house. Then there was the Fabulous Couple: Friends of my cousin and just over 30, like me, they owned a gorgeous loft apartment and eventually moved to Australia to attend cooking school together, despite the fact that they seemed to be available at all hours of the day and spoke of no employment.

Having been brought up to believe that there are no free lunches, and as a corollary, that you should never order the most expensive thing on the menu, I was flummoxed by these people, and secretly fascinated by them. It drove me crazy that their financial status went unexplained, and that no one in the vicinity saw fit to broach the topic. How, how, how did they do it? Trust funds? Savings? Drug-dealing? A clandestine business? A sugar daddy (I grew up reading Cosmopolitan, I know about these things)?

Now, in San Francisco, I'm facing an even more financially mysterious breed: the culinary career-changer. Unlike my New York friends of leisure, these people are not dot-commers, so far as I know. They talk of previous careers in marketing, recruiting and biochem. Somehow, they have escaped these careers, attended culinary school, and are now volunteering on farms, teaching cooking classes and demonstrating recipes. And, just as in New York, I am too afraid to ask: How are you paying your bills?

The cost of culinary school, as compared to the income you make when you get out, has been well documented in the press lately: One six-month program I am interested in costs close to $20K, yet most cooking jobs I see advertised top out at $14 an hour. What am I missing?

Right now I am fortunate to have a partner who a) makes more than I do and b) is generously letting me explore my options right now. But I still feel like shit about it, and wonder how I could pay for some kind of education without coming out in the red and screwing both of us over. It makes me skeptical that I can withstand one more sunny kitchen conversation without finally buttonholing someone and asking the offensive questions.

Have you ever known someone who mystified you financially?

Thursday, July 19, 2007


My father-in-law had a stroke on Tuesday. It apparently turned out to be a "minor stroke," which is simultaneously a relief and an oxymoron. We visited him at the hospital last night.

So far, I have been fortunate enough to experience hospital rooms mostly from the vantage point of a visitor. Every time, I feel empathy to the point of nausea for the person in the bed -- not only for the physical ailment, but for having to face a circus of people at precisely the time socializing is the least desirable thing. It seems almost cruel until you consider the alternative of having no one there at all.

Even worse, the bed occupant is often completely out of it, so he is forced to witness everyone standing around and talking about him as if he isn't in the room. How bizarre, to have people talking about what you've been up to in the last 12 hours right in front of you, as if you're not there. Odder still, you're generating a fairly substantial activity report, given the fact that you're just lying there: Did you eat? Have you spoken? Have you slept? Have you walked? Have you taken any medicines, and which ones? Are you taking fluids? Are you in pain? Who has visited you? Who has treated you? What happens next? A lot is going on.

One of the immediate effects for my father-in-law, a very pensive and witty guy, was that he had trouble coming up with certain nouns and pronouns. When they asked him if he knew where he was, he resourcefully answered, "The place where babies are born." The wing where he ended up staying happened to be labeled "Intensive Care Nursery," which was both poor signage and a bad joke. From babies to the sick to the broken, consider how many people wake up in hospitals and find that the word for where they are, along with their own bodies, fall outside their command.

This week in The New Yorker, Oliver Sacks tells the story of a man who was struck by lightning and suddenly became obsessed with hearing and playing piano music. Sacks specializes in these stories of neurological mystery, which are irresistible not only because they involve unexpected twists in a brain's fate (the blind person sees, the catatonic patient awakens), but because the events often precipitate a personal transformation.

The most marvelous Sacks accounts, this recent one included, tend to follow a similar arc where something terrible, such as contracting a tumor or being struck by lightning, becomes the catalyst for some wonderful new capacity. It seems like the stuff of comic books, hardly real. In the hospital it becomes plain that such reconfigurations happen, on a smaller scale, all the damn time. Then we have to cling to the hope that the hero comes out on the other side, if not with a special new power, then at least with newfound strength.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Not an Early Adopter.

A wise Buddhist once said, "We hate suffering, but we love its causes." The most recent manifestation of this truth, for me, is the iPod's shuffle function.

The fact that I'm blogging about this and not the iPhone should illustrate how many years I am behind in caring about new technologies.

I don't like the iPod's song shuffle function very much, but it continues to mystify and intrigue me enough that I can't turn away from it. When it does something goofy such as play a song titled "Strollin'" after a song called "Jammin'," or it relentlessly ushers in depressing ballads even though my selections make it clear that I'm working out and looking for upbeat songs, or it keeps playing interludes from rap CDs while completely skipping over other artists, I wonder if the Shuffle HAL was actually designed with my irritation in mind.

Part of the problem is that my own bad taste comes back to haunt me. I mean, I never really should have loaded in the entirety of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam's greatest hits, so I can't very well blame Shuffle when I find myself tortured by an extended mix of "If I Take You Home." And how can I expect Shuffle to know that a piano rendition of "Karma Police" is not going to jump-start my gym session?

I had hoped that Shuffle would help me discover the albums in my collection ("Hey! I had never really listened to this song by Ryan Adams until my iPod dug it up for me!"), but actually it's the opposite: I realize how many of the songs are just painfully skippable at worst, or background music at best.

I used to invest a lot of time in an album: If I liked it enough to buy it, that meant I really listened to every song and knew each one, front to back. Now golden albums such as Who Is Jill Scott? commingle with the Zero 7s and Thievery Corporations of my collection. Depressive meditations contaminate exuberant pop classics, mediocrity intrudes on greatness, Linkin Park gets in my Prince. And it's all a monster of my own making.

On the other hand, the iPod can reveal aspects of your music collection that you never knew existed. For example, it turns out that my song collection could count to 10 were it not for the absence of a song starting with eight:

1-900 L.L. Cool J
2 Many Hoes (Jay -Z)
3 Chains O' Gold (Prince)
4 Leaf Clover (Erykah Badu)
5:55 (Charlotte Gainsbourg)
6 Minutes of Pleasure (L.L. again, with one of the best choruses ever: "Hey yo baby, I know you don't love me, I know why you're here, but I ain't sayin' nothing")
7 (Prince)
99 (Toto)
10 Dollar (M.I.A.)

Anybody got a shuffle-worthy eight?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Accidental Criminals.

So, a person I know did something bad.

"Really bad," the person told me. "I walked up to the ATM machine to get some cash, and the screen said, 'Do you want another transaction?' And I hit 'yes.'"

"No!" I said. "You didn't."

"I did. And then? I hit Fast Cash? And I got $100. And the person's card."

The perpetrator felt very, very bad afterward and was not sure what to do. The owner of the ATM card was nowhere to be seen. A range of options were considered: turning in the card and cash to the bank (too risky), cutting up the card and giving the money to charity (too lame), or considering it a lucky day and moving on (too unscrupulous).

"This doesn't excuse anything... I know it was bad... but I do feel a little less bad because the balance on the account was more than $20,000. I mean, I didn't take food off of anyone's table or anything."

Rationalizations aside, the thief said a feeling of nausea followed the act. I know that feeling -- it's a pit in your gut that tells you you just did something really crappy to somebody, and you have absolutely no excuse for it.

I thought about times I had experienced that feeling myself. The first thing that came to mind was an incident in fourth grade, during an indoor recess in the lunchroom. We had a supervisor named Ms. Dustin, a woman in her thirties with a large posterior, an extremely slow gait and not a shred of the authoritarian quality necessary to make us take her seriously.

I had gone to get a sponge out of a bucket on the stage of the "all-purpose room." (Remember all-purpose rooms?) I had the sponge in my hand, and saw Ms. Dustin's puffy jacket right next to me, on the floor of the stage. I slowly squeezed the sponge, with its dirty all-purpose water, over Ms. Dustin's jacket. I did it because a) I could, b) my friends were watching and thought it was highly entertaining and c) I am a terrible person.

An upset and incredulous Ms. Dustin, who had caught me in the act, brought me to the principal. With wide eyes and the pained look of an innocent accused, I swore up and down that it had been an accident. I got off the hook (apparently Ms. Dustin didn't have much clout with the principal, either), but I knew it was awful, and began the same internal self-justifications that everyone else uses to move on with their lives after doing something crummy. To this day, just thinking about the story conjures the same rush of guilty, excited nausea that comes from doing something bad and getting away with it.

The person who confessed the theft to me noted that there are cameras on ATM machines. "But, they couldn't catch me just from that, right? I mean, I wasn't stupid enough to use my own card right afterward."

I am the wrong person to turn to for any kind of comfort or reassurance in this sort of situation. Though not necessarily super-moral (as evidenced above), I am extremely paranoid. I have never smoked a cigarette or used an illegal drug, half out of a certainty that the minute I did so, a SWAT team -- together with my parents -- would immediately converge upon the scene.

"I... I don't know," I stammered. "I mean, yeah, they probably won't go after you." I was sure that just uttering the prediction had already tilted the odds toward formal charges.

A few days later, I still couldn't get the conversation out of my head. It had the potential to become a minor curse (as in the Haruki Murakami story "The Second Bakery Attack,"), and I felt that by just knowing about it and not doing anything, I was guilty too. I pushed a solution: Google the victim, find the address, and send the money back, with the card cut in half. It worked, I think... here's hoping.