Monday, May 31, 2010

Upon The Roof, or the Thrills and Bummers of Writing For gbNYC

So, part of my day gig at The Real Estate Place I Won't Name involves writing and editing short, nominally pithy write-ups of different luxury rental buildings and condominiums in Manhattan. (The rest of the job: suicidal ideation, avoiding being proselytized by super-religious co-workers, hearing stridently hetero agents awkwardly gay-bait one another) This has benefited me in a couple of ways, most notably reminding me how incredibly many places in this city I cannot currently afford to live in and reassuring me that all those places contain essentially the same apartments.

There are exceptions, of course, but the unconscious real estate ogling even resolutely starving-artist fucks like myself fall prey to in NYC recedes somewhat once you've written about a couple hundred luxury condos. I love lower Manhattan, but I'd sooner move to Staten Island than live in one of the depressingly "fully loaded" office-to-condo conversions in the Financial District that were built as Awesome Amenitized Dorms for Finance Douches(tm) before that industry ate cosmic shit. Ditto for the identikit luxury rental spots in Hell's Kitchen built for the same purpose, which attempt to make up in indoor driving ranges and billiards rooms and "residents-only lounges" what they lack in mass transit access or being surrounded by anything but windswept parking lots. This isn't to say that the Upper East Side is the hugest improvement on a windswept parking lot when it comes to, say, bars that aren't total nightmares of beer-ponged sadness. But while it's reassuring to know that our goofy co-op isn't necessarily any less appealing than other places to live in Manhattan, another building-related writing gig of mine does kind of bring home the degree to which living in New York City could be a lot better than it is. That woudl be my daily bloggy work at Green Buildings NYC.

I like the gbNYC work a lot, for the most part: it's interesting to me, for one thing, and the guy who created the site has been my friend since kindergarten. More to the point, it's definitely more useful for me to know and write about green building than about, say, the Mets or the odious Papa John Schnatter. Largely because of the shape into which this city forces the lives of its residents, living in New York is inherently very sustainable -- New Yorkers' per capita carbon footprint is astonishingly small, weird though that may seem -- but a great many of the buildings in New York are old and inefficient and many DON'T EVEN HAVE RESIDENTS-ONLY LOUNGES. The one in which I live is inarguably one of those, and I was actually startled to discover that it was actually not one of the alarmingly many (often quite nice) buildings on the Upper East and Upper West Sides of Manhattan using the ultra-nasty, super-toxic boiler sludge known as Number Six heating oil. My wife and I are planning to have some cocktails on our building's roof tonight before making dinner -- this is rocking hard by our standards, and if we watch some Friday Night Lights afterwards one of us will likely black out from overexertion -- which sounds pretty great until you remember (or are told by me) that our roof deck consists of a dozen square feet of pavers surrounded by a vast expanse of very hot tar paper on which we're technically forbidden to step foot. Upper East Side, man.

Or, "Upper East Side, man, but also weirdly par for the course." All that tar paper is terribly inefficient, of course -- it traps heat and thus both makes the building hotter (taxing our always ready-to-fail HVAC system) and contributes to the Urban Heat Island thing that makes Manhattan a good couple degrees warmer than, say, Queens. But, as with all those buildings rocking Old Number Six -- which is literally an oil production byproduct that's barely used as a heating source elsewhere in the US -- it also just doesn't need to be this way.

Whitewashing the roof would be cheap and help the HVAC out a lot, but a green roof could turn the space into something transcendent (and also cool the building considerably, help with stormwater runoff, etc). Green roofs are also very expensive and, as I wrote at gbNYC earlier last week, not really catching on in New York City. Some of those gbNYC posts can be kind of tough sledding for those who don't ordinarily care about green building stuff -- this one, for instance, is kind of a big deal, but probably won't seem so to you -- but I think this one is a pretty good introduction to what I'm doing over there, and I recommend it. I also recommend living someplace that prioritizes giving residents an awesome lawn 30 stories above the street over giving residents a computerized golf simulator, but good luck finding one.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

What We Moan About When We Moan About The Mets

Self-biting: not in good taste, but who are you going to criticize? All you can do is acknowledge it, which is what I'll do here: the title of this post is lifted from one I used for my last long, overreactive (over)analysis of a minor move by the New York Mets at Can't Stop the Bleeding. I'm using it again because I can't imagine I'll come up with a better headline, but mostly because I just wrote another such long n' florid Mets-related overreaction.

Once again, it pertains to the painful botching of what should, again, have been something so minor that even an obviously unbalanced person such as myself could barely care about it. But in the same way that the Mets managed to make adding a washed-up veteran backup (something they've done literally hundreds of times over the past few years) into an exploded drawing of their own goofball managerial anti-prowess -- or came close enough that I could dedicate 1200 (uncompensated!) words to describing it as such -- the team managed to make putting a mid-rotation starter on the DL into a similarly carnivalesque affair.

I am not expecting much in the way of on-field success from the Mets this year, which is nothing new. But despite that expectation-revision, I've somehow found a way to be disappointed. Some of this is on me. But much of it is on them -- on manager Jerry Manuel and pitching coach Dan Warthen and GM Omar Minaya and the Hapsburgian Wilpon tard-dynasty -- for un-exceeding those low expectations: for popping champagne after acquiring The Least Valuable Player in Baseball, for proving hellbent on turning a potential ace starter into Guillermo Mota, for not being able to put poor John Maine on the DL without somehow humiliating and insulting the guy, making a bunch of unilluminating, free-associative non-explanations into open microphones, and generally continuing to give the impression that the entire organization exists in a consequence-free zone of upside-down reasoning, double-secret paranoia and retrograde illogic. This sort of low-yield high-handedness and general ineptitude is pretty much the team's calling card over the last few years, although it hasn't lost its power to shock and depress. Or at least to do that to me. Evidently. That is definitely evident.

Obviously, this is not quite the worst it has ever been. (Look right, but know that that's not really the worst, either) And anyway, it's not like it hasn't kind of been thus for a couple decades now. As much fun as I had with, say, the 2000 or 2006 Mets, it was clear that those teams were outliers. The Wilpons are very rich, but have always sort of struck me as fairly dim, and uniquely susceptible to the sort of dim confidence that plays well in interviews (with the Wilpons, not with newspapers) -- thus Steve Phillips (Gerard's headline on that post is perfect, and this one's pretty good, too) and Omar Minaya and Tony Bernazard (one of my all-time least favorites) and some of the other, lesser lights who have held important administrative roles for the Wilps. Stupid is as stupid finds appealing and worthy of confidence.

So where does this leave me, besides bashing out long exegeses of the hows and whys certain things suck/are-ridiculous and etc. Really, honestly, probably more or less where I've been since I was seven years old: watching the Mets on television. I love baseball, and I love that uniform, and there are still some guys on the Mets that I find interesting and inspiring to watch. And I'm not going to pay for MLB season ticket so I can put myself in the hands of a more ideologically simpatico organization like the Rays or Angels or Mariners. The thought of it doesn't seem appealing for even a minute, although I enjoy watching those teams play. In my life as a fan, I've never been able to pull off consciously choosing to care about one team or another. It just sort of happens, and not-caring about the Mets hasn't happened yet. (After the ongoing insult of the New Jersey Nets' Ratner Years, though, I did sort of stop caring. So it's possible)

I don't want to stop caring about the Mets, and while I want them to get their shit together in terms of being a little less embarrassing to work for, cheer for and watch, I don't even know how much I really want them to lose all the flubbiness. If they were mechanized infantry a la the Yankees, I think I'd find it hard to cheer or care. But I would love a little less incompetence than this. The losing I can take; I'm used to it. It's the so-thoroughly-deserving-it, at a number of different levels, that makes me sad. Anyway, the Mets unrelenting (and somehow maybe worsening, after the grueling death march of last year) Metsiness does at least ensure that I get plenty of screeding and ranting practice, and I need something to get those adjectives out of my system. I would love to feel less obligated to do all that typing, though. I would also love for them to send Jennry Mejia to Binghamton so he could become a starting pitcher. I don't expect either anytime soon.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Belated Bloggy Self-Promotion Moment: Blockbuster Knockoffs and More, at Slate

I'm still trying to figure out the fine points of self-promotion, here at David Roth The Writer, the Internet's Premier Site About David Roth, The Writer(tm). Obviously that sort of thing was this site's original purpose, although I haven't been terribly zealous about keeping things within the originally proscribed guidelines. (For instance) Some of this is because I'm just kind of geeked to have a place to write about whatever, and much of it is because I'm a little careless with my (strictly notional) brand as a general rule. It's like if I don't acknowledge that it exists, I won't have to deal with my ambivalence about being able to apply the word "brand" to myself. It works okay, actually.

Obviously, when I have a biggish deal piece like my compare-and-contrast between low-budget hit Paranormal Activity and its lower-budget knockoff Paranormal Entity at Slate, I'm going to link to it here. (The handsome devil above is Shane Van Dyke, grandson of Dick and director of Paranormal Entity) But despite the fact that I've felt like garbage -- or rather like a person whose sinuses are filled with garbage -- all week, I've actually done a great deal of other writing of late, and not actually put up the Slate piece. I suppose it might be a good idea -- or it might not -- to go into why.

I've written and edited some on my novel, and really and truly for the last time appear to be in the home stretch there. (Hopefully) (But I think maybe this time for real) But mostly I've been doing blogging work, paid and unpaid: three Daily Fixes at the WSJ (here's today's) and four posts at Can't Stop the Bleeding of variable interest to non-sports people -- rumors about LeBron James' mom sleeping with a backup guard on his team don't do it for you? maybe then a speculative grouse about the travails of smart football players? -- and the usual quota at Greenbuildingsnyc and this strange real estate place I work for, which I really probably shouldn't write too much about here. Some may be more worth reporting than others, but here as in real life I have tried to err on the side of too-little self-promotion rather than too much. Which is, again, absolutely 180 degrees from what this web-place is supposed to be about. So you see the problem.

But there's another reason why I was late on putting up the Slate piece, which came out while I was on my honeymoon. I didn't put it up right away because I was in Florence or Siena or somewhere and there were obviously better things to do/eat. But sometime between when it went up and the second-to-last night of the honeymoon, my editors at Slate took down a throwaway joke that had been in the piece and issued a qualified correction, in response to what some commenters were calling plagiarism. I emailed my editor after I saw this and asked what was up, and he emailed back quickly and seriously -- he would've gotten in touch with me, but figured (reasonably) I'd be out of touch while on my honeymoon. The whole exchange was good-terms, if not good-times, throughout, and I can only hope that his impression of the working-together experience was as positive as mine. It was embarrassing, but I've made mistakes before in print and dealt with it, and it didn't seem or feel like a big deal -- a botch I wish hadn't happened, obviously, but just that. It helped, of course, that I knew it was an accident and not a conscious thing, but while I'm really happy with the piece that resulted, and proud of it, I have spent a lot of the time since then wondering how big a deal I should consider this to be.

I have been and will be accused of a multitude of writerly sins, and I'll be guilty of a lot of those. My worst-ever mistake as a professional freelancer involved a toxic combination of excessive credulousness and hubris, and it involved this piece, and I can't really write about it right now. It was very embarrassing and I still feel very badly about it. But I've made other mistakes: I get little things factual wrong in the Daily Fix on occasion, and of course I can be strident and over-digressive and overlong and whatever else. These are all issues with Me the Person as well as Me the Writer, and so I can't say I was necessarily the most surprised to find them cropping up/fucking up in my work life. Plagiarism, honestly, is just not something I'd ever even considered as a potential issue.

What had happen was: a little joke in the Slate piece was, as commenters pointed out, fairly similar in structure to one made by Wired's Brian Raftery in this piece about The Asylum, the low-budget, knockoff-intensive movie studio I wrote about in Slate. I read Raftery's article in the print edition of Wired -- because I'm one of those (old) people that still gets magazines in the mail -- and probably should've read it again before doing the piece, if only so that whatever of Raftery's piece was latent in my unconscious would've been less latent and therefore would also have been less actually and embarrassingly present in the piece. I didn't, and I didn't, and I didn't, and the next thing you know: an embarrassing coda to a piece that felt, in just about every other regard, like something of a win. I know I didn't do wrong, here, and my editor believes that too, and so while it's embarrassing and frustrating to have screwed up, I'm not tearing myself up inside over it. Or not over just this.

But it's a part of something bigger that has been nagging at me for awhile. There's very little in the way of unambiguous victories, from my experience, in freelance writing. Write a great piece you're proud of? Terrific, send it to your friends and parents and don't spend all 300 of those dollars in one place/portion-of-rent-check. Write something for money you don't care as much about? How proud you must be. And so for the emotional sustenance a writer needs, from readers and from him/herself, I'm left with the things I don't get paid for. When it comes to satisfaction on my own terms, I have the novel, which might yet pay, and the stuff for CSTB and The Awl and here. That's not a living, obviously, but it's the stuff that makes me feel most creatively alive, and so I need it. I'd hoped, when I tried to make a career of this, that somehow all of the above could share the same space -- enough money coming in from the work I care about to make possible work I care even more about, with stuff I don't care about picking up the slack. It's not happening, and that's vexing. It'd probably be less vexing if the pieces I was proud of didn't come with corrections and semi-retractions on them, but that's on me. The whole deal kind of is, as is solving this problem. Anyway, yeah: enjoy the Slate piece. I did.

Heads Ain't Ready: The Bleak Joys of Libertarianism Hitting the Mainstream

There's not ready for prime time and there's not ready for prime time. There's pulling your starting pitcher after one batter and five pitches, and then giving a quote to the media after the game describing said starting pitcher as "a habitual liar as far as his health." (Pitching coach Dan Warthen didn't mean it in a bad way, but still) For example, there's that, and that is bad. That is not ready for prime time.

And then there is the inevitable oofiness that results when libertarian adults -- the baby pigeons of political discourse -- get their turn in the public eye. What works well (?) in dorm rooms and fuming, why-can't-you-let-me-be-great high school papers doesn't necessarily work when you apply it to actual problems in the actual world where people actually live. This is not the entirety of the reason why Ayn Rand was such a miserable human, but it surely has something to do with it. Living in an abstraction, whether that abstraction is hopeful or hopelessly venal, is not a good recipe for a life that makes sense. All of which is to say: this fucking Rand Paul guy, right?

I'll admit that I'm not the hugest fan of Rachel Maddow. If Keith Olbermann = Bill O'Reilly - Everyman Posturing + X-Treme Baseball Card Knowledge, then Maddow = Olbermann - Overwhelming Sanctimony + Self-Amusement. In short, not someone I make a point to watch. It's obvious on which side my partisanship falls -- on the side of LIBERTY! -- but I hope never to get my amusement, let alone my information, from proudly partisan news from either side. (As long as baseball exists in this world, I doubt that will be an issue) That said, Maddow did a really excellent job getting on some Inspectah Deck shit in re: the Rand Paul interview. That is, she sat back and let him play himself. Omitted from Raekwon's description of Deck was that he would let you play yourself on the question of whether or not you would vote for 1964's Civil Rights Act, but honestly you just assume that's what he was talking about. It's implied. I shouldn't have to spell this out for you.

And maybe equally implicit is the giant all-caps FAIL that eventuates when doctrinaire libertarianism finds itself in the less-hospitable environs of human-world politics (or, failing that, MSNBC). It's one thing to wave some "Government = Tyranny" sign at a silly protest, but it's quite another to stand for government office on more or less the platform that you don't believe in government. What it says about America that people keep voting for that is something best left to Mark Lilla, probably. But the many ridiculous things that Rand Paul has said -- this morning, Paul termed Obama's criticism of BP's appalling non-cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon spill as "sound[ing] really un-American in his criticism of business" -- are all coming from a discoverable place. When Jim Bunning, whom Paul wants to replace, pops off and gets peevish and holds up unemployment benefits, it's happening because he's old and grumpy and hurt that no one has talked about his perfect game for an hour. When Rand Paul does all this, he's doing it with his whole heart, because he is an adult libertarian who really believes that prior to the New Deal government had nothing to do with business, and that the market is better at regulating itself than the state is, and that expressing anger at a company -- a fucking appalling company, in terms of health and environmental and labor violations -- is un-American. Successful companies, after all, being heroes, and governments tending inherently towards the tyrannical. Because the self-interest of the bureaucrat (boo!) or politician (boo-er!) is uglier than that of the bottom line-oriented businessman? Well, because. Actually, it's because.

This wish to see every businessperson as John Galt is childish enough -- pandering Republican stump-speech bullshit gone rampant and wild-eyed after decades in a deafening echo chamber. But factor in the thing that Paul got in trouble for -- a blithe, let-the-market-decide approach to legislating qua legislating -- and there is the temptation to just dismiss all this out of hand, and it's not one of those temptations that needs to be dismissed out of hand. It's one thing to believe in the dark magic of markets -- it would really be hard not to; this is the same market that created and then destroyed a market in derivatives and swaps that's many times the size of the world economy, which is admittedly more than I did last year. But it's another thing entirely to have apparently been awake and sentient for the last three years and still bang on the "markets are inherently more efficient and moral" argument, to believe that anytime something goes wrong with a market it is the result of extra-market perversion, to still believe that such a thing as "enlightened self-interest" necessarily exists.

For individuals, maybe, it does. But anyone living outside of their parents' home who insists/persists in seeing this as a world in which things happen because individuals make decisions is just being childish. Make your personal lunchtime decisions however you please, of course, but don't pretend that the systems and structures of our world are somehow artificial abstractions. They aren't. They are the world. If you're some goofus in an rEVOLution t-shirt, you can maybe afford to ignore that, I guess. If you're running for the Senate, you shouldn't act surprised when people start killing you for not believing in the legitimacy of (for starters) basic government action by the Senate. An impulse is not a philosophy, and crypto-Glenn Beck libertarianism isn't something that can win elections, let alone arguments. One hopes. Paul is obviously already trying to spin this as him being victimized by the liberal media, and a Republican can win in Kentucky saying a lot of things roughly this bad.

You know all this already, I'm sure. But one last point bears repeating -- the idea that somehow private enterprise and the public sector exist independently of one another, and in inherent conflict, is just flat false. Salon's Gabriel Winant does an economical job roasting this treasured libertarian canard:

Never, and I mean never, has there been capitalist enterprise that wasn't ultimately underwritten by the state. This is true at an obvious level that even most libertarians would concede (though maybe not some of the Austrian economists whom Rand Paul adores): for the system to work, you need some kind of bare bones apparatus for enforcing contracts and protecting property. But it's also true in a more profound, historical sense. To summarize very briefly a long and complicated process, we got capitalism in the first place through a long process of flirtation between governments on the one hand, and bankers and merchants on the other, culminating in the Industrial Revolution. What libertarians revere as an eternal, holy truth is in fact, in the grand scheme of human history, quite young. And if they'd just stop worshiping for a minute, they'd notice the parents hovering in the background.

This story is several days old and I'm not saying anything you haven't heard before. I'm just glad to be feeling a bit healthier -- allergies don't exist in Italy, apparently? But really, really exist in New York? -- and to have a moment of time in which to beat up on one of my least favorite political philosophies. And of course I'm overjoyed to somehow get Jerry Manuel and Dan Warthen in there, up top. Why don't you guys believe in a functioning state? How can you still believe that the market will correctly govern itself without at least moderate regulation and oversight? Answer the questions, Jerry!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Review of the New York Review of Books, Continued

New theme! I'm moving away from doing the bloggy and sporadic Director's Comment Track on The Criterion DVD For My Own Unreleased Autobiopic and in a new direction that will hopefully attract more elderly intellectual readers who personally know Joan Didion. Or something. What I'm saying is that I know I've linked to the New York Review of Books a lot. Or a lot relative to the total number of actual linkings-to or writing-of anything, here.

But between this piece by Mark Lilla and the excerpt from Tony Judt's Ill Fares The Land that I linked to in the pre-honeymoon (PH) period, I think I can justify it. I spent my honeymoon enjoying Italy and being with my wife and being surrounded by expertly prepared food served to people who really just care an incredible lot about it, but I also did read the Judt book, and it's pretty amazingly great -- a simultaneously very simple and very profound look at what's rotten in the way we think about and talk about and govern ourselves. In short, the sort of thing you'd really enjoy reading in a clothing store in Italy while your wife tries on clothes. Hold on... I just found out that blurb will be on the back of the paperback edition! Awesome, I'm honored.

Here's Lilla on the Tea Party Thing. I'll admit that a NYRB take on this could be witheringly out of touch and UWS and goonishly elitist, but Lilla is not. He dismisses, as he kind of must, but he does so with a depth of perspective that you occasionally don't get from, you know, Elite Cosmopolitan Intellectuals:

But what happens after the class president is sworn in and the homecoming queen is crowned? The committees dissolve and normal private life resumes. And that, I suspect, is what will happen to the Tea Party organizations: after tasting a few symbolic victories they will likely dissolve. This is not only because, being ideologically allergic to hierarchy of any kind, they still have no identifiable leadership. It is because they have no constructive political agenda, though the right wing of the Republican Party would dearly love to attach its own to them. But the movement only exists to express defiance against a phantom threat behind a real economic and political crisis, and to remind those in power that they are there for one thing only: to protect our divine right to do whatever we damn well please. This message will be delivered, and then the messengers will go home. Every man a Cincinnatus.

The whole deal is worth reading. Mo' professional stuff coming once my body re-acclimates to being on this particular continent.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

And So To Italy

And that's that for now. I suppose there's a chance I post something while in Italy, but if I'm blogging on my honeymoon it should only really be a post about how I shouldn't be blogging on my honeymoon. Which actually sounds like something I'd do, but... anyway, ciao for now, back in early-mid-May.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

How To See Treme Differently

Even after a beautiful-looking first episode, I was already perilously close to saving Treme for accidental Saturday-afternoon watchings. This is due to reasons I've already written about and for reasons I might write more about later, after I actually watch the third episode and make that opinion relevant. For all the problems with the show, though -- almost all of which come down to writing issues -- the one I feel worst about is John Goodman.

He does a good enough job, but he's so big, and whatever he's doing performance-wise is so hidden beneath his own sad bulk, that I've found it difficult just to watch him gasp and waddle around. He was obviously never a svelte guy -- well, he was once, back in his CHUD/Big Easy period -- but he looks like he has gained 80 pounds since "The Big Lebowski." His size and apparent illness -- he looks like a bag full o' whiskey and roux -- makes it hard to imagine him giving another performance like the ones I loved in not only Lebowski but even in less memorable, goofier movies like "Fallen." He does a hilarious Mick Jagger impersonation in that which I don't think he'd be mobile -- facially, even -- to do now.

What I'm saying is, I liked him better in the "Miracles" video and Big Money Rustlas. (The image is from here, and I took the link from Videogum)