Saturday, February 28, 2009

If It's Magic...

Stevie Wonder was just honored this week with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for the Popular Song. Yes, there is such a thing. Awesome, yes?

Admittedly, I feel a special kinship to Stevie and his music. My namesake comes from a woman who was one of his collaborators and was once his wife. There's a whole generation of women named Syreeta. I had almost forgotten that fact, but remembered while watching The Namesake this morning. And for that, let me be one of the Syreetas to give thanks to the maestro and his muse for inspiring love that brought us and our names into being.

Not too long ago a friend sent me this that showcases the badassness of Stevie.

Seriously, anybody who can rock out on Sesame Street like that deserves all the accolades that we the people can heap on him.

Stevie's songbook is extensive. And I have far too many favorites to name. But I want to put a spotlight on "As", commonly known as "Always". It's the classic soundtrack to any family reunion. And with good reason. This song is so dope because it can lift you up from any bad mood or malaise. No worries about all the troubles surrounding you, and this world may fall away and a new one may begin. The economy may be a shitshow and you're out of a job, but Love... Love is timeless, unconditional and everlasting. You are not alone.

Congratulations Stevie.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Miss American Pie

I remember the first time I heard this song.

It was 1989 and I was in the 8th grade. It was a few weeks before my first trip to the nation's capital. I didn't understand the lyrics then, but I knew what I felt when I heard the song. I felt like I had been born too late. Like I missed whatever the living was to be had in the world. I felt the zeitgeist of the time through this song. And I was sad that I missed it. I missed hearing John and Bobby and Martin and Malcolm. I missed the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the birth of Rock and Roll, the anti-war protests. I missed 1968. I missed Woodstock. I missed 1969. I missed the summer of love. I felt I was born to a time where nothing of any significance would happen afterward.

And honestly, the generation before me didn't help. They had their stories and insights about how they survived and struggled. How my generation didn't understand what kind of challenges they faced, how they rose to the occasion and how my generation lacks the drive to affect changes in the world. The generation before me had changed the world that I am now privileged to live in and would never let me forget that.

I'm not ungrateful. I got to go to integrated schools and secure advance degrees because of it. But the promise of the future they had fought to secure for me slowly disappeared. Now it's obvious. We're all painfully aware of the fragility of our society in this economic crisis.

This month is the 50th anniversary of the inspiration behind this song. It was in February 1959 that Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens died in a plane crash over Iowa. Don McLean makes an allusion to this tragedy in the song. It seemed to have defined him and the subsequent years of his generation. For us, September 2001 is still defining the kind of people we're becoming.

And now, I find that I'm thinking a lot about generations. And it took me some time to entertain the idea that my generation's time is Now. We're here Now. I'm not entirely sure what we'll bring into existence, but what I do hear in the ether is a desire for balance and correction. I hear in conversations I've had with friends and strangers over the past month the desire to restore balance and re-imagine what it means to be American. American identity can't solely live in the idea that we are what we consume. There must be a deeper spirit that dwells here. Don McLean came of age when his nation was in crisis and as a songwriter, gave us this gift. What will we create when we emerge from this period of difficulty? What piece of the American pie will we leave the generations to follow us?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How To Build A Better Robot, Part I

I've been thinking a lot about infrastructure lately.

I hear the word thrown around a lot, but I'm not sure if it's resonating with everyone. If some of you are faithful viewers of the Rachel Maddow show, you hear her geek out about it. I must admit, I do too. I was glad that I was not alone in the obsession about it. My former coworkers in the construction industry found my obsession odd too. It's not like I had ever got my hands dirty in any actual trade to care about joists, masonry, weepholes or footings, the shaping of the physical universe. To them, I was administrator, bean counter, be it a "marketing person." I dealt in a universe of fluff, and they did the real heavy lifting. No pun intended. But as the weeks wore on and the job reached its logical conclusion and the work slowed down, I thought about all of us in how we'd fit into the next job. Would there be a next job? The market conditions and tea leaves last fall suggested an end.

Ah, Endings. They make you think. When the site supervisor and I sat down for our weekly chat to cover the work that's been done on the project, I had this odd moment of lucidity. "Do you think that the American population realizes that we're going to have retrain the entire labor force to be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century?" I asked. He gave me a quizzical look, but then he understood and said, "I don't think they have a clue." I used our building as an example, a residential building with green building systems atypical in the existing housing stock in the New York Area. New York City has a plan campaign to decrease its carbon emissions and footprint (33% of greenhouse gas emissions comes from buildings). They soak up power, water, and air, then send out some very bad juju out into climate. Not to mention construction materials themselves that contaminate ground and water due to its inability to breakdown into a simple or complex sugar or something. You get the point.

The challenge I found in this experience is that while some of us are becoming better educated about how materials we use to shape our world have in fact harmed us, we are still challenged to invest time and resources to do more to minimize these impacts. With the growth of green building as a movement and reality in some places, the maintenance begins with the workforce population understanding the fundamentals of how to maintain the thing we've created to coexist with our ecosystem. If the porters and superintendents don't understand how to run a high efficiency boiler or an air purification system and fix it breaks down, what good have really done to better our city? If plumbers don't learn how to install a blackwater reclamation system for a building so that it reduces water waste when we flush toilets, then how are we contributing to preserving our most critical resource? How does reducing water waste support our reservoirs? Potable water wasted for toilet water doesn't do the world any good.

The ending of the boom in the housing industry presents us with a beginning. An opportunity, even. Building McMansions and condos across the lower 48 seemed like a grand idea at the time because it created wealth and jobs to mitigate the bust of 2000-2001 from the internet boom, but it also paved the way for the excesses that led to our current downturn. And all the homes that we were building didn't necessarily factor in sustainability. Fiscally or ecologically. How could it? The labor force was not schooled in the ways of mitigating impacts on the environment.

So this brings me to my current thinking about infrastructure. Infrastructure is more than the physical universe of roads, bridges, schools, power grids, levees, dams, reservoirs, trains, subways. Think of them as veins and vessels within the body. The body cannot live without the mind. Teachers, firefighters, police officers, servicemen and women flow through that universe. So do you and I. And all of us need to be a bit more educated about how we all are connected in this life. How do we individually complement the stimulus package that was just signed? Infrastructure, beyond the jobs and economic stability it can create, includes you, me and a dose of intellectual curiosity.

America is a young nation with old systems in play. All that American ingenuity we've been taught about has laid fallow for too long. It's time to build a better robot.

Are you ready?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Happy Hour

The grown ups are back.

Seriously. Didn't you feel a little of that when people talk public, national policy in press conferences, speeches and inaugural addresses? Or maybe it's me. Maybe I've grown up, and stopped looking to the previous generation as the older, wiser pool of people who have all the answers. Time has proven that they don't. They're still trying figure it out. Then there's all this talk of responsibility, accountability, owning up to mistakes. What's that? For a better part of a decade, we've had folks obfuscate facts that sent young men and women to war. That's the least of the grievances, but to continue the list is going a little off topic.

Grown ups. There's a maturity in the air. Old has become new again. And keeping with the time, if you're on the east coast, you'll notice a trend. The return of the cocktail hour. A refinement of alcoholic consumption.

It sort of explains why Mad Men hit such a cultural nerve with me. Set in recent, distant past, it also feels relevant. The cocktail culture is central to movement of the story. It's gesture and setting. It makes me crave an Old Fashioned. I don't even know what that is, but Don Draper drinks it. It looks intriguing.

Drinking had become a dirty word. Paved the way to excess and irresponsibility. So much so that the 43rd President, a reformed alcoholic, kept the White House dry during his term. But the new guy, he begs to differ. The cocktail hour has returned to the White House.

Grown ups. They talk, they drink, they share ideas. It's a pretty American tradition. The ideals of this still very young nation were discussed and debated ad nauseam in company of spirits. Alcoholic spirits. The pubs and apothecaries distributed Paine's Common Sense. That led to the insurrection of thought which ultimately led to the insurrection of deed.

Across the pond, it was in a bar in Paris that some random mathematician talked to Einstein and Picasso independent of each other that sent them both on directions that affected our physical world and perception of it. The big idea was fortuitous. We could use some of that now.

So cheers to the return of the cocktail hour and the grown ups who drink them, may it shift boundaries and manifest the big idea that can advance society and culture to its greatest good.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Future Shock

I'm not sure if they get it.

The debate over the economic stimulus package is ideological. Most economists say that we need massive, sweeping and deep intervention in the American economy from the American government. What I remember quite specifically from freshmen year econ: To spend is to beget demand which increases supply which begets production which begets jobs that beget growth in the economy for many generations to come. Amen. To quote the President, "That's the point."

What is the point of government if it's not there to intervene at time of crisis?

The ideologues of the conservative movement is still singing the gospel of Reaganism. The revisionist version.

Last night's press conference was crucial. My mom is a pharmacist tech in Wisconsin. She's not the most sophisticated American when it comes to charts, Keynesian Economics, derivatives and the ilk, but what she said to me over phone was that she likes that Obama takes the time to explain things. The President's campaign to market the stimulus package to the public seemed to work from what I was hearing on the other end of the phone.

The other significant point from the President that seems to be buried underneath chatter of post partisanship, spending, stimulus, Keynesian, is infrastructure. I highlighted the point for my mother. "There are a string of events that occurred over the past 8 years that haven't necessarily been connected in an obvious way," I said to her. "We treat them as separate events. Katrina and the levee failure in New Orleans, the Mississippi River Bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the episodes of train derailments on the east coast, the 2003 blackout, the rolling blackouts in California, the drought conditions last year in Atlanta... I could go on. Infrastructure is critical. Nationally, we haven't invested in these areas in years. If we expect to move forward into the 21st century, we need to modernize."

On the other end of the phone, I could imagine my mother's face. A startled look of comprehension and a frown, "Well, when you put it like that, that makes a lot of sense. You writing about that yet?"

Sort of, I said.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Deep Thoughts

One of my favorite publications has dived into the 21st century. The Atlantic Monthly has created an online community to gather people around the big questions of our time. With a collection of short films and clips from the magazine itself, the Atlantic's Think Again campaign has a bit of Hollywood indie flair in the presentation. Part of me is seduced by the branding. The grittier photography, the hand held camera shots at odd angles, but nonetheless, it brings a little of street and edge back to the internet. A recording of how we see ourselves now, of what we want, of what believe to be citizens now.

Sometimes I fear that in that I'm losing brain cells and intellectual curiosity in the daily routines of life. We have lost precision in our language. We repeat the same assortment of words to draw out an idea that eventually loses meaning and doesn't challenge us to elevate the conversation beyond our initial experience.

Personally, I don't think the internet, google or wikipedia makes us stupid. The innovation of lightening speed access to information killed the utility of the Dewey decimal system and public libraries have suffered because of it. But the power to discern the relevance of information gathered by the internet still lies within the individual. We are responsible for ourselves. If google leads you to a source of information, isn't it your responsibility and curiosity that will ultimately prompt you to dig deeper? Information mass produced is about as American as apple pie and McDonald's french fries. Curiosity is human. I'm going to remember that.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Say Word!

It's like he's speaking sweet policy and political nothings in my ear.

I love these words: infrastructure, power grid, comprehensive energy policy. This was some serious tough talk from the leader of the free world. Refreshingly so and honest. The macro issues are clear, the stimulus isn't necessarily a magic wand, but does set us on the path to enter the 21st century. It's clear to me that the President understands that America needs to do some self care to compete and in doing so, looking inward, we can reflect and engage our outer realities with responsibility to the world.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Winter Wonderland

The scene from my walk back from the supermarket.

Monday, February 2, 2009