Category Archives: Contemporary

Of Finite Appetites

Today I was listening to a provocative episode of The Anxious Achiever about professional envy. The specific context was consulting – how to differentiate one’s business coaching services and attract enough clients to make a living in an oversaturated market. The discussion delved into several aspects of professional envy, but the problem of markets is what I want to focus on here. Before interviewing her guest, Nihar Chhaya, host Mora Aarons-Mele invoked a metaphor that catapulted me right back to a 2015 writing conference:

There’s always more pie.

When I first heard this metaphor, I was eager for assurance that my amateur work had the potential to break through the glut of writing on the market(s). The presenter at the writing conference who insisted that “you can always make more pie” said this in good faith, as an encouraging reframe: Instead of worrying about the relative size of your slice, she reasoned, just make another pie!

I love pie. I swallowed it whole.

In the years since, I’ve grown suspicious of this metaphor. Roaming the tables at the AWP bookfair the very next year, I stopped at a friend’s booth and noted that everyone was trying to sell their writing to people who were trying to sell them their writing. The market seemed so insular. So delusional. “Look at me!” we all cried, most of us in vain. That is the nature of industry trade shows, I suppose, not to mention professional organizations. When we restrict ourselves to promoting within these markets, insularity is endemic. While not exactly fixed markets (as represented by people like myself, who were new to AWP) only the proverbial rock-stars stand out, make a living.

Sure, we can make more pie. But who is going to eat it?

The humble pie metaphor is an unintentional scam. Even if we succeed in venturing beyond our fields of practice, what becomes of our wares? Appetites are not infinite. While I’m all for adopting a worldview of abundance, we live within a capitalist system that thrives on the idea of scarcity. For writing, for services, for goods, there are limits on three key resources:

  • Time
  • Attention
  • Money

Let’s hone in on that last one. There is abundance, yes. But most of us cannot access it. Instead, the pies we make get smaller as we compete for more and more limited ingredients. So the question becomes: how do we unlock the abundance? Establishing a niche in an “untapped” market only gets you so far, since the resources within those markets are systematically being siphoned off and stored in the coffers of the ultra-rich.

It’s appropriate that in a world created by extractive capitalism, we must find ways to extract wealth from the hoarders who have benefitted from this economic system so the rest of us no longer have to struggle to survive in scarcity. Taxation, as a strategy for redistributing wealth and providing public services, has been effectively neutered in the United States, and philanthropy further consolidates power with those who are evading taxes, as they get to decide where their extracted (largely untaxed) wealth will be distributed. Thus the public ceases to exist, in that we are all overlapping categories of need, hands outstretched to benevolent philanthropists and underfunded government agencies, hoping that our needs will be sexy enough to attract whatever fraction of resources the wealthy deign to share.

The tension between scarcity and abundance will eventually break. Only then will there be enough people to eat all the pies we’ll be baking, if we can find ways to reap the ingredients.

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Filed under Contemporary, Power

Dancing with Strangers

what have we lost

what do we keep

what can we make

how

will we be

together

apart

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Filed under Contemporary, Nostalgia

Buht Wat Abowt Teh MENS?!

While perusing the Princeton University Press Anthropology catalog, I came across a book that induced such an extreme Liz Lemon eye-roll that I’m just now getting un-stuck.

Orange book cover with a white man walking - left half black and white, right half color

This may as well be called Old White Men: In Case You Forgot, We’re Really Important! Sure, we may have power over the entire species, but when you consider our deep-seated anxiety about our perceived dwindling power and cultural relevance, we don’t feel quite as on top as we assume we should be. Our supremacy is the natural order of things, after all!

The description of the book includes the phrase “how older men may have contributed to the evolution of some of the very traits that make us human.” UGH.

Old White Men: the unmarked category BECAUSE SCIENCE.

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Filed under Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Power

How We Die in America

Evelyn “Evie” Chavoor would have been 100 this year. I don’t remember as much of her story as I should. Born in December, 1917, she attended UCLA and spent many years working for Helen Gahagan Douglas. By the time I knew Evie, she had retired but remained a force and followed politics closely. She was devastated when Edwards was outed as a philandering creep–he had been her candidate. I think she eventually backed Obama. We spent time together talking in her apartment, making trips to the grocery store, and visiting the doctor. She was one of my best friends in Washington, D.C.

I inherited her friendship from my great Aunt Isabelle, whose apartment my mother had inherited and in which I resided about ten years ago. On her 90th birthday, at a crowded party thrown by another friend in the building, she wore a sparkly plastic crown and an outfit that my mother intimated had cost thousands of dollars. She celebrated her 91st birthday in a nursing home, among four or five of us, in a shirt and slacks.

Evie had a brother who had studied law but became disillusioned when he realized that lawyers didn’t want to defend the law, but rather find ways around it. She seemed proud of him when she told this story. I think he died while she was still living in her apartment, but when I asked if she would fly out to California for the funeral, she said no. Flying is difficult when you’re hale and hearty. Once able to climb the stairs between our floors, she now took the elevator.

My great-aunt lived for many years with her mother, who mainly spoke Armenian. Evie was Assyrian and remembered Isabelle’s mother chastising her for using Turkish words. The word I associate most with Evie is “okie-doke.” And the phrase, “wellllll…I don’t know about that!” She was sharp and funny and opinionated and a general delight.

Around March of 2008, Evie went to the emergency room. Among other issues, she had a wound on her leg that wouldn’t heal. After about a week in the hospital, she was transferred to a nursing home up the street from our apartment building, where she lived for the rest of her life. For several months, I visited her almost every day. Our friendship grew so intimate that I assisted her in the bathroom. When someone you love asks for your help in there, you just provide what they need. That Fourth of July, I brought an assortment of berries–red and white–so share with her and her frenemy, Angelina, who had resided in the nursing home longer and was much more willing to engage in the provided social activities. As a result, she was happier than Evie, who always intended to return home.

My daily visits ended at some point during the summer, where we had a bit of a spat over some papers I was supposed to get her to sign. She, understandably, wanted to know what she was signing, and I tried to explain it to her, but she wouldn’t accept my explanation. This was probably because of the medication they were giving her, which caused her to mistrust me, forget what a platypus was and, one scary evening, to ask me, pleading, when her mother and father were going to arrive. I had to stop visiting her every day for my own mental health. Eventually, they readjusted her medications, which improved hers.

I’m still not sure why she was never able to return home. She wasn’t getting physically better, but home care could have met her needs and might have even been less expensive than the $18k/month nursing home. Her niece was more or less responsible for her, but she lived in California, and during her visits seemed to be unable to make any progress when it came to finding Evie alternate care. Evie refused her niece’s offer to move in with her–she wanted to go home, not across the country. If she wasn’t going to travel for her brother’s funeral, she certainly wasn’t going to travel now that she could barely walk. At one point I created a list of local home health care agencies. It’s possible her niece looked at it.

One of the last times I spoke with Evie, my mom was visiting her. I remember my mom saying I wouldn’t want to see her like this. I think I told Evie I loved her.

Eight years ago, I was waiting on the banks of Lake Michigan for the fireworks to begin. Upon waking, I had learned it would be over 100 in Chicago that day. Anything over 75 in the summer being disgusting, I spent the morning hooking up a window air-conditioner. It was a convenient way to avoid working on my graduate thesis. As I waited in the sticky night, my cellphone rang. It was my mother. “You know how Evie loved America…” Evie had died on the Fourth of July. I don’t remember if she was alone.

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Filed under Contemporary

Idle Banner Thoughts

A few weeks ago I was driving around town when I saw a banner hanging over an intersection:

“Firefighter’s Association Annual Pancake Breakfast”

I remember attending these as a child, with their mediocre–if plentiful–pancakes, opportunities to sit in fire engines, and probably stickers and balloons. My understanding is that this is a common event around the United States. How did this get started? I understand that part of the purpose is to build awareness about fire safety within a given community, starting with young children, and perhaps raise funds for the organization. Free food is a tried and true method of ensuring attendance at most events.

But what’s the (historical?) connection between pancakes and firefighters?

A breakfast puzzle…

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Filed under Contemporary