A Nervous, Ill-humored Parrot

We are meant to read Draft #4 by John McPhee for the Bedrosian Book Club, but we’re scheduled up on books, I’m not sure when we are going to get to it, and I fanatically love writing about writing. I once remember–I don’t know what writer it was, but John Updike comes to mind–a writer who noted that writers are always asking other writers about their process, which always really comes down to the question “Are you as crazy as I am?” He felt he didn’t need that question answered. I find that I very much do need an answer to that question.

So when I got my hands on Draft #4: On the Writing Process, I put it aside, telling myself that I would wait to read it when we were scheduled, but it called to me, and bore a hole in my forehead wanting me to read it, just like ice cream calls to me from inside the fridge. And so I devoured it over the weekend.

There are so many gems in this little volume I have to share:

Writers come in two principal categories: those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure.

What spoke to me most this time out was McPhee’s openness about how much he hates to talk about what he is working on. I hate talking about work in progress. I’ve hated it since I was a consultant, and that’s a really bad setting for this particular quirk because nobody trusts you to write in secrecy, and you have to check in with a team constantly, and all of them are blathering about the writing, and touching it and commenting on it, and ruining your life that way.

This problem continued through graduate school. Now, Randy Crane, bless him, didn’t really seek out conversations with me. But Brian Taylor is super verbal and collaborative: he loved to talk with his graduate students about research, and I became churlish about it. This is highly, highly dysfunctional, and it’s all my fault. It became one of the many things leading me to neurotic and difficult as a graduate student. Brian good-heartedly taught a class on writing one’s dissertation proposal which was agony for me every single week. There were only two students in it, and the other student was a courteous, pleasant, non-insane person. And me. It didn’t help that by that time, one of my steadying influences, Jeff Brown, now at FSU, had graduated. Jeff had a very good way of dealing with my nonsense, and without him, grad school got harder for me.

I won’t relate all the embarrassing stories of what I did in the class to avoid talking about my project because these are terrible. Brian and my classmate suffered mightily. But I tried. I really, really did. And I produced a terrible proposal that Randy rejected out of hand.

The academy is a tough place for people who don’t like to talk about what they are working on. People are always asking, you have to tell people what you are going to do on your sabbatical application, you have to report your plans for the next year. It’s viewed as precious and self-indulgent not to be able to talk about your projects.

But I really, really can’t. I obviously can, but it hurts my thinking and writing a lot. God, if there is one thing I could change about my academic career, it would have been telling anybody that I was working on a book. I should have said nothing. Telling people upped the stakes for me: if people know about it, I have to deliver it, and now that it’s taken awhile, it has to be good. It doesn’t help that my colleagues, save for David Sloane (endlessly patient, bless him) and Martin Krieger, have not been terribly supportive. I get remarks like “That book is taking awhile–cha!” accompanied by a little snort that says “you aren’t fooling me; you’re not working on anything.” And “I’m just not sure you are a productive book writer.” The one university press editor I was talking to about it made a mistake, thinking he was talking about somebody else’s book (but it was apparent he was thinking about mine) and referred to it, sarcastically, as a “supposedly world-changing book.” I stopped interacting with him shortly after, which is a shame because he is an amusing man, his disdain for my book idea notwithstanding. My father-in-law, a mathematician, asks “Do I dare even ask about the book?” A friend of mine asks about whether I have finished every time we get together, which is about twice a month. Another colleague sucks air between her teeth, in the same way one reacts to descriptions of car crashes, when I tell her about an interaction I had with another university press editor: “that’s not good, not good.”

Jesus slamming Christ on a cracker, people.

I don’t need this kind of help to get scared off and neurotic about a project. People looking at it makes me get anxious, and then I start to behave badly, and then because people are looking and it’s taking me a long time, that means it really does have to be great, truly great, because if it’s not great after all this time, it will establish once and for all that I am a terrible scholar, a lousy writer, and waste of oxygen on planet earth. Q.E.D. All those comments are verifying what I have already said in my head 14,000,000 times, thanks a bunch, you poopface.

It was reassuring to read McPhee’s riffs on this problem:

When I come out and walk around, bumping into friends, they tend to ask me “What are you working on?” Which is one reason I don’t often come out and walk around. I always feel like a parrot answering that question, and a nervous, ill-humored parrot if I am writing a first draft.”

One reason I’ve always wanted to keep the writing to myself is, simply, that when I get neurotic about something, there seems to be no limit of dignity that I will sacrifice in the search for reassurance. McPhee now has two daughters, both of whom seem to represent the two, binary states I can exist in:

Jenny grew up to write novels, and at this point has published three. She keeps everything close-handed, says nothing, and reveals nothing as she goes along. I once asked her if she had been thinking about starting another book, and she said “I finished it last week.” Her sister Martha, two years younger, has written four novels. Martha calls me up nine times a day to tell me writing is impossible, that she’s not cut out to do it, that she’ll never finish what she is working on, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth and so on, and I, who am probably disintegrating a third of the way through an impossible first draft, am supposed to be the Rock of Gibraltar. A talking rock: “Just stay at it; perseverance will change things.” “You’re so unhappy you sound authentic to me.” “You can’t make a fix unless you know what is wrong.”

Those are my two states of being, all or nothing, Jenny and Martha, and a grumpy parrot with wet feathers to boot. Randy Crane,I suspect, intuited this fairly early on. He tried to be supportive of my Martha problems, but then he began to see that was a bottomless pit of need for reassurance, and he made me knock it off. And, bless his heart, he generally stayed out of my creative process: he read things I sent him, but he was either smart enough to know it wasn’t good to get me talking about it, or he was just too busy to bother. Either way, his ignoring my work let me sneak up on it, too.

So let’s talk about the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen, the traveling we have done, and the leaves falling from the trees, the garden, home improvements, or the sun crashing into the earth someday. I’m going to go work. On something. Maybe.

Grace Peng helps update me on water issues, brilliantly

Ok, so part of my climate change worry about southern California is that the recent fires have freaked me the hell out. But in response to this post about water, Grace Peng wrote an informative comment that she couldn’t post because the comments close after a few days (I’m finding that lessens the “shut yer yap, you bitch” comments but still allows for most commenting.)

I’m grateful Grace took the time to update, so I thought I would post her comment here, as a guest post. Thanks for the taking the time, Grace!!

Grace Peng is a data specialist at the NCAR Research Data Archive.She blogs about water and environment issues at Bad Mom, Good Mom.You may find the water posts particularly useful.

My comments are in parentheses. Everything else is all Grace. She writes.

I read “which would flood low-lying coastal communities.” differently than you did. I read that to mean just a few places like Marina del Rey and areas of Long Beach and Huntington Beach. Most of LA county’s coastline has cliffs so most of our coastal neighborhoods are well above 10 feet. In fact, my Redondo Beach neighborhood is 100′ elevation. Thank-you tectonic uplift!

1a. Fun fact, as the Pacific plate continues to lift up the North American plate along the CA coast, our elevation grows. Unfortunately, we are not growing taller fast enough to outrun sea level change–but every millimeter helps, right? a 30-50% offset in sea level rise is nice.

2. LA and SoCal has been adding residents while TOTAL water use has been flat or declining. Household (indoor) water use is no longer considered a consumptive use. We’ve done that while keeping our local water tables the same or growing it slightly, even during drought years.

We are able to do this because we’ve been adding water recycling capacity. We are the US leaders in water recycling and the envy
of municipalities around North America.

Water independence is possible for the SoCal region if we do some things right (and we’ve made a good start.)

– Making our region permeable so that we let rain soak into the ground instead of flushing out to sea.
– Expand water recycling
– Pay to retrofit old homes of poorer people with water saving fixtures and appliances (like paying to keep super-polluting clunkers off the streets.)
– Replumb our area to reduce leaks
– Greatly reduce landscape water use (but keep green lungs in all parts of the city.) Bel Air does not need more grass or fountains. But South LA does need more grass and water features.
– Adopt a smaller version of the CA Water Plan, with smaller tunnels. We need to replace the CA aqueduct because of sea level rise in the delta, fish, earthquake resistance, and subsidence problems in the Central Valley.

3. The Colorado River Compact does over-allocate the water available. However, states have been very, very cooperative in ‘banking’ water they are not using and letting another state use it when they need it. The CO River states have been acting as a regional re-insurance program for dry years. We are spreading the risk of dry years between UT/CO and CA/NV/AZ/NM.

3a. Already, some water compact entities are moving to flexible ‘water units’ instead of specified acre feet. In Northern CO, ‘Northern Water’ compact water rights holders get a specified water unit (which used to be acre feet.) During wet years, a water unit is ~50% of an acre foot. During dry years, one water unit = one acre foot. During wet years, farmers need less water for irrigation. They use less with the assurance that farmers in a different region will reciprocate when they need the water.

4. Climate models show that we are not going to get less precipitation in the SW. It will be about the same or slightly drier on an annual basis. The big change will be in the timing and the type of storms that will hit us. Think fewer slow, soaking rains and more gushing atmospheric rivers. In the higher elevations and NorCal, they will get more rain and less snow.

Future climate is different, and we have to develop a different infrastructure. But, at least for water, we are an unusually cooperative region with the wealth and knowledge to help ourselves.

Tons of good links to follow:

Thanks so much, Grace!

When a student dies

I virtually never see this subject discussed, which is strange granted that it happens, not as a matter of routine, but often enough. I have no idea why the topic is not discussed more openly. I see there is a Reddit thread on it, but I’ve decided the Internet is basically just a place where Men Explain Things To Me (and, more wonderfully, cat pictures) and I don’t want to see the likely unkindness on display in comments when somebody exposes a vulnerability on Reddit..

I think the reason it’s so seldom discussed is that teachers are supposed to have, I suppose, some clinical distance. You aren’t their <em>parents</em>, after all, so getting attached in such a way that a student’s death actually leads you to grieve sounds like a lack of boundaries. It’s modernist holdover, maybe, in a profession where you must care for somebody in what is an intimate and important transformation–learning–but not care, so that any indicator you have gotten too close is weakness. It’s a high wire.

And yet, I feel a student’s death keenly. I love students, as friends and co-adventurers, and I really don’t think there is anything wrong or icky about feeling those feelings or admitting them openly. I feel a special bond with the students who have come into my life and classroom and shared our experiences there. I care about them as individuals as well as students. I am now nearly 12 years into my faculty role so I doubt that time is going to make me jaded.

My first real experience with student death is nearly indescribable: it was in 2007 at Virgina Tech, where 32 of our students and colleagues were killed in a mass shooting. I have never really written much about Tech simply because I don’t have the words. I had accepted the position here at USC about a month before it happened, and I had already handed in my resignation, and so things went very quickly: the shooting happened in April, the end of the semester, and it was one rush after another: the memorials, the final week or so of school, and then limping through commencement. There’s very little hope of explaining what it feels like to be part of a community when a mass shooting takes place: it feels like I imagine a war zone feels like, only with less warning–a stealth attack on an ordinary day when all you expected to have happen was another boring day at work, and then becomes an experience that will always make you feel grateful for every other boring day you get.

Then the rush of the house sale, packing up, coming back to Los Angeles. When I finished moving and had room to breathe, I came to USC enclosed in a fog of grief, barely able to get up in the morning, dragging myself through classes completely unable to write or work. Los Angeles, with its relentlessly sunny weather, gives the grief-stricken little excuse to stay inside and curl up into the tiny ball of pain grief turns you into.  My colleagues had no clue. Most of the time I simply walked around like zombie, shriveling up inside every time I ran into yet another senior colleague who had little to say to me except that I Must Publish Or Be Fired. I don’t know how I got through it: imagine wanting desperately to work, being unable to work, and having all your colleagues do little besides bark at you about getting work done.

To wit: any (usually male) writer that tells you writer’s block is a myth, or a self-indulgence, or what have you, is full of crap. Grief doesn’t let you back up until it’s darn good and ready to, and if you can work through it, bully for you. But lots of us can’t, at least not very well, and if you are one of us who can’t, then you aren’t alone.

Even to this day, over a decade later, I think about that terrible April day every time I walk on campus. I always wonder if that day will be the day it happens at USC. These thoughts come to me every time I walk into a classroom.

More recently here at USC, we lost a student who was in my planning theory class, and she was just a very sweet, special lady. She was so helpful to me when I had another student who was facing a housing crisis. She loved her family so; I enjoyed seeing her pictures on Facebook with them where she always had a broad smile on her face. She and I weren’t especially close, but she made it a point to stop by my office and check in when she could, and she was grateful for any little thing that you did for her. That alone made her standout. She was very helpful to me when another student faced a housing emergency.

Whenever one of my students dies, I am dreadfully sad verging on heartbroken. It is sentimental and perhaps self-indulgent–there surely others more entitled to sympathy and their own grief than me. And yet it is not as though grief is a cake where if I have some, others get less.

I am sure that doctors and nurses have their own way of making sense of it all–they are in caring professions and must have patients die, too–and carrying on. I guess that’s all you have, this carrying on. When one gets to be my age, one is used to one’s role models fading from you and leaving, and yet I have yet to become accustomed to losing those so much younger. I hope I never do.

I wish I had some wise words for anybody who got here via a search looking for help with grieving over a student. I have little other than to take care of yourself the best you know how, comrade, and to keep having the courage to care about students as whole people, not just educational units, even though it hurts sometimes.

 

 

Thank you for voting on the Streetsie for me, please look at Civil Servant of the Year

I won! That was nice. But still, please do look into the real journalists Peter Flax and Steve Scauzillo. Steve writes for the Daily News about transportation and environmental issues. Peter Flax writes avidly about bicycling and the anti-road diet crazies, and you can see lots of his ideas on Bicycling (the magazine website).

I feel a little weird winning given how I think either of these two deserve it more than me, but it’s not like Streetsblog is giving away a Ferrari. I have this internal desire to write a long post about how we have to distinguish real journalists from somebody like me–an academic blogger. But yesterday my husband told me to relax, so I shall try here.

But please do keep elevating the work of real urban journalists. We need them so much, especially with what seems to be going on with alt weeklies.

I am gratified that Streetsblog called me a hell raiser. I do what I can.

Voting is open for the Civil Servant of the Year and I don’t know how you choose because the offices and concepts in play are all great in different ways.

Lots of stuff to write about. Spent far too much time arguing with people on Twitter about advocacy and its role in the policy process, so I think I should probably post a more cohesive commentary about agonism in the policy process (it can be good; it can be bad. But it can be very productive politically). Planning theory in recent years has had a nice uptick of papers about agonism from first-rate writers, so disseminating those would be a good idea.

I also have some new data that I have been playing with.

But alas, next week is the first week of school, so I may not have much time to hang out here. We’ll see.

My urbanist Twitter is alight with CA SB827 instead of Donald Trump, and it’s very good news

You can read the bill’s sponsor, Scott Weiner, discussing it here on Medium, along with how it fits into the other pending or passed California State Housing Bills. California YIMBY is the bill’s sponsor. Here’s a blurb to get you going:

SB 827 creates density and height zoning minimums near transit. Under SB 827, parcels within a half-mile of high-connectivity transit hub — like BART, Muni, Caltrain, and LA Metro stations — will be required to have no density maximums (such as single family home mandates), no parking minimums, and a minimum height limit of between 45 and 85 feet, depending on various factors, such as whether the parcel is on a larger corridor and whether it is immediately adjacent to the station. A local ordinance can increase that height but not go below it. SB 827 allows for many more smaller apartment buildings, described as the “missing middle” between high-rise steel construction and single family homes.

Here’s my favorite bit:

California Needs a Housing First Agenda My 2018 Housing Package

Parking minimums are terrible, and it’s long past time we got rid of them. They raise the cost of new construction, they hamstring adaptive re-use, and they force developers to put money into what is likely to be unproductive land. Let developers figure out what they want to offer and forget about it, and if there is a parking externality, deal with it later using a parking district.

This is a revolutionary bill. CA YIMBY groups are going to work themselves to death trying to get this passed. I hope it works.

The only part about this I don’t get … why the wonky insert language here:

a minimum height limit of between 45 and 85 feet, depending on various factors, such as whether the parcel is on a larger corridor and whether it is immediately adjacent to the station. A local ordinance can increase that height but not go below it.

Great that locals can’t downzone on this thing, but why not just throw the lid off zoning entirely, require housing, require some public housing set asides, and let the land markets do what they are going to do to signal to developers?

I don’t know that it matters all that much, but there are likely some instances where developers just aren’t going to want to go all that high, but where they would develop more intensively than they can now, but not quite mid-rise levels yet.

This isn’t a particularly important point, but I am curious. I’m sure there is an answer.

I got nominated for a Streetsie! That’s so cool!

I’m not sure I deserve to be listed with real journalists like Peter Flax and Steve Scauzillo, but I am awfully flattered for the nomination. Go get yourself familiar with their work, and you can vote here via this link.

There are other categories for the Streetsies and please do vote there if you have opinions.

Another year, everybody. I have some cool things coming up on the blog. I’m hoping to get a few guest posts up from my students on their research, and Grace Peng reached out to tell me that I’m misguided worrying about water in Southern California if we build right.

Here’s to all of us!