When you are too depressed to write your sabbatical proposal

Even my very supportive spouse tends to think that I am merely taking days off when I am struggling with depression. It is hard to communicate that what looks like a great, relaxed day for other people is, for me, the result of being unable to focus at all, on anything, and mostly just sleeping and feeling miserable for inexplicable reasons. Yes, Netflix is on, but I am not watching it, let alone enjoying it. I am looking for the sounds of words outside those inside my head. The ones on Netflix are having adventures. The ones inside my head are telling me I’m worthless and everything is futile, and no I can’t just cheer up.

When people response to your depression with “go out, get some exercise” and “eat better, you’ll feel better” and suggestions you are merely taking time off and being lazy, your depressed brain internalizes all those words as further evidence that you are terrible. At everything. After all, if you just ate that salad, you’d be fine!

Which is why I think I may have given myself the ultimate evidence this week that no, depression is not a just matter of not eating the salads, taking the walks, perking oneself up by one’s will: I was too depressed to write a tiny little sabbatical proposal. The same one they gave us is a page and a half long. Who can’t manage that? Most of my blog posts are longer than that.

Who couldn’t manage it? Me that’s who. So yeah, if this were all about lazing about, NOTHING would be a bigger prize than the sabbatical. Nonetheless, two years in a row, I’ve been too depressed to pull that big-bad page and a half together. The page-and-a-half golden ticket to hours and hours of endless slacking and slobbing. Ironic, eh? Yeah, my inactivity has nothing to do with slack and slobbing and everything to do with a brain hard-wired to hate myself.

Sabbatical proposals are due today. Wish me luck. I am going to try to slop something together and hope like hell nobody reads it, as it will be incoherent and horrible. It will be a testimony to the fact that I am, in all likelihood, utterly washed up as a researcher. But I can’t stand failing to turn anything in TWO YEARS IN A ROW.

Are you a good mentor if you are good to your own and evil to your (younger) competition?

Thrasymachus is a key intellectual influence on me. Plato nerds will remember Thrasymachus from The Republic, who blows in, not very friendly, and says that justice is aid/support of one’s friends and evil to one’s enemies.

In post-New Testament world where Christianity has had a lot of influence, that kind of statement is easier to downplay. We’re all God’s children, etc. In Socrates’ world, fierceness towards one’s enemies was way more of a given.

I think about this a lot now and then as I move into the latter part of my career. I have been what I consider to be a good arm’s length mentor to lots of young people. I do what I can for people, it hasn’t mattered to me all that much.

But here late, I’ve noticed that students with whom I have made a connection during recruitment time tend to use my time, a lot, even though they have said ‘thank you, no thank you’ to coming to our program at USC. Now, me being nice about all this is the best of both worlds: you get to go to various programs with their various brands and personalities AND you get my time/attention.

But that is time and attention that I am not giving my own students. I have always had a rule that no matter what, I will make time for people. I don’t snippily throw people out of my office. I stop in the hallway, when I can, for a chat. This is what normal human beings call “normal human behavior” but in the academy is weirdly rare. If you are busy, you are important, not a poor time manager or self-important dweeb, even though, in reality, all of these are equally likely explanations.

But as I have gotten sicker, my energies are more limited, and people have to wait longer for my help.

I hate the idea of blowing off young people. I hate it.

I have been reflecting on this a lot thinking about This One Dude at This One University from my past who is widely beloved as a mentor. And I think he’s probably pretty good. He has in his sphere a small group of younger scholars (and now, more established scholars) that work at his uni and occupy his Center.

But he was monumentally shitty to me as a young scholar at a different university. He used his outsized reputation (he’s a good scholar, but because he is a white male, the world views him as A GREAT SCHOLAR THE GREATEST THAT HAS EVER BEEN) to get on every NSF panel even remotely relevant to his kingdom, and he fucking *savaged* every proposal and paper down to every sentence I wrote. And I don’t think I’m alone. I can think of no successful young scholars in this field that didn’t pay him obeisance at his university.

His proteges have reaped the benefits of his willingness to destroy younger scholars elsewhere. Some of these people are not particularly great scholars, but they get in the door because he lets him in and, importantly, keeps other out.

Now, I was in the field briefly, and I think the work I did in the field was damn good. But as a young and ambitious scholar, I knew when that I was fighting uphill and in the rain, and I wandered off elsewhere.

There is part of me that thinks, eh, it’s just ego. The world turns and the field develops without me. So what? But I really, really believe in the scholarly endeavor of having many voices and many perspectives to create insights. Single schools of thought make me nervous, especially when those are created and perpetuated by power rather than quality of ideas.

The idea of acting the way he did towards me in my relationship to other young scholars makes me sick to my stomach. It’s way, way far afield of my core values as a person and a scholar. When you get yours in life, you have one job, and that job is to help others get theirs. Period.

But there’s Thrasymachus. Maybe I have done my own students a disservice by my big-tent conduct. Maybe they have suffered from my unwillingness to throw kids out of the tent whenever I have had the power to do so.

On citation metrics and the discovery that I am not as vain as I think I am (but still, entirely vain enough)

I was working on a student’s paper this morning and giving them title ideas to help them gain an advantage during keyword and Boolean searches to make sure their published work gets as many eyeballs as possible, and it occurred to me:

I haven’t checked my own citation counts in….years.

How long has it been? I used to check quite a bit.

I didn’t feel particularly compelled to look now, either.

Then it occurred to me; I haven’t check those damn numbers since I got promoted to full. I remember some grad school partner of somebody laughing about how a professor made her keep monthly counts of his/her citations, and I remember thinking, man, that’s some ego. But I think I probably checked my mine about monthly.

And I know why I check then and why I don’t check now: places like USC use them damn numbers for tenure and promotion, and if even if you aren’t checking, they are.

The inhumane and yucky things we do to junior faculty–smh.

I’m not going to check now, either. They don’t matter.

Have a good weekend, if you are fortunate enough to have one.

Words written: 250
Book I’m Reading: LeavingAtlanta by Tayari Jones 
Listening to: Fear of a Black Planet by Public Enemy
Beverage: Coffee, black

Let’s talk about menopause

So I like to be up front about things and take the stigma and shame out of dealing with them, and thus my topic is menopause.

I have no idea if I am going through it or not because doctors are utterly fucking useless at discussing it, and the only actual definition I find for it is…not having your period for a year. Then you’ve had, as my mother said euphemistically, your “change of life.” There are hot flashes, and they suck.

I don’t have hot flashes. Yet. We’ll see.

I personally wouldn’t know know because my menses have not paused in FORTY GODDAMN YEARS. Yes, you heard that right, friends, I got my period when I was 11. ELEVEN.

I am now staring down the barrel of 50 YEARS OLD AND I STILL HAVE MY GOD-DAMN PERIOD.

I HAVE TECHNICALLY BEEN FERTILE FOR FORTY YEARS NO WONDER THE ROMANS COULD NEVER GET RID OF THE GERMANS IF THIS IS WAY GERMAN WOMEN ARE SET UP FFS. (This is actually Andy’s joke, but I am stealing it because if that is all you have to say vis-a-vis your wife bleeding out until she is 400 years old, you deserve to have your clever historical bon mots taken from you.)

If, after 40 years, I haven’t used my uterus yet, you’d think that somebody, somewhere would get a clue that I don’t need to do this all the time anymore.

Yep, yessirrrreee been doing this for 40 years. Forty years. Kinda getting old by now. And all. Forty years.

Oh yeah, it’s changed and everything. For the worse. It now knocks me all the way out. All the way out. For a week ahead of time, the combination of my chronic illness and my cycle make me so tired I can barely walk from my office to the bathroom. That’s like 15 yards. I had to take THREE breaks walking from the Nazi building (VKC*) to the Tutor Center Friday. THREE. Come on.

During the first day of, I can’t concentrate. On anything. I have partial thoughts about everything. It’s ironic because when I have a period, there are no periods because I can’t think in complete sentences. See what I did there? A little punctuation and grammar humor for you. Full service blog, this one.

Here’s me on Day. 1: “I need to go get….the thing out of the thing…where…Halloween decorations and a tire iron.” And: ” I am going to write this sentence about…the thing…where is the…thing.”

I’m not used to feeling stupid.

This lasts for three days. I am stupid for three solid days. Smartest Boy Urbanists, plan your attacks for those days. Apparently you will have three days of opportunity until the end of time. Run with it.

We won’t talk about how my period has changed from a normal thing into Moses turning the Nile into a river of blood because as every doctor will tell you, this is because of my weight because everything that has ever happened to me in my entire life is about my weight because doctors like everybody else are lazy fucks and when presented with a fat woman there are two things every doctor knows: 1) she’s a complete failure at everything and lives in utter disgust with herself every moment of every day because how could she not? and 2) everything is the fault of her weight and since her weight is her fault, Everything is Her Fault and comes from her weight. Tell her to lose weight and fill the paperwork to charge the insurance company for your valuable time, check.

I apparently am never ever going to go through menopause because I’m not skipping periods. Did I mention that? I HAVEN’T SKIPPED A SINGLLE PERIOD IN FORTY YEARS. NOT A SINGLE ONE.

You know how some women are all “oh, golly wolly, if I get stressed out I will skip my period.”

If I get stressed out, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t NOT been stressed out since I was 4 and my parents decided they couldn’t stand me, I bleed more.

Ya wanna know the other great thing that’ll come from me writing this no-holds-barred, up-front, frank, open, stigma-fighting post? I’ll have one stupid Bro show up to tell me he hopes I’m using a Diva cup or some other thing because Just Think of the Environmental Waste from my periods and then I’ll have about 10 incel types show up and claim this is why women should remain in the home because yada yada yada yada like somehow caregiving and homemaking aren’t 24/7 work assignments especially with useless yoinks like incels around.

*Dear USC: you best change this name or I am just going to call it a Nazi building.

Words written: I have high hopes for another day. 
Book I’m Reading: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
Listening to: Classical curves
Beverage: Coffee, black

Disaster and Resiliency: Daniel Aldrich’s (@DanielPAldrich) Black Wave

Daniel brought his book to my attention via Twitter and then sent me a copy to look at. I never recommend books without at least skimming them, so I took some time and have begun reading, and I’ve got to say, this is an impressive book, particularly for somebody so early in his career. With this one, he’s setting the bar high early.

Daniel’s research here examines the role of social networks in disaster response during the Japan’s earthquake and tsunami cycle in 2011. He points out that even though Japan got the worst of both, they had a 96 percent survival rate compared to China, which tends to fare far worse in the face of disasters.

The book is topical for me because virtually all of my evacuation research demonstrated that social networks were key to enabling disaster response among those with low incomes, especially for women who had recently arrived in Chicago and spoke little to no English.

In Aldrich’s cases, he demonstrates that both individuals and places with stronger social networks fared better during the emergency and recovered more quickly.

He also examines the central and community planning efforts. I’m hoping he follows up on his research there because I think there are more questions to answer about the variety of responses to central government mandates that he finds here, some of which is likely to influence both local planning and implementation capacity.

Why I enjoyed Gilmore Girls (and still do)

I’ve seen a lot of 2019 essays and youtube documentaries being all woke about how bad the Gilmore Girls was on various dimensions, like somehow, those of us who liked the show are too dumb/blinded/privileged to have recognized the show’s problems with racism, classism, ableism, etc. How could you like something like that, the essayists wish to know.

Here’s the answer:

I like(d) the show because women on the show got to do things besides being raped and murdered.

The end.

Is it really, REALLY, the case that urban planning has not incorporated enough economics in practice?

Alain Bertaud has a book out called “Order Without Design” from MIT Press, and it’s a nice enough look back at Bertaud’s career as a bit of a planning consultant at the World Bank and other powerful institutions. Instead of calling himself an urbanist, as he has done throughout what I know of his career and in his online materials, Bertaud calls himself a planner here. The cynical part of me thinks it’s because he wants to lend more credence to his critiques of the profession more than anything. Maybe he sees no difference between the terms, but I do.

I really don’t have an investment in defending the boundaries of the field from Bertaud–so much of his work life has been spent doing planning that he can certainly take the mantle as far as I am concerned, it’s just that I am aware of my own past weaselly conflicts with the labels urbanist and planner that it makes me ask these questions, so maybe I am just projecting.

Here is a template for all critiques of urban planning from all other disciplines:

Planners work in and wish to improve cities.

But cities are imperfect.

Therefore, planners have failed, and thus cities need moi.


I don’t know how to answer that other than to say that if applied the same logic to economics or engineering, we’d have quite a bit of grist for the mill. Economists have failed to perfect the business cycle and nation-states, so now the rest of us should take those over? All righty then.

This proof has created a cottage industry for scientists and other types to engage with urban topics and the truth is, we probably just ALL–planners, economists, scientists, etc– ought to have the intellectual humility to admit that some of the things we’d like understand, like cities and societies and economies, are just plain bigger than us most of the time. We’re all just here in a political economy of forces that lead to various outcomes, which all of us, experts and nonexperts, are trying to influence for the better. We win some, we lose some. We lose a lot. Maybe it’s not worth trying, maybe the whole Enlightenment project was a bust, but I feel like I have seen things get better sometimes, and so I’m sticking with it.

Bertaud’s point is that planners don’t understand urban land markets sufficiently well to work with them in an optimal way, especially regarding growth controls. I don’t think this is a shocker for anybody, but I do have an answer: it’s not a planner’s job to be an urban economist. It’s urban economists’ jobs to be urban economists. If economists want to influence city policies, then they can get out there and get busy, take some of those lousy paying planning jobs you’d be so much better at than us at doing, run for office, show up to public meetings, and do all the gruntwork and housekeeping that goes into governance.

It’s not like most planning programs don’t have one class in micro; some even have public finance (public sector economics) classes. No, it’s not sufficient training to have a comprehensive understanding of urban econ, but it is a toe in being able to read in the field.

If anything, planners get more education in economics than they do any other outside field with the possible exceptions of architecture or engineering, depending on the program. There are other fields that deserve a place in the curriculum: marketing and communications, political science, area studies like women’s or Black/Latino/Asian studies, anthropology, and sociology.

But the working degree is a master’s degree, and we only have so much time, and believe it or not, there are some skills in actual planning we’d like to convey. That’s one reason why I like to see young people come into the field with undergrad degrees or experience from any of the aforementioned fields, including (like me) economics.

Of the various ways planners have failed to incorporate economics, Bertaud cites what are for me mystifying examples because I really have not experienced many planners doing the things he describes. For instance, the idea that planners ever got all interested in the optimal city size concept long after economists “debunked” the idea. Um. I’ve never seen that discussion, and it may just be that it dominated the planning literature before I showed up, but I remember it happening in econ. And honestly…..I still think it’s an *interesting* hypothetical, especially when thinking about the scale economies associated with different urban service types.

Certainly, the growth controllers have their group of true believers who are very dogmatic about claiming to know the future and the Right Way To Do Things (viz Smartest Boy Urbanists), but don’t all fields have those types? I don’t use the gold standard crowd to represent all economists, and honestly any field where Milton Friedmann has been as influential as he has really strikes me as living in a glass house in res dogmatism, no?

This book will appeal to the libertopians that just plain do not like planning because the field represents state intervention to them, and they have strong preferences against regulation. I honestly don’t know what to say to those types, other than to say, stop shooting the messenger. If Aristotle and Hobbes are to believed, and I think they are, state institutions and regulations emerge from social processes just as organic as the human behaviors that create markets, and the fact that planners themselves are employable in a labor market that incorporates the state and its interventions into development should tell you a little something about whether the role has value in economists’ own terms, and independent of economics.

What if Black people just controlled the development and zoning in their own neighborhoods?

I watched Bernie Sanders jump into the housing/YIMBY fray without really incorporating any of the lessons of the past few years of conflict between renters of color and coastal YIMBYs. The act lead to an unfortunate amount of Bernie-splaining, of which there is already plenty, and I didn’t have the time or the health to get involved and get used as a Twitter punching bag by the considerable overlap of Smartest Boy Urbanists/Bernie supporters.

I’ve been thinking about local control for a long time, and listening to various tenant advocates, and I finally finished The Color of Law. I think for American cities, at least, civil rights imperatives require cities to scale back local control over land use and development in white neighborhoods and expand local control over land use and development in Black neighborhoods, at lest until we see the disparities in average family wealth and other key measures of economic and social well-being equalize among Black and white households, families, individuals.

Should it be forever policy? No. You know how I feel about static policies.

Do I know how all the details should be laid out? Nope. But Black Lives Matter laid out the general idea in their manifesto. Sociologist Robert Bullard years and years ago about shifting the burden of proof that a factory or new development would be beneficial to a community onto the developer rather than expecting communities to proof it will be harmful. I’ve written elsewhere about how that practice could mirror the land use referenda processes seen in various examples in South Korea.

I really don’t see why such an approach couldn’t work to blunt the potential effects of upcoming on Black communities already threatened by gentrification. Since so much of what is screwed up about zoning and housing affordability lands at the feet of white supremacy and affluent, white control over land use that undoing the problems we have created there by addressing those radicalized practices strikes me as a lot more just–and workable–than trying to act like we could achieve some color-blind YIMBY policy that rules all places.

The problem to me is that a) exclusionary behavior in white neighborhoods perpetually leads to both housing shortage and pressures to build/develop/gentrify (yes I used that word) Black communities and communities of color. So just by addressing one of the problems–white exclusion–you still leave communities of color as open season. Upzone like hell in white neighborhoods, undo racial segregation, and let Black neighborhoods approve what they want to approve and veto what they don’t want.

Before anybody gets all up in my face about how we could never legally treat Black and white neighborhoods differently, um, we have treated Black and white neighborhoods differently in cities since the outset of zoning. Historically, it’s way past Black neighborhoods’ turn to tell the rest of the city what’s going to happen and what isn’t.

BTW, this proposal is a probably political nonstarter, but I don’t take ideas off the table just because white people won’t like them. Bernie is probably already in trouble with the suburban voter with his baseline proposal as it is.

You should check out our podcast on Why Cities Lose to learn more about why urban progressives like Bernie have trouble winning in American politics and why even very good urban policy die on the vine.

BTW, I am sure scholars of color have already made these points and have maybe even some solid plans for going forward. Hit me if you have names I should put at the beginning of this post to direct more readers there.