Nikos Kazantnakis on slow writing, slow creation, and war of art

There was a nice discussion on Twitter  about how “slow professors” are privileged professors.  Absolutely, we should never lose sight of power and privilege in the academy. And yet, I am bothered by, and very much saddened, by the idea that only the very privileged are allowed to create silence around themselves, savor the work and the ideas, and make space for themselves in the world. We can’t allow that to happen to ourselves, even as the institutions around us try to become even more extractive and viscous.  The way US higher treats adjuncts is unconscionable, and I hope USC’s model catches on. I love our long-term contracts and promotions for NTT faculty.  I deplore our use of contracts for security and hospitality staff. (No benefits). The institution still demands far too much work from everybody, but all workers should hold out and support each other in retaining a human pace. 


I learned this pretty young from Zorba the Greek. (I still too often fell into overwork and overworry, and in turn made myself very ill at various points, and neglected my health entirely. I regret this very much.) 


I remembered something Zorba once said: “I always act as though I were immortal.” This is God’s method, but we mortals should follow it too, not from megalomania and impudence, but from the soul’s invincible yearning for what is above. The attempt to imitate God is our only means to surpass human boundaries, be it only by a hair, be it only for an instant (remember the flying fish). As long as we are imprisoned in our bodies, as long as we are chrysalises, the most precious orders given us by God are: Be patient, meditate, trust.


Every person, whether they are a university president or serving food on a lunch line, has honorable work to do. But both of them deserve to know themselves in whatever quiet they can steal from the demands of the world. 


When I told people I was going to Crete for a vacation with my husband, I got a lot of questions about why Crete. For one,  Crete is a fascinating place: it doesn’t really matter what era of history you are interested in, it’s interesting: from the Minoans to WWII to today, Cretans are a fascinating group.  Second, Nikos Kazantnakis.  I remember when Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ came out, to massive pearl-clutching from all my super-religious fellow Iowans.  The movie didn’t show up in any theaters near where I grew up (none did) and I had no money for movies anyway, so I didn’t get to see the movie. But I did manage to check the book out of the University of Iowa library when I got to college. 


And Kazantnakis, probably Greece’s most famous novelist internationally,  is fully and proudly Cretan. In preparation for this trip, I re-read the book everybody has heard of, Zorba the Greek (done well as a movie, really) and his memoir and reflections, Report to El Greco.  The latter has quite a bit of lovely prose, as we would expect, and some wonderful insights on the creative struggle. 


I am carrying just my iPad, and I miss reading from a real book so much! Anyway, here are some of the gems for my fellow academics and writers who are wrestling away: 

THE ENTIRE TIME a person creates, he has the morning sickness of the woman nourishing a son with her vitals. I found it impossible to see anyone. The slightest noise made my entire body quake; it was as though Apollo had flayed me and my exposed nerves were being wounded by mere contact with the air.


For some of us, this work is very hard at times. Don’t beat yourself up, please, as sometimes it feels yucky. It is like this for many of us. Worse, though, is not creating. That, too, is agony.


Had nothing gone to waste, then? Considered separately, each of my intellectual ramblings and sidewise tacks seemed wasted time, the product of an unjelled, disordered mind. But now I saw that considered all together they constituted a straight and unerring line which knew full well that only by sidewise tacks could it advance over this uneven earth. And my infidelities toward the great ideas—I had abandoned them after being successively fascinated and disillusioned—taken all together these infidelities constituted an unshakable faith in the essence. It seemed that luck (how shall we call it? not luck, but destiny) had eyes and compassion; it had taken me by the hand and guided me. Only now did I understand where it had guided me and what it expected me to do. It expected me to hear the Cry of the future, to exert every effort to divine what that Cry wanted, why it was calling, and where it invited us to go.

It takes a long time to find what you are trying to say, and what you mean to say.  I think students the first few years of PhD programs feel this especially acutely as the scatter, reading things.  In interdisciplinary things like planning, there just isn’t one reading list you must master to be an expert on the existing research. So there are many false starts, many dead ends. All of them are parts of you becoming you, and you are an important part of your research, even though social scientists like to fib to themselves that they are doing objective work. 


A rabbi of ancient times, Rabbi Nahman, had taught me years before how to know when the hour had come for me to open my mouth and speak, take up my pen and write. He was a simple, cheerful, sainted man who used to advise his disciples
How they too could become simple, cheerful, and sainted. But one day they fell at his feet and complained: “Dear Rabbi, why don’t you talk like Rabbi Zadig, why don’t you sort out great ideas and construct great theories, so that people will listen to you in a transport, their mouths agape? Can’t you do anything but speak with simple words like an old grandmother, and tell tales?” The good rabbi smiled. It was quite some time before he replied. Finally he opened his mouth. “One day the nettles asked the rosebush, ‘Madam Rosebush, won’t you teach us your secret? How do you make the rose?’ And the rosebush answered, ‘My secret is extremely simple, Sister Nettles. All winter long I work the soil patiently, trustfully, lovingly, and have one thing in mind: the rose. The rains lash me, the winds strip off my leaves, the snows crush me, but I have only one thing in mind: the rose. That, Sister Nettles, is my secret!” “We don’t understand, Master,” said the disciples. The rabbi laughed. “I don’t understand very well myself.” “Well then, Master?” “I think I wanted to say something like this: When I have an idea, I work it for a long time, silently, patiently, trustfully, lovingly. And when I open my mouth (what a mystery this is, my children!), when I open my mouth, the idea comes out as a tale.” He laughed once more. “We humans call it a tale,” he said, “the rosebush calls it a rose.”


Any discussion of this one blunts its meaning. 


Once realism begins to reign, civilization declines. Thus we arrive at the realistic, magniloquent, and faithless Helleuistic era, which was devoid of suprapersonal ideals. From chaos to the Parthenon, then from the Parthenon back to chaos—the great merciless rhythm.The great artist looks beneath the flux of everyday reality and sees eternal, unchanging symbols. Behind the spasmodic, frequently inconsistent activities of living men, he plainly distinguishes the great currents which sweep away the human soul.

In the US, what have we done with ourselves in terms of art, education, and ideas? It doesn’t feel promising to me. 

Every man has a cry, his cry, to sling into the air before he dies; let us waste no time, therefore, lest we be caught short. It is true that this cry may scatter ineffectually in the air, that there may be no ear either below on earth or above in heaven to hear it. No matter. You are not a sheep, you are a man, and that means a thing which is unsettled and shouts. Well then—shout!


Everybody deserves to shout, whether it’s by crocheting nice things or writing poems or dancing or tidying or cooking or writing. Art is in us, and we are entitled to do it at the pace at which it comes to us, snatching back whatever we can from the powers that demand more and more and more of us, lest we have nothing left. Fight that, both on your behalf and on the behalf of others who don’t have your privilege. 





Rent harmonization upzoning

I dunno if any place has ever done this, but I was toddling around Athens today thinking about land use (as one does) and the idea that with a general upzone, wealthy areas will develop first. I’ve seen this claimed along with the “learn how the market works, stupid” riders, and in response, my heart says “learn how politics works, pumpkin. In nearly 30 years as an urban planner and policy analyst, I’ve never—not once—seen a wealthy neighborhood have to suck up anything they didn’t like, with the possible exception of Beverly Hills and the Purple Line, and even then those people did an unbelievable amount of harm to the rest of the region’s transit investment fighting. 

IOW, there are good market reasons to develop in both high and low-cost areas, and very good political reasons to develop in lower cost areas.  Regular readers of the blog, the ones not yelling at me, understand that I hold two positions that make policy hard in California: 
1) We desperately need more housing units; 
2) Building on low-income communities and communities of color at this point is going to be hard on them, and potentially disastrous to renters there. 
It’s one thing to put lower-cost housing near high-cost housing (hard politically, see above, and hard market wise because of land costs), but that’s where you’d like to be able to do so because of amenity and service-sharing. So it bring downs local rents—goodie.  It’s another to put higher income people on top of lower-income people; that gives landlords an additional reason to get to thinking they are sitting on goldmines, etc. 
I’ve generally always maintained that regional average rents are pretty useless. It’s no consolation to know that overall regional rents went down overall if rents in your nabe went up (yes, both those things can happen at the same time.)
So what about if you do look at the various districts in cities (I have no idea how to divide this up, but let’s just play with the concepts for a bit before we firehose it)…..and you find a distribution of regional rents. You find a median. And when you hit locations that are 1 or 2 standard deviations above the mean, there is an automatic upzone, and places 1 deviation and lower get a pass for upzoning, and everybody in that middle interval takes development as it happens? 
Just mucking with ideas here, with jet lag and heat stroke. (Too much sun in Athens today).

“Kill all the live women” is free speech, but criticizing the dead, rich white lady is hate speech

I am on vacation, but something is bugging me, and the way I deal with what’s in my head is to write about it, so I thought I’d write about it here instead of cluttering up my travel journal with it. 


The topic of male privilege comes up here quite often, but we see around us unfolding a rather super example of it.  Kevin Williamson, conservative writer/troll #8,321,992 who has come in to cash in the frustrated entitlement of US conservatives, 

was fired from his new appointment at The Atlantic when he tweeted out that he thought that women who had abortions should be subjected to the death penalty.  

Sane people reacted to this tweet with WTF, and then in true troll style he tried to claim it was a heat-of-the-moment thing, only then people found evidence of him saying the same damn thing on a podcast, only more emphatically. 
Oh, and the method of execution? Hanging. 
IOW, in Williamson’s mind, it should be highly public and painful. 
Of course, he then whined about losing his job and because he is a dude and a conservative, other major publishing outlets immediately rushed to give him airtime, interviews, and lotsa lotsa attention, including this long, self-important  pity party in the Wall Street Journal. 

long, self-important  pity party in the Wall Street Journal. 

All this will undoubtedly lead Williamson to bigger and better gigs, depending on whether the FoxNews continues to kiss POTUS’s backside or not (Williamson has been critical of DT because of the latter’s bad family conduct.)  He’s got himself a conservative brand now, way more famous than when he was writing for the National Review. 
Contrast this with the conservative furor engendered by Professor Randa Jarr of Fresno State University being quoted as calling late First Lady Barbara Bush “a crazy racist” and “taunting” (according to the WashPo) her critics that she can “never be fired.”  As it turns out, Fresno State says they aren’t going to discipline her (as they shouldn’t). 
The frothing on social media from conservatives was entirely too predictable, about how Jarr  is “brainwashing our kids” and should be fired and the whole university system is corrupt (thanks a pant load for throwing tenure under the bus, lady, like it’s not going extinction fast enough without your loudmouth.)
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t support Jarr’s saying awful things. But Barbara Bush is dead. Jarr is  not wishing the woman a sado-machocistic death, as Williamson does. All Jarr basically said was “miss me with grieving for this one particular woman.”  We could have a nice, long argument about how much blood the Bush family has on its hands. Nonetheless, Barbara Bush wasn’t an elected official, her family hardly needs to hear her badmouthed, and whatever her sins and failures were as a living person, she’s not getting any more second chances.  (I had one idiot tell me after my father died that she hated him because he was a Democrat. Stay classy!)  But—and this is big one—Barbara Bush lived an enormously privileged, long life. She had quite a bit of what this good old world had to offer,  and while it isn’t nice to speak ill of the dead, Bush and Co will be fine. 
Williamson essentially wishes for mass executions of living women whereby I suspect Handmaid’s Tale is his utopian future.  Jarr is a villain of free speech and Williamson a hero of free speech in today’s conservative mind. 

After what just happened in Canada, shouldn’t we be a little more worried about death fantasies about live women en masse than disrespectful comments towards one, now dead after very, very, very long life woman? 



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.

 

 

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!