Friday, February 26, 2010

Raise My Taxes!

This morning I attended part of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board meeting, where they were considering a proposal to increase fares and cut service--again.

Anyone who rides the Muni (SF's public transit system) knows that the situation on the buses and trains has been catastrophically deteriorating. An analysis by Streetsblog of daily Muni performance in the past month "shows Muni has been missing 80 percent more runs compared to June [of last year], mostly due to a freeze on overtime." Eighty percent--that's on top of a series of service cuts. These budget cuts and missed runs translate into genuine misery on the buses, as I can tell you from first-hand experience. Many people I know are driving more, thereby increasing San Francisco's carbon footprint.

Meanwhile, City College of San Francisco has cancelled all of its summer classes--which is preventing my wife from finishing her early childhood education certificate--and the public school system is trying to slash $113 million from its budget by the fall--when my son will be entering kindergarten. Those are just examples of the cuts my family is directly facing; many people--seniors, the unemployed, the uninsured, to name a few--are faring much worse.

Most people reading this don't live in San Francisco, but I'll bet that your town is facing similar issues. Times are tight, and our quality of life is taking a hit. Across the board, around the country, cities and states are cutting shareable resources like transit, parks, schools, and libraries, at just the moment people are relying on them more than ever.

But not everyone is taking the same hit. People can buy their way out of the shared transit crisis by purchasing a private car or driving their car more often; people can buy their way out of the shared education crisis by sending their kids to private schools. Despite our fairly hardcore commitment to public transportation and public education, even my family has applied to private schools and, incredibly, I have considered getting a car.

It goes without saying that economic crises can drive people apart, atomizing individuals, destroying communities, and widening social divisions. Today, we're seeing that happen. But there's a flip side as well: As my great-grandfather was fond of pointing out about his experience during the Great Depression, economic crises also compel people to share more of their stuff and their lives. There are ways to help each other through this crisis that are entrepreneurial, DIY, and community-oriented, and we're seeing hundreds of projects spring up to meet community needs.

But my opinion is that it can't stop with individual, DIY solutions, which are mostly about day-to-day survival. Shareable transit like buses, light rail, and commuter rail take many more cars off the road than do carpooling and carsharing services. The research unequivocally shows that targeted public investments in education and health care do more to remedy inequality than individual charity ever does.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we Americans are stumbling into a suburban cul-de-sac (a Catalan phrase that means "bottom of the bag," by the way) beset by environmental collapse, ignorance and isolation, and mindless violence, both real and imagined. Decades of tax-cutting and deregulation have undermined the commons, the resources that we share. As Jay Walljasper writes on Shareable:

Unfortunately, taxes are rarely discussed today as part of the common good. Right-wingers scream bloody murder any time a tax increase is even mentioned, stirring up talk radio mobs that equate any form of government action as folly or tyranny, while liberals largely duck the issue out of fear.

It’s high time to reframe the debate about taxes, before the infrastructure and social fabric of our communities starts to deteriorate right before our eyes.

Taxes should be viewed as a commons, a cooperative effort to take care and improve the things that belong to all of us. If you add up the huge contribution that good schools, police protection, parks, public health measures, libraries etc. make in our lives, it’s easy to see that the money we pay in taxes is the best bargain in town.

I just did my taxes last week; I had to do them early, in order to apply for financial aid to private schools. As someone with substantial freelance income, I sign a big check over to the government. It hurts, but it doesn't hurt as much seeing my son's prospects for a good school devastated. It doesn't hurt as much as seeing people on the streets and children falling between the cracks of the health system. It doesn't hurt as much as seeing the Arctic ice melt and our natural resources squandered. I viscerally hate paying taxes, but I also hate waiting an hour for the bus.

Part of the problem with taxes, I suspect, is that we often pay them in such a large chunk--we don't fret nearly as much about putting thirty dollars of gas in a tank or paying two dollars for a bus ride. And according to a new analysis by the Victoria Policy Institute, Raise My Taxes, Please! Evaluating Household Savings From High Quality Public Transit Service, paying those taxes for shared infrastructure, as opposed to paying for lots of privately provided services, saves us money as individuals and as a group:

Providing high quality public transit service typically requires about $268 in annual subsidies and $108 in additional fares per capita, but reduces vehicle, parking and road costs an average of $1,040 per capita. For an average household this works out to $775 annually in additional public transit expenses and $2,350 in vehicle, parking and roadway savings, or $1,575 in overall net savings, in addition to other benefits including congestion reductions, reduced traffic accidents, pollution emission reductions, improved mobility for non-drivers, and improved public fitness and health. Physically and economically disadvantaged people tend to enjoy particularly large savings and benefits since they rely on alternative modes and are price sensitive.

That seems sensible, doesn't it? But we live in a country that has been shaped by three decades of revolt against the common good, most prominently expressed as a revolt against taxes. Private enterprise has supposed to fill the gaps, but the results are in, and corporations have failed to deliver. Refusing to share has made us poor. Today, we need a pro-tax, pro-public sector revolt, people speaking up for the commons, contributing to the commons. We need it right now.

If you do live in San Francisco and you depend on shared transportation, please consider signing up for the effort to launch a Muni riders' union.

Originally published on

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Seven Cool Kid Vids about Space Travel

Simon's post on fathering in the age of YouTube hit close to home.

Liko and I spend a lot of time researching space and spaceships on YouTube. Unlike Simon, I don't feel much guilt about this--I really do think our YouTube watching is educational. But like all the best education, it's also fun. Take this video:

Stirring, isn't it? For Hunakkah this year, we got Liko a scale model of the Saturn V. The cool thing about the model is that it breaks into all the stages, until only the command module remains for splash-down on our rug. So on lazy Sunday mornings, as we watch this video we'll act out every stage of the Saturn V's journey to the moon, and back.

I'll use each part of the journey to explore some different scientific fact or idea: orbits, gravity, rocketry, planetary formation, water on the moon, and so on. I'm no expert on this stuff, and so we'll often take side-trips on YouTube or Wikipedia to learn more. However, in the course of our quest for knowledge, we have taken some wrong turns:

"Daddy, what's a condom?"

Anyway, here are six more great YouTube videos about space exploration:

1. Best overall video about the Space Shuttle:

2. The International Space Station as seen from the outside:


3. And the ISS from the inside:

Liko actually gets bored with this after the first five minutes, but he does find those first five minutes fascinating.

The Space Voyagers Adventure Fleet also offers an International Space Station kit, which enables you and your kid to closely follow the tour and explore the solar panels and the functions of the different modules. Bonus: the kit includes a small Soyuz for docking!

4. Best video about Mars exploration:

Fun activity: use boxes and paper and kitchen appliances to build your own Mars rover. (Interested in Mars? This vid about Mars colonization is cyptofascist fun.)

5. Spookiest space video:

For an explanation of what it is you're hearing, see this NASA page. When Liko heard this, he said, "It sounds like music. Daddy, is there an orchestra inside of Jupiter?"

6. Best Soyuz video (so far)

Recently, we've been learning about the Russian space program. I haven't yet found a definitive Soyuz video, but it's always entertaining to watch these cannonballs crash into the earth:

Those cosmonauts are brave as hell.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

YouTube Time

One of the potential problems with parenting – according to Nurtureshock, the excellent book I’m currently reading – is too many rules. Have a few rules with kids and stick to them, the authors advise. My problem’s not the rules imposed on my kid. It’s the rules imposed on me.

“No YouTube today,” says my wife Fitzsimmons as she leaves for work.

She’s right. I have to get a job, so that I can commit fully to the breadwinning section of Equally Shared Parenting. No more YouTube. No more showing ten-month-old Sam clips from Chariots Of Fire (the 400 meter final, with Ian Charleston throwing his head back – just writing it makes me want to watch it now), or the diplomatic immunity bit out of Lethal Weapon 2, or Eddie Izzard’s routine about Pavlov’s Cat.

That’s the problem with YouTube. I'm on the Jobs section of Craigslist and a great scene pops into my head (Romeo + Juliet, gas station) and I know I can find it within seconds. It’s a sickness, an addiction. Sure, there are some movies I can’t find (all the best Die Hard clips have been ring-fenced), but for every one placed off-limits by the scaredy-cat studios, there are ten classic scenes (take your pick between Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan R Jessep or Gene Hackman drinking a beer with the boys in Mississippi Burning).

The problem with YouTube, as I see it, is that Fitzsimmons has no imagination for wasting time. Having worked six years for a cable company with a TV on my desk, I have a sixth sense for a good scene. I can speak on the telephone, answer emails, cross-reference two online databases, and drop everything when I see an alpaca-clad Chevy Chase surrender in Spies Like Us.

But no, I will not YouTube. I will not even use the word, as verb or noun or elegiac regret. Sam will have to wait to hear the angelic voice of Edda Dell’Orso in Ennio Morricone’s score for Duck, You Sucker. He will have to search out antique Blu-Ray disks to appreciate bug-eyed Christopher Macdonald as Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore. He will have to glimpse fleeting scenes from The Natural as his own wife flicks channels, and wonder why the soundtrack seems strangely familiar.

Instead, I spend my morning with Sam playing with his basketball game, and looking out our back window at the rooks playing helter-skelter on the fire escape opposite our building. In the distance, a helicopter whocks towards us, coming from the Golden Gate Bridge. Sam looks up at it. “Helicopter, Sam. Helicopter.” His eyes are big and blue, his mouth open. The chopper zips past, oblivious to our rear window lesson in aviation identification. I wonder if he got a decent look. Helicopters are cool. Wouldn’t it be great if that was his first word. Hang on, I’ve got an idea.

I boot up YouTube. It’s okay, this is educational. Type in ‘helicopter.’ Various clips from airshows, then other sites from Huey obsessives. Find a two-minute clip of one taking off. Perfect. “Come and see this, Sam.” He’s not sold, comes over slowly. Wonders why we aren’t looking for birds, wonders when the whocka-machine’s coming back.

The clip is slow. The engine starts, the rotors begin to turn. Sam’s mouth opens. The blades whirl round, the sound not yet recognizable from the helicopter we saw outside. The engine pitch rises, blends with the beat of the blades. Ninety seconds. “Watch, Sam. Look at the tail.” The rotor at the tail is buzzing, the aircraft starting to judder on the H-marked landing pad. A hundred seconds, no movement. Sam looks across at me, as if to say, “What’s this clip supposed to be? Can’t we go back to The Matrix and Agent Smith interrogating Neo?”

Then it rises. Awkwardly, as if on strings. First tail, then nose. The helicopter levitates and Sam is rapt. It’s like mechanical sleight of hand. He is ten months old, has no knowledge of physics, gravity, or aerodynamics. But he’s spellbound as the craft rises into the air and swivels, dips its nose then flies away. “Not bad, huh?” Sam waits, as if this helicopter might come back. The birds are forgotten, he lives only for this new whirlygig. It’s not yet twelve, not yet lunchtime, while Fitzsimmons isn’t due back for at least an hour. Easily enough time for an Apocalypse Now clip.

Simon Hodgson

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Ten reasons why I both love and hate cell phones

Or, yes dad I know, no sexting!

If you saw me now with my iphone, warm against my left butt cheek like a lover’s palm, the last thing I see before bed, the first thing I stroke in the morning, you wouldn’t believe that less than two years ago, I had never even owned a cell phone. I was (and to be honest still am) a Luddite in theory though in practice I struggle. It’s become even more of a struggle now as each one of my three kids has a cell phone. Sometimes I wonder what the hell happened to me. But in an effort to understand more critically my love/hate relationship with the cell phone, I explored these ten scenarios.

Reason 1:

SUANT p: \sue –ant\: Lying on the couch, my daughter and I were watching a movie and every couple minutes I observed the dexterity with which she would do her nifty wonder-woman like phone flip, nimble fingers texting faster than I could LOL and then slip the phone back in to her lap.
What the hell’s going on? I barked, that’s so irritating.
Dad, it’s a SUANT night.
SUANT, she declared as if I should know exactly what the hell she was talking about, Stay Up All Night Texting. Me and my friends are doing it.
Are you serious? I asked.
My daughter’s response: the perfect eye roll, and then, as if to accentuate the point, her phone buzzed.
Yes, dad, I am.
Now recently, my kids have been very interested in reading everything I write for rad dad for “clarity and honesty” they intone, like editors from hell. So after this exchange I told My Youngest that I was working on an essay about cell phones and said, you know this has gotta go in that essay.
And, I added, I gotta text your mom about this, grabbing my own phone which conveniently is always within arm’s reach.
You text? My Youngest declared horrified as if she’d just seen me naked.
Ah, yeah.
Stop acting twenty, Dad. You’re forty.
Somehow every conversation ends with this statement
Addendum: a few weeks later when I read what I wrote to her, she laughed and smiled but confessed, well, we really only ever stay up to twelve texting.

Reason 2:

Random text messages that continue conversations or more particularly arguments from days earlier. I’m in my office one morning. And in comes a text from My Youngest; she’s had the phone for only a month, so each text is the cutest thing in the world: an ‘I love you, dad’ here, an ‘I miss u’ there, perhaps even a random ‘hey dad, whats happenin.’ So I open the text and discover nothing of the sort, but instead find a final point in a week long discussion we’ve had about shaving her legs since she’s eleven. ‘what about that smooth away stuff - it’s not a razor and it’s not a chemical!!!’ We initially agreed that we’d consider it after the holidays. This, of course, was unacceptable to her. So her strategy: intimidating and/or pleading texts sent sporadically at various times of the day and night to pressure me in to caving. She’s trying to wear me down, I know. I text back, ‘how ‘bout we just wait until your legs are as hairy as mine and then you can decide if you want to.’
Ah, the textual silence that follows.

Reason 3:

I love photos. I own two manual cameras, a Polaroid and a stash of Polaroid film. However, there is something cheesy and immediate about cell phone images, the pixilated quality, the surreal feel captured. Like these scattered throughout the essay.

Reason 4:

Lately my son and I have been a bit short with each other, and what I mean by short is that within thirty seconds of him entering a room, we both end up screaming at each other. So ironically the cell phone gives us the distance and space we need to be able to talk about things in a normal tone of voice. Of course, I have to get over the momentary panic coursing through my body when I initially see the call is from him fearing it is going to be about being arrested: but every now and then:
Ohmygod Dad, guess what.
Guess who’s walking in front of me.
The Raiders’ head coach.
Raaaaaaideeeerrrss, I yell.
Raaaaaaideeeerrrss, he responds like some strange bonding ritual in which all acrimony is immediately forgiven and forgotten.
Ask him what the fuck, I excitedly implore.
What the fuck!, I hear him yell.
Then, realizing my son might actually accost the head coach of a National Football Team, I quickly decide to redirect with a more positive approach. Ah, the art of redirection; some toddler parenting skills you never forget, especially when they seem to also work so well with young adults.
Hey, wait; tell him, tell him that you still got faith.
Yeah, that’s a good one. Ok I’m gonna do it. Thanks, Dad.
Click and he hangs up before I have a chance to say, you’re welcome son, you’re welcome.

Reason 5:

When I call my Middle Daughter she often asks why I sound so grumpy. And I am. It’s horrible but the explanation is simple. I blame the 45 second delay in each and every phone call as we try to establish who is speaking. It goes something like this, I call her and she answers:
What? Hello.
Um, hello, hello!?
Zora list-
Uh, yeah well um hello?!
Repeat for at least 20 more seconds and by the time it actually all clears up I feel like grounding her. Instead, I take a deep breath in and, of course, as if the universe is testing to see if I am really breathing deeply enough, I usually hear one final: um, hello.

Reason 6:

The realization that my children’s friends no longer have to interact with me as a parent. I think this make kids kinda creepy. Especially teenage boys. Both my daughters’ boy friends (note from The Kid Editor friends that are boys, not boyfriends) stand a house away when they “come over” and text that they’re here. So instead of having to knock on the door and be greeted by me, they sulk forty feet away and wait for them to come out.
What happened to showing a little courtesy, what happened to navigating the small talk, what happened to my chance to be the scary father interrogating hapless thirteen year olds? I want that chance.
Solution: Dad, my friend’s outside. Can I go play? My Middle Daughter shouts down from her lair upstairs.
I rush to look out the living room window, and sure enough at the corner of the house just out of sight stands a group of kids.
Ok, I yell, but let me walk you out.
Now my Middle Daughter is quick, but the speed with which she bounds down the stairs three at a time is impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child move faster, bolting out the door ahead of me, an audible trail of, it’s fine, Dad. I’ll be back in a few. Stay inside and relax.
Needless to say, I don’t.

Reason 7:

I know it sounds horrible and manipulative, but in a fit of fear and distrust, I somehow informed my kids that when the bill comes I am able to read every text message they send and receive.
My Middle Daughter nods her head, her face full of trust and says, wow, really. Every one. That’s gotta be one hecka long bill. And simply goes back to whatever she is doing.
However, I begin to feel a burning sensation on the side of my head; it’s My Youngest staring at me. Finally she asks, Dad, can you see them if I delete them?
Immediately, I suspect something devious. I know I better be careful.
Why do you want to know?
No reason, and then as if on cue.
Buzz. Smile. Flip. Text. Flip. She looks back at me.
I’m just curious.
Somehow I feel outwitted.

Reason 8:

My Middle Daughter pleaded to be allowed to go to her first high school party. Of course there were random text messages in the days leading up to the party. ‘You’re the best, dad.’ Two hours later. ‘So can I go?’ I’m such a sucker.
As she leaves for the party with a friend’s parent, I calmly state:
Now when I come to pick you up, I’ll call when I’m outside.
Ok, Dad, she utters pushing me away from the car window.
I decide to add, you know if you don’t answer the phone when I pull up though, I’m coming in to the house to find you.
Both her and her friend stop everything they are doing and stare at me horrified for what feels like 30 seconds. And then my Middle Daughter calmly states: don’t worry, Dad. Believe me, that’s one call I’m not gonna miss.

Reason 9:

Driving my nineteen year old son, who is moving to NYC, to the airport, I joke with him about the things I’ll miss: yelling at him to turn down the music or picking up his soiled underwear off the bathroom floor.
We laugh and then he yells, shit!
I forgot my cell phone charger at the house.
This was after we had to turn around twice already for things he forgot: his 600 hundred dollars he had stashed in a sock that he put into a bag of clothes to give to Goodwill as well as a third baseball hat he just had to have.
I, of course, want to say something about irresponsibility and how that’ll have to change as he’s on his own now, but instead I smile and say, well I guess you’ll have to just write me a letter then.
I will dad, I will. Or maybe I can get grandma to just buy me a charger.
And off he goes.
Good luck!
Addendum: it’s seems distance and cell phones do make the heart grow fonder; we’ve talked every other day.

Reason 10:

As I hand My Youngest Daughter, my sweet, innocent eleven year old, her first cell phone, I am about to give her a little word to the wise.
Now remember, baby-
I know, Dad, I know, she interrupts.
What? I ask wondering what cute little thing she knows about owning a cell phone.
She looks me in the eye and says, no sexting. I’m only eleven, Dad, I don’t even have a boyfriend.
I almost drop the phone out of my hand, but manage to say, well, I was gonna say something abut not leaving your phone anywhere. But how do you know about sexting? I ask.
How do you, Dad?! Remember you’re forty, not twenty, gosh.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Unhappy Hipster Children

Friends (and by that, I'm referring to my Facebook friends) know that I've recently become highly amused by the blog Unhappy Hipster, which joins dream home photos from Dwell magazine with new captions that highlight their loneliness and narcissism. I thought I'd share the photos and captions depicting the psychological and spiritual harm these homes do to innocent children :

You can come out when you can properly explain the differences between Modernist architecture and postmodern ornamentation.

Maybe naming him Rimbaud wasn’t such a good idea.

And one day, a ladder appeared. Julien climbed with guarded optimism; could this be the way out for which he’d been searching all these weeks?

In search of a less bleak playground, the toddler pedaled faster.