Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Back in the USSR

Well, I'm back home in Alaska; my Moscow-on-the-Tanana. I went on a great canoeing trip with some friends. The float was called the Clearwater, for obvious reasons. While most bodies of water are still frozen, the Clearwater is spring-fed and already ice-free. It was beautiful. Ice shelves along the banks. My friends know how to travel well; when we pulled out for lunch, I unpacked my PB&J and they unpacked their roast chicken and bottle of wine. You guys are great! flickr

I knew that my post-doctoral life had started on Saturday when I drove to the grocery store with a canoe on the roof of my car, and a bike and two pairs of skis inside. Contrary to expectation, summer has actually started here. It may only get into the 40s during the day, but that's warm enough for t-shirts and sandals for Alaskans. Best of all; I was going to change the lightbulb on my front porch tonight when I realized that with twilight until 11 pm, why bother! I'll do it in October and save electricity.

Drs. Hobo, Hobo, and Hobo, how may we direct your call?

So, as many of you know, I stopped in NY on the way back from Vienna to defend the document I wrote in geekschool. This is a pretty big event in the life of a scientist; maybe the biggest, unless you are lucky enough to get tenure somewhere or win the Nobel Prize.

I have to say this defense process went very well for me. My committee had a really positive attitude and I had an audience full of friends. A couple of you were even kind enough to post an encouraging banner at the back of the auditorium. Perhaps you all could come with me when I start giving job talks?

I thought it would be fun to do something kind of glamorous to mark the occasion, so I rented a room in a boutique design hotel that had a glass pool with a swim up bar. This seemed like an excellent, low-key way to celebrate.

My brother and sister-in-law and I packed up our swimming suits, a change of clothes and headed to Times Square. But apparently glamour is not in my bloodline. The coveted pool was out of commission. So instead of frolicking in a chic hotel pool we were squatting on a stoop in midtown, holding our student-issue backpacks and pondering what to do next.

I said "how come I'm a doctor and Rachel, you are a doctor and Tim, you're almost a doctor and still, we're hobos." Some people know that I have a hobo complex. No matter how hard I try, I always end up in the same old hobo place. It's not a terrible thing to be. I mean, hobos aren't bums; they go places. See the world. By boxcar, carrying all of their possessions in their hobo bag. Remind you of anyone? Yeah, that's what I mean.

I mentioned to Tim and Rachel that I had a bottle of wine in my bag. "Well, did you bring a corkscrew?" "No, but the bottle's open already. Remember you opened it with a big hook last night. "Awesome."

So we sat for a while discussing the hobo ethic. "Hobos are smart, yo." "That's right, dude. A hobo wouldn't accept a high design hotel room without a pool and wet bar." "Hells yeah."

"So, anyone got an idea?" "Nope." "Anyone got a cup for this here wine." "I do." Rachel empties a cup she's holding full of M&Ms into Tim's hand. "Well, food AND drink. Nice job, Hobos."

"Let's go break into the Marriot's pool." "Okay." "What if they don't have a pool?" "Oh, come on, they'll have a pool."

We proceed to the Marriot. After waiting for a "pod" elevator for 10 minutes, we arrive at the reception. "Where's your pool?" I ask. "We don't have one." "WHAT?" "But we have a great gym." "Humph." I'm certainly not going to celebrate doctorhood by breaking into a hotel gym. We get in line to go down the pod elevator. "Man." "Let's go find the hobo train yard," "maybe it's almost dinner time and we can get some beans and boot stew from Cookie." "Yeah, remind me to store beans in my backpack." "Should we drink this wine now?" We conceded to meeting our friends at Under the Volcano, my favorite Earth Science-themed bar. It was a fun, albeit perfectly legal evening. We had beans for dinner, but they were Ethiopian.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Sunday Afternoon Roller Disco, NYC

It was strange to come back to a city where I lived for a long time and see it as a different person, even 3 weeks later. It's almost too familiar (or strange?) for me to write about, but I'll try.

I think the late 1970s/early 1980s must have been a cultural golden age for the city. At least a few key elements of NY culture arose during this era which people really cling to. One is neo-deco "contemporary" furniture design. Renderings of beds and dining sets in this style, plastic or enameled aluminum, can be found in a ghetto furniture store in just about every neighborhood in Manhattan. Pink and grey are key to the palette. By economic reasoning, it must be the case that demand for this stuff is consistent and ongoing. This blows my mind. It's not that NYC is the only place one can find this furniture; it’s in every town in the U.S. It's that you would expect more from NYC, some kind of natural selection for good taste. Small spaces and high standards of living have enforced style Darwinism all over Europe. But every real New Yorker knows that the city is actually completely filled with ugly crap and undrinkable coffee. There is no explanation for this in classical economic theory.

A second important example of a NY style anachronism is the persistence of the ladies' polyester Sunday suit. These may have a proper name, but this is the only description I can think of. I think you know what I mean.

There are entire swaths of midtown retail devoted to the ladies Sunday suit. This is some of planet Earth's most valuable real estate and it serves what must be hordes of 60-year old women. Except one never really sees them. The shops are always empty and their wares fading in the windows, blue suits faster than red ones. Unless the DVD release of Tomlin & Parton's 9-to-5 has sparked a renewed demand for the oversized polyester suit, this remains another NYC cultural mystery.

Example number three is Cool 101.9. This radio station must have more listeners than any other in the city: it is absolutely ubiquitous in public space. Does anyone like this music? Is everyone under the mistaken impression that someone else must like it and therefore that's what we should listen to in stores and bus stations? Do they broadcast the aural version of crack? How can we break these chains and bring modern music to the big apple?

My final example is the only good one: disco skating. You know you've watched them. Parachute pants, floral jeans, big teased bans, fanny packs. Skating on classic or inline wheels in Central Park. To a DJ that may very well be from Cool 101.9. But these people love themselves. And you have to love them right back. They might have come out here everyday since 1980. White and black, gay and straight. People who want to be watched and those alone in their own world, but all of them are lacking 21st century neurotic self-consciousness.

Something about the late 1970s/early 1980s must have sparked all of these cultural mainstays. Maybe it was the city's bankruptcy, rising crime and flight of the middle class to the suburbs. But the message to New Yorkers is clear. It's okay to be uncool. The city has a booming sector of uncoolness and it's easy to get in on the ground floor.


Well, I don't want to disappoint those of you who think I've been camped out in the Bush watching my leg hair grow, but I've been doing some urban traveling lately. A couple weeks ago I was sipping strong coffee in Vienna's museum quarter, watching the sun set slowly behind the buildings and shadows drown cafe patrongs from the ground on up. Wien was a better town than I had imagined; one which has made the most of its opportunities.

Work in Wien was good to me. I saw friends old and new, talked about science, talked about art, saw some opera. Enhaled a couple cartons worth of Gauloise, second hand. Froliced in pagan pre-Easterness.

I'm not sure what else to say about Wien, so I guess I'll let my photos speak for me. flickr