Monday, March 25, 2013

The Glue

The PBS stations air music-based fundraising programs periodically, and I usually take a look.  It's sad to see how old those Motown solo acts and groups are, but it's good to see a few survivors still performing at all.  Andrea Bocelli's recent concert on location in Portofino, however, was a perfect illustration of the idea that the purpose of art is to elevate the spirit.  But clicking on the doo-wop program the other night (there's one every year, but the audience for it must be tiny by now), what I saw instead looked like a documentary about the tight cohesion of Italian families in the New York/New Jersey area in the 1940s - 60s.  Economic reasons for that existed, of couse; people did not have cars or enough income in a high cost of living area to explore very far, but the socialization extensively and exclusively among themselves was primarly cultural.

Old black-and-white pictures and home movies were narrated by adults who were children back then, and while nostalgia has developed, they knew they had had no choice about things at the time and were mighty tired of enduring aunts and uncles droning on Sunday after Sunday, usually over the exact same meal.  Without education or travel, people tend to grow up into conservative and somewhat neurotic adults who change little after age twenty; their now adult children probably had more opportunites and even in their school years yearned for some sort of intellectual stimulation and variety.  Coming from the Old World, which was organized to benefit the traditional power elites and no one else, the first-generation immigrant Americans knew only that extended family relationships could provide some security in the world.

Families scatter into smaller atomic units now, often over great distances.  The result is more autonomy and choice, but relationship skills must be redeveloped to make things work.  When we moved here in 1979, we were both far from family and friends and found it was fun to create our own way of bonding.  It started with chickens.

Just before landing here, we were married in Nancy's brother Tom's -- and wife Cherry's -- front yard on a typically hot and humid August day.  Things got a little crazy pretty early on as a small group of escaped pigs steathily crept around the garage with the intention of wrecking the garden.  Cherry spotted them from the kitchen window and flew out, armed with some utensil, and chased them out to the road (from then on, we haven't taken much too seriously).  But the animals which made the biggest impression on us were the motley crew of chickens with their fascinating behaviors.  We learned they'll eat anything, quickly and with gusto, as Tommy gave them weeds pulled up from the other side of their fencing, some watermelon rinds, and even a small snake.  Nothing left but contented clucks.  That meeting with live poultry started a thirty-year collection of private jokes:  the chicken thing culminated with a fat stuffed Rhode Island Red made of spotted fabric presented to Nancy upon becoming a mother.  It's still here, noticeably aged, but part of the family.  We've got a hundred others, some as silly as shouting "bonus room!" when that phrase is uttered on TV's "House Hunters."  Life's easier to deal with if you find most everything funny.

And there's that balance between "being your own bunny"* -- that is, being and enjoying what you like and what you are -- and adapting to and enjoying what your partner or family member likes to do.  I told N. early on I really didn't enjoy sandy beaches and cats made me sneeze.  I soon realized I was indeed going to be driving her to a beach whenever possible, and a cat or two in the home wasn't negotiable either.  Guess what.  I learned to love the shore and wouldn't be without our feline buddies.  On the other hand, I'm never going to eat celery, which she insists is a perfectly good, even lovely, food.  Good fences we can live with have gates exactly where you need them.

And what is that special quality that old friends have?  It's made of the same sort of give and take, with one other factor that applies to other relationships too.  You might not agree, but I think it's the attraction of someone you admire for their intelligence and talents, can learn from and share with, and over the years discover new things about.  Most people from work, school or casual association just don't have that effervesence; the few whom you do find in a lifetime you want to keep, but loosely.  Chickens and old fogeys might like a small defined coop to live in, but three-dimensional people will grow and will still surprise you.

*We always said of our first, very sure of herself, pet rabbit, "she's definitely her own bunny!"


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ebb and Flow

The original Cafe di Luna, 3d Street Harrisburg
Lovin' the bean!
Hunter Lyons at Olde Towne

If small towns around here had a coat of arms, it would feature the masks of comedy and tragedy, as people with energy, ideas and love have opened businesses that find and enthuse their audiences but often have a run that's tragically short.  I have heard from the owners/founders that after winning their tenacious struggles with the dull and conservative powers-that-be (don't even think of introducing something new or competing, even very marginally, with their vested interests!), that landlords have done them in.  I miss The Local Beat whose originator restored a long-closed tavern and booked quite amazing acts from New York and Chicago and points between.  The costs of renovating someone else's property proved unsupportable after the building owner doubled the rent; daytime business was spotty-to-nonexistent in addition.

The loss of Dingeldein's Bakery was a sad thing for New Cumberland, but it's been replaced by a similar venture, Linda's Pie Shop, headed by an adventurous lady and her family (7 children!).  After operating a gourmet dessert shop in the West Shore Farmer's Market during the 90s, Linda took off in an RV, eventually landing in Costa Rica.  Back here (why??), she's employed her model/chef son and other family members and friends and has re-introduced her legendary caramel apple pie.  Of course, we've tried it, and it lives up to the reputation.  The menu is short and simple now, but I'm sure they're going to expand incrementally.  The eldest son can definitely cook, and Zach says he was a fellow student at Cedar Cliff H.S. and they knew he'd gone on to model in Europe and New York.  Several chefs in the area have come from Brooklyn, NYC and Baltimore (one is in charge of Trevi 5, one of Hershey Hotel's fine spots, and has competed on TV's "Chopped").  I hope they all stay!

Across the street, the empty former home of Oxford Hall Celtic Shop (they moved south a block and renovated a large old house much in need of such attention) will host a new version of Harrisburg's Cafe di Luna as of April 1.  When the weather's finally good for ambling down the hill two miles into town, they'll be open and I'll be there.  The lack of places to go and the cold winds have kept the cash in my wallet, but that's going to change.  In the established downtown location, they deal in fair trade and direct-sourced coffee, have 98 drinks on the menu and seem to have a dedicated clientele.  But, as one seed is planted and flourishes, another fades:

Olde Towne Books & Brew has done an impressive job of reinvigorating the community of old downtown Mechanicsburg in the historic (1870s) Eckels Drug Store building, but will end its two-year existence on this coming Saturday night (3/23/13).  Founder Ryckitta S. developed a welcoming and happy vibe by combining a used bookstore, delicious drinks and noshes and a free music venue.  Soon after opening, young musicians and volunteer helpers showed up, and the place was lit up by local talent (and who knew there was so much?) for Tuesday Open Mic nights and full-house weekend shows.  They brought in all their family, friends and even several teachers who supported their students.  I once talked with the proud parents of Hunter Lyons, who was the first performer and will be the next-to-last, and they were the delightful opposite of those aggressive types you see at sports events.  Without a place for this to happen any more, well, it's a big loss.  We'll be there for the final night when Valerie Woods will be performing.

Local and national chain establishments along the commercial routes have also come and gone, but in most of those cases, it doesn't matter much to the community.  We can't keep losing what does matter.


(May 2013:  The downtown location of Cafe de Luna is closed, and the new New Cumberland version is now housed in Linda's Pie Shop.  In the case of the original building, the one formerly housing Oxford Hall, and even Linda's, the problems were with the old buildings themselves -- disintegrating floors, antique electrical service, lack of ventilation and non-food-service-compliant lighting that proved impossible to solve with the small business person's resources.  Why aren't landlords required to bring a building up to code to house the type of business they rent to?  Libertarians, don't bother with a propaganda blast.)


Friday, March 8, 2013

Unreal Estate

Kangbashi, ghost city in the desert
The New South China Mall -- avoid the holiday crowds!
Uh oh.  The U.S. stock market hit an all-time high yesterday.  What happens when a bubble -- a sphere of liquid or the financial kind -- keeps expanding?  Pop! History* teaches us that nothing fails like excess.

Smarting from the deflation of our real estate bubble in 2008, you may have heard about the crazy pace of building in China and wondered what they're doing.  The Shanghai skyline is now the new New York (although the bulbous CTV tower is no Chrysler Building, aesthetically).  However, strange things are happening on the periphery of cities, for no obvious organic reason except to keep 50 million construction workers busy and spend billions in saved money that has to go somewhere.  One place it did go, 161 billion dollars of it, was a new suburb called Kangbashi about 16 miles out of Ordos in arid Inner Mongolia.  Yes, 16 miles from pretty much nowhere.

Built for one million future residents, it so far has only attracted about 28,000.  It is no shantytown; it looks well built, has advanced infrastructure, and boasts two theaters and a large art museum.  The apartments (condos, I assume) sell for $50,000 to $60,000 -- imagine the stampede for modern homes here at those prices.  And we build in the desert too (ever hear of Phoenix?).  The catch is the local people make about $2 a day, and these homes are as out of reach as those here priced in the millions.  Whoops.

The People's Republic ruling Politburo has never been known for its sense of whimsy, but another odd project under their regime of State Capitalism was the "Wonderland" theme park, sitting spookily empty on 100 acres near Beijing since it never opened.  Construction began in 1998 but ceased after disagreements with local farmers about being booted off their land.  Since the park was modeled on Disney World, the developers could have learned a lesson or two about secretive land acquisition from the masters (there's a fascinating book on the subject).

Second in area only to the Dubai Mall, the New South China Mall near Guanzhou is still 99% vacant after its 2005 opening.  It's a very ambitious mashup of theme park and mall, with zones that mimic Egypt, Venice, California and Paris (with a Vegas-like fake Arc de Triomphe, canal with gondolas and St. Mark's bell tower) along with an indoor roller coaster.  They must have had planners hired away from right around here (we're the home of the Impossible Parking Lot and the Unsolvable Drainage Problem), because the mall is rather inaccessible due to lack of highways actually going to it and little public transportation extending that far.  Exactly like here, except we have a clogged two-laner or so going to the retail centers.

Other than as a jobs program, these projects seem to be the result of a huge pile of savings with nowhere to go.  The reason for this high savings rate is that China has no social security plan.  But, like Americans' more meager stash, these accounts do not earn enough interest (around 3.5%) to even keep ahead of inflation.  Our interest rates and rate of inflation are lower, but the situation's the same.  China's government dictates uniform national savings and lending rates to its banks, and individual investment outside of the country is prohibited, so its state capitalist system is set up to channel unthinkable amounts where they decide.  The upper classes (and increasingly the growing middle class) buy up real estate of any kind, frantically, as an alternative investment.  Like the Miami condo bubble, some will get in and out at the right place and time, but it's gambling, not investing, and billions in loans to development moguls have gone bad.  As Joseph Tainter observed, there are no mechanisms in advanced socieities that can be used to reduce complexity, only mechanisms to increase it.

And as Shelley's Ozymandias had it, "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"  Indeed.

*1634 - 1667:  the tulip bubble
  1719 - 1722:  the South Seas bubble
  1921 - 1932:  the Dow Jones bubble
  2008 - ?:  Dow Jones and  real estate bubble
...and so it goes.


Monday, March 4, 2013

What Would Don Do?

A bar in your office -- why it's good to be king
Office parties done right

"Television is our friend.  Nothing else gives so much and demands so little."

"Why are you reading a book when you can watch television??"

                                                                     -- Homer Simpson

In some brick-and-mortar or online institution of learning, or more probably at Greendale Community College, there should be a course titled Things You Can Learn From Television.  TV writers know more than you do (the first time I heard of real estate "flipping" was on "Will and Grace"), so we should be paying attention.  Commercials provide plenty of time for getting snacks and bathroom breaks and checking stuff out on Google, so they've made it easy.

Life isn't much like soap operas ("Dallas") or those three-couple sitcoms (i.e., "Friends" and about a hundred others), so you have to look discriminatingly for programming that might stimulate those curious regions of your brain. But get ready for April 7, when another season of "Mad Men" begins on AMC.  The people behind MM are sticklers for precise historical/societal detail and very careful costume and set design.  Jeez, even as a kid I thought those foam rocks, screamingly bright lights and impossibly ironed clothes on the "Lone Ranger" were just too fake to get into.  Family comedies back then were formulaic, as realistic as rubber-suit monsters, and always had the little annoying moral at the end.  Even at eight years old, I thought:  there is nothing to learn here.  Then the next day you go to to school in the real world and come to the same conclusion.  Same old, same old.

Well, we grew up skeptical but now we have, among the 900 channels of mind-numbing trash, some programs that -- while still made under the squishy rules of television -- invite you  into complex worlds you may only know a little about.  I've always wanted to know more about the culture of the adult American world of the early '60s that I saw bits of but was too young to understand.  Despite being lost in the far ends of suburbia, my parents were involved in the Mad Men world a little, through Dad's work.  A downtown club membership came with company rank, and it seemed they came alive and were actually interesting when traveling in that orbit.  They had a classy stainless steel bar set and real glass swizzle sticks (why do I remember this stuff but nothing I was supposed to learn?), and an impressive "hi fi," as it was called then.  When they got dressed up on Saturday night and had joke-telling adult friends over, I peered from the top of the stairs and thought, "now that looks like fun."  The setting lacked any urban cool, our mid-century furniture was sad, and it wasn't powerful Don Draper and the pinnacle of social and business power in Manhattan, but hey.

So I fill in the blanks with "Mad Men" which has led to digging further into the culture of the era, including at least six pages of notes on favorite drinks of the time and the bar technicalities involved.  While I know something about the politics and music, I really didn't know much about powerful drinks* because I have to admit we've always enjoyed craft beer and wine (another subject you can spend years exploring) but not spirits.  Our friends Jim and Kelly sort of introduced us, as they're fans of rum and martinis, respectively.  Back in the MM days, the drinks were clearly divided on the lines of masculine and feminine and social class.  Even though I'm interested to find out about it, I wouldn't have liked what they did at the time.  Neckties six days a week?  Nah. Smoking constantly? Hell no.  For manly men, the standards were the classic gin martini, old fashioned, manhattan and whiskey sour.  Now the last one is all right, but the gin and bourbon in the other three, forget it.  I've tried one of the finest bourbons, Woodford Reserve, and despite its beautiful color and aroma it tastes like a petrochemical.  But as I have found out recently, the gin martini that my parents' generation loved so much has been replaced by a few hundred very interesting vodka-based ones.  Now where's that conga line?

*As Dorothy Parker quipped,

I like to have a martini;
Two, at the very most.
After three, I'm under the table;
After four, I'm under my host.