Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bundle Up! Summer's Coming!

"The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent in San Francisco." Mark Twain said that a long time ago, and having lived there for six years, I can affirm there is quite a bit of truth in it-- whatever the people who still live there tell you. (If any of my San Franciscan friends beg to differ, I would simply ask you to open up your closet or your dresser and count how many pairs of shorts you own. If you count two or less, our argument is over.) But I'm sorry to say that in the hundred-plus years since Mr. Clemens' one-liner began its long march to cliché, San Francisco has lost its hegemony over cold summers.

That's because air conditioning, once the greatest invention in the history of mankind, has become so ubiquitous and overused that, like car alarms, it's now officially doing more harm than good. I am writing this in an office building in lower Manhattan. Right now it's 76 degrees outside, a beautiful day. I know this because I just had to go outside for a bit and warm up.

I can't find a thermostat anywhere on this floor -- believe me, I've looked -- but my best guess is that it's set for 65 degrees. I keep a sweater at my desk because without it, I cannot sit here without shivering. I bought a space heater to keep under my desk during the winter. I originally used it to keep my feet warm, but I had to move it up to my desktop and run it for a couple of hours a day. Yesterday. In addition to the sweater. It's colder in here now than it was during the winter.

And this is what I don't understand. I am not some kind of anti-AC zealot. I love air conditioning. I have two window units at home. But just how cold does it need to be? In the wintertime, if you checked your indoor thermostat and it read anything under 72 degrees, you'd turn up the heat. Right? So why does 68 seem to be the default indoor temperature in the summertime?

In a couple of weeks, it will be 85 degrees plus outside every day of the week here in New York. Naturally, I will want to wear as little as possible whenever I go outside. Shorts and a t-shirt is generally just fine. But if I go to the movies, a restaurant, or any kind of office building, I'll have to bring at least one additional layer with me if I want to avoid hypothermia. Either that, or suffer through the trip to wherever I'm going sweltering in clothes that are totally seasonally inappropriate. I am seriously considering leaving a pair of pants at the office (to complement the sweater), so I can commute to work  in normal summer clothes and not freeze to death when I get there. Or maybe I should just get a Snuggie.

How is this not sparking some kind of popular uprising? Surely I'm not the only one who has this problem. My wife has long called summer the coldest season, and with good reason: her lips and fingers start to turn blue whenever she goes indoors in a public place after Memorial Day.

If my appeal to our common comfort doesn't sway you, how about a little hippy-dippy environmentalism?  Because air conditioners just absolutely devour electricity. They are always the biggest power draw in your house. (Unless you're using a hair dryer.)  Again, I'm not anti-air conditioning. Again, I have two window units at home. If it's hot in your house, I don't see anything wrong with making it bearable. It's what separates us from the animals, after all.  But a little moderation might be in order, considering the whole dependence-on-foreign-oil thing we have going on right now.  And the fact that my wife's lips are blue.

I think it's possible that some (but by no means all) of this problem is caused by a fundamental misunderstanding of how air conditioning works. It seems to be a common misperception that, if you walk into a really hot room, if you set the air conditioner to a really low temperature, the room will cool off faster. People do this all the time and it doesn't work.

An air conditioner does not vary in its output. It puts the same temperature air out all the time, whatever it's set to. (For the sake of argument let's say it's 55 degrees, because I don't know the real temperature.) In other words, when you set the AC to 72 degrees, that doesn't mean that it blows 72-degree air; it blows 55-degree air into the 80-degree room until the overall temperature in the room, as measured by the thermostat, is 72 degrees. So when you set a thermostat, set it to the temperature you actually want the room to be. Setting it lower is not going to make the AC blow any colder or work any harder -- it's just going to ensure that it keeps running until the room is the temperature you set it to. If you set it to 72, it will turn off when the room is 72 and no sooner. Got that? If not, feel free to email me with questions.

Those of us with window AC units don't have this problem, because window units don't work nearly as well as central air systems, but I have to point out a couple of common misuses of these units as well. My upstairs neighbor has a curious habit of running his window AC units with all the other windows in the apartment wide open. Do I have to explain why this is not effective? I don't, right? Maybe he's just a fan of higher ConEd bills. It takes all kinds, I suppose.

I'm also amazed to see how many people leave their window AC units in the windows all year long. Forgive me if this comes off as pedantic, but leaving an air conditioner in the window all winter is the same as leaving your window open all winter. When it's running, it pulls air from outside, cools it, and pushes it inside. But when it's not running, the vents that it pulls the air through are still open. So the cold air outside can come right in, making it colder in your house or apartment so you probably have to turn the heat up. To an acceptable 74 degrees. Because anything cooler than that would be too cold, right? Unless it's summertime and everyone's wearing shorts. Then we have to keep it at 68 all the time. Aaaagh!

Of course, they don't have any of these problems in San Francisco. They don't even have air conditioning. You know why? I think Mark Twain said it best...

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Greatest, Saddest, Most Delightful, Awful Place In The World

How is it possible that one of my favorite places to go is also somewhere that I would walk over broken glass to avoid? What kind of place can be simultaneously horrifying and massively entertaining? What kind of place fills my heart with glee even as it reveals the ugliest parts of the human condition? Is there such a place?

Yes, there is. It's the place where white-hot rage and soul-crushing frustration are allowed to run free like naked children on a commune. The place where death threats are exchanged like pleasantries, and received indifferently. The place where cars are taken after they're towed for parking violations in Brooklyn. Schadenfreude has a name, my friends, and it is The Brooklyn Navy Yard.

If Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth, then the Navy Yard is its doppelganger, its evil twin, Bizarro to its Superman. It's not hard to understand why. Everyone is there for the same reason: To get their car out of a police-guarded parking lot, where it was taken without their consent, to the tune of $350. If that's not enough to boil your water, the Navy Yard is in a uniquely public transit-unfriendly spot, a 20-minute walk from the nearest subway stop, so when you arrive, you arrive to a roomful of people, accustomed to driving everywhere, forced to take the train and then walk. And walk. And walk some more. So they're in a bad mood when they get there.

I have had my car towed three times, and the first time I had to go to the Navy Yard I was just like everyone else. I was a little angry that the car was towed. I was upset about having to pay $350 that I could ill afford. I was hot and sweaty from walking on an extra-sticky Brooklyn summer day. And I was disheartened to find a slow, slow-moving line of about 35 people in front of me when I got there. The second time it happened, I began to see the humor in the situation, and by the third time my car was towed, I won't say that I was actually excited, but I didn't hate the idea of going there, because I was beginning to see the entertainment value of the place. It's like a museum of hostility. The level of existential despair rivals makes T.S. Eliot seem like Dr. Seuss.

The fun begins with the line. This is a long line, and it's not moving fast. There's no way around it. But if you can put aside your own frustration and accept that this is going to take a long time, it can be fun to watch people enter the room, size up the line, and then try to figure out some way that they might be exempt from waiting in it. They ask the people ahead of them in line: "Is this line for getting your car back?" They are told that it is. "What if I'm paying cash?" No, this line is for everybody. They wait a few minutes. The line does not move. They go up to the front and shout through the glass, "Am I in the right line? I just need to get my car back." They are told again that they are in the right line. "What if I'm paying cash?" Then the complaining-out-loud-to-no-one-in-particular begins. The loud sighing. The cellphone call to someone else to complain. But there is no sympathy. Everyone is in the same boat. Your pleas for empathy are ignored. You are alone.

But all of that is merely the amuse bouche; the entree comes when people try to argue the merits of the ticket and the tow with the lady behind the glass -- and almost everyone tries to do this. (The three-inch bulletproof glass, which I usually feel is overkill in a fried chicken place or a liquor store, is totally appropriate here, given the level of vitriol.)

The lady behind the glass -- her job is to process payment. She is not a judge or a police officer. She is a clerical worker. A cashier. All she can do is take your money. She couldn't exempt your parking ticket even if she wanted to. (And rest assured, she doesn't want to.) Nonetheless, she has to sit and listen to EVERY SINGLE PERSON try and explain that it is TOTAL BULLSHIT that their car got towed, that they only left it in that bad spot for TWO MINUTES. And anyway it takes an attorney to read those signs!

The lady sits stonefaced through this part. She's heard it all before. I saw a guy say that he was going to stake out a sniper's nest on the roof of his building and take out anybody that tried to touch his car, and even that got zero -- zero -- reaction from the lady behind the glass. One got the sense that she had heard much worse. (Worse than threats of a murderous ambush!)

Then when the happy customer finally accepts his fate, that he is not getting his car back unless he pays the money and he's not going to be able to talk his way around it, he gets to the next problem: He has to present his registration and proof of insurance to the lady behind the glass along with his payment. In nearly all cases, these documents are in the towed car. So the person has to go out to the parking lot, hitch a ride in the shuttle van to their car, get all their stuff out of it, and return to the line. This enrages people because they've been waiting in line for over an hour, and they immediately assume they'll have to go to the back of the line again and start all over. When they're told they can just come back to the window when they get their papers, they breathe a sigh of relief, but the released tension just multiplies and takes residence in all the people farther back in the line, who don't want their line wait made longer by this person's return.

I cannot overstate the level of hostility that pervades this place. The ladies behind the counter are totally affectless, dead in the eyes, and betray no hint of emotion or sympathy, but being called every name in the book by almost everyone you see all day will do that to you. But if you can take a moment to breathe, to realize that this situation is no one's fault but your own, that there's nobody to be mad at but yourself, you can let go of the stress and the anger and just taste the rainbow of emotions coming out of everybody else there.

The nightmare scenario I've just described is how it goes when everything goes smoothly. But I saw a comedy of errors in there once that was massively entertaining. I had to suppress laughter a couple of times.

It seems this guy had put his car in the shop, and was driving a loaner. He parked the loaner in a bad spot and it got towed, so he was now being asked to supply proof of ownership of a car that was not his. Worse, he had driven it from New Jersey or somewhere distant, and had no car, so he could not get these documents in less than a day. This situation had developed before I got there, and over the course of my hourlong wait in line the dude had gone from agitated to totally unhinged. He had someone from the auto shop on his cell phone and he was begging -- literally begging -- the lady behind the glass to talk to the guy. She told him about 80 times -- in a totally even, emotionless voice, mind you --  that no phone conversation with anyone was going to change the fact that she needed the car's registration in her hand in order to release it.  

And here's where this thing reached a level of dramatic intensity usually reserved for melodrama, as this dude went through a wide range of emotions; first he started literally screaming at the woman, calling her a bitch, an evil person, and accused her of enjoying watching him suffer. (There he was wrong; she was clearly not enjoying any part of it. Those of us in line were a different story.) Then as it dawned on him that he was only making things worse, he suddenly turned on a dime and started apologizing, actually falling to his knees and begging for forgiveness, as though he was trying to save a 20-year marriage.

This was still going on when my turn came. I smiled brightly at the lady behind the counter and said hello. She was a little surprised at this, but didn't really break her poker face. Then she told me I owed $350, and I cheerfully gave her my debit card and said, "I parked it in the wrong place! It was all my fault. Thank you for taking such good care of it." She looked up at me and after a beat broke into a big smile. "You're welcome. You have a nice day."

I hope my car never gets towed again, but if it does, when I go back to the Navy Yard, I'm taking a video camera. Maybe I can make a reality show out of it!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Parents Just Don't Understand

Offer a few totally underinformed, random thoughts on the state of modern education? Sure, don't mind if I do.

This topic has been occupying an ever-larger chunk of my thoughts lately, as my wife has been studying to become a teacher for the last two years, as my son inches ever closer to beginning proper school -- he will be in pre-K in the fall, so we have less than a year to figure out where he's going to begin his proper education. Public school seems a terrifying option in New York City -- as I write this, the mayor is preparing to cut 4,200+ teachers' jobs from the system, despite generally dismal test scores and graduation rates -- but private school is not economically feasible.

What's the matter with the public schools? Nationwide, success rates are going down by every metric. Everybody seems to want to blame the teachers and the teachers' unions. The teachers' unions, to be sure, need to be taken down a peg or two. For too long, they've strong-armed municipalities into paying teachers the exorbitant salaries that afford them such extravagances as 1-bedroom apartments and pre-owned cars with minimal rust damage, for doing little more than caring for and educating our children eight hours a day.

I can't pretend to know the ins and outs of teachers' benefits or their union's struggles with local governments. But it looks to me like the union is the one thing that affords teachers their one and only true job benefit: job security. What other reason is there to go into a field that pays so little and requires so much? You might say, "Teachers get off work at 3:30 every day. I wish I got off work at 3:30 every day." It's true that they leave the office at 3:30, but then they have hours of work ahead of them, grading papers and preparing the next day's lessons. "Teachers get the summer off." Yes they do, but the time off is reflected in their salaries. A teacher in the NYC public schools of my wife's acquaintance revealed her salary for full-time work and it compares unfavorably to what I make bartending two nights a week. (And that's my side job.) Add to that the daily ordeal of handling unruly students and you've got a job that's almost all downside; a little job security makes it a more attractive option, and I would argue that it's an important enough job that we should be doing all we can to tart it up.

But what about the bad teachers? The bad teachers who are leading our children to ruin? If we can't fire them at will, what will their incentive be to do better, to TEACH OUR CHILDREN WELL? I don't have an answer to this, but I do have a related opinion. And I will offer that opinion by way of a short anecdote.

My lovely wife became interested in dog training several years ago, so interested that she became an expert on it and decided to try and make a living at it. She was good at it, and she scared up clients pretty quickly, but she became frustrated when it became apparent that most of her customers were not returning after the initial consultation. The problem was not with her -- she is smart, knowledgeable, easy on the eyes, and a general pleasure to be around -- but with what she told them: that she was not going to train the clients' dogs. She was going to train the clients on how to train their own dogs. This is not what the clients thought they were signing up for; they wanted to show up for an hour a week and after six weeks, have a fully trained dog with no further effort from them.

This seems to be the approach a lot of parents have toward their children's education. We want to drop our kids off at school and have the teachers do 100% of the educating, with zero effort on our part. But I don't see how a kid can get a decent education without his or her parents' active involvement -- discussing what the kid learned each day, keeping tabs on whether they're doing the work, making sure they're absorbing the material. Otherwise, what is going to get a kid to care about learning? Left to their own devices, all they want to do is play Call of Duty and text each other photos of their privates. They are children, not short adults. If it's up to them, they will try to subsist on whipped cream. Unless they fear consequences at home for not doing the work, THEY'RE NOT GOING TO DO THE WORK, they're going to keep listening to their outsized ids.

The odd and disturbing trend where education, learning and knowledge are disdained as "elitism" by a certain segment of the population and simply "uncool" by another is just more chilling evidence that people need to take an active role in their kids' educations if they want them to get one at all.
The teacher my wife has been assisting as a student teacher this semester told her the following story, which I mangle here to illustrate my point: the teacher began sending text messages to one parent to tell her that her child was totally disruptive in class, did none of the work, and was going to fail unless something changed soon. After several such messages over a period of time came the first and only reply: "Don't ever bother me with anything like this again." Now, when that kid gets a failing grade, is that the teacher's fault? Does that teacher deserve to be fired?
I have no doubt that there are a lot of bad teachers out there. I would say more than half of the teachers I encountered as a kid were less than competent. But when I was having difficulty understanding algebra, thanks largely to an awful teacher who hated me (to be fair, I was not an easy kid to like), I was still able to (barely) pass the class because my dad sat down with me for hours and worked with me on it until I (barely) got it.

The way I see it is, the teacher provides the road map. "This week we're going to talk about the Gettysburg Address." Great. Maybe as a parent you get lucky, and your questioning of the kid reveals the teacher was able to capture his imagination in explaining the content and significance of the Gettysburg Address. In that case, crack open a Bud silo and turn on Celebrity Apprentice, because the work is done. More likely, though, the kid slept through the presentation because the teacher bored him, or the kid thinks the teacher doesn't like him, or WHATEVER, and that's when you have to roll up your sleeves and teach him yourself. Hopefully this close contact will be enough to motivate the kid to pay closer attention during class and spare himself the extra lessons. The point is, you are putting a value on the kid's education, and letting the kid know that.

Though I really think it would be nice if the people who do one of the most important jobs in our society were compensated in such a way that more talented and motivated people might be attracted to that profession, at the same time all the money in the world isn't going to solve this problem. It starts and ends with parents' involvement.

On the other hand, all this reminds me of my brother. My brother is one of the smartest people I've ever met, and he always has been. At some point in high school, though, he started flunking all his classes (except, tellingly, Pascal computer programming, which he aced). Our parents knew he was more than smart enough to ace all his classes, and assumed he was just bored with an unchallenging curriculum, so they tried to motivate him by threatening him: they said if he didn't get his grades up by the end of the year, he'd be grounded for the whole summer. For the rest of the year, he basically stared coldly into their eyes and flunked the rest of his classes (except Pascal, which he aced), and indifferently spent the summer at home.

So I dunno.