The year 2011 saw a surge in negligible coincidences. But since it’s hard to know what to make of negligible coincidences, they were quickly forgotten. After years of crawling along the El, knowing you weren’t making good time or getting ahead of anybody, the renovations of utterly unnecessary subway stops such as Avenue H and Neck Road wrapped up, and the B train resumed its express route. Hurrah! No longer would it take thirty-three excruciating minutes to get from Brighton Beach to Canal Street, but twenty-six-and-a-half. In a similar vein, the Coney Island Avenue ramp onto the Belt Parkway, after having been obstructed for millennia, unexpectedly opened for business, making the owners of a certain wine-colored Honda Accord very glad, though also a bit sad, because they had grown accustomed to that particular frustration. One of the year’s themes, it would follow, was that it become easier for borough-buried folk to make the schlepp to Manhattan, and to highlight the necessity of that schlepp, because no matter how much you protest, Manhattan is still where life is.
This year marked the tenth anniversary of the launch of Wikipedia, a milestone that was not easy to cope with, especially for people who spend vast amounts of time trying to deny the passage of time, or that the outside world has any effect on them at all, and who are horrified by the words “milestone” and “cope.” Especially for those who were downtown that day. The Arab countries were allowed to have only one season, and they probably made the right choice, though not if you look at it from a south Brooklynite’s wind-hating perspective. There were tsunamis, bombings, mudslides, nuclear disasters, but surprisingly few airplane crashes. I cross the Atlantic on Monday. On the East Coast of the United States, it was neither the hottest nor the coldest anything, but the cleanup effort continues after Hurricane Irene’s psychological destruction. A baby named Wolfgang was born in Kansas. Preparations began for the end of the world, due the following year.
For those of us in our late twenties living pretty well in New York, it was another year of personal enhancement. We added a few supplements, extended our yoga practice, met our boyfriends, stayed with our boyfriends, maybe even married our boyfriends in repurposed industrial or rural spaces that looked like corollaries to our relatively new apartments. We bought each other wedding presents. We even took a few cabs because we knew—we just knew, we could see ourselves five years before spending all those tired, vaguely alarmed minutes in the cold, miserable embrace of one of those subway bench seats—what it would be like to take the G train home after midnight.
We walked over the Brooklyn Bridge one time, two times, maybe even three times partly just for the pleasure of it but also because there was something new to see in the world. There were protests—we hadn’t been to one since college—with people who looked like people we knew shouting and singing and demanding things it had never occurred to us to demand. When we were 19, everyone was angry about the war; then they mostly stopped being angry about the war. Then we were lucky enough to graduate at a time when someone would give us a job. They gave just about all of us jobs, and most of us have even been getting promotions. And although we worry about the costs of the supplements and the cabs and the rent and our everlasting loans and what on earth will happen to our younger siblings and our parents, we also have been feeling, with a mix of relief and something less like regret than a leftover bit of discomfort, that maybe we’re already old.
In Riga last summer, at the Theatre Bar Restaurant, I got into a conversation about the census. I wanted numbers, but the guy had to go. Not to the bathroom, to the UK. After dessert the waitress emigrated, too. Latvia was losing Latvians. Its citizens, newly allowed to move west for jobs in Germany and France, moved west for jobs in Germany and France. I decided to follow but got waylaid in Lithuania.
When I was in America the newspapers said America was failing, when I was in Europe the newspapers said Europe was failing—and when I was on the airplane back I read a newspaper whose culture section said newspapers were failing and whose business section said airlines were failing.
In New York, word was that Brooklyn and Queens were over. The next neighborhood was Wall Street. Friends, acquaintances, and people I’d only read about online were all relocating to a nice park with nice sleeping bags and tents, but they never had time for me, they never wanted to go to the movies or grab a drink, they were Occupied. The weather remained Arab Spring into fall. The cops showed restraint. The cops showed no restraint. A woman I know brought sandwiches to the park. A man I know wrote a magazine article about the woman bringing sandwiches. Another man I know wrote a blog post about the magazine article. This will be the harshest and/or mildest winter on record. I don’t like the idea of having a practicing Mormon for President, but I’m not sure I’d admit that in print.
This was the year that I noticed—finally, belatedly—that the university has fallen silent. Just like with the gradual increase of noise, the cognitive threshold for perceiving silence seems to lag behind any objective measure. Worried about my possible solipsism, or perhaps just some early-middle-age hearing loss, I began asking academic colleagues at other places if they’d also found themselves wondering where the noise (of conversations, shouted hellos, the rustle of small crowds) had gone. Turns out I wasn’t alone, at least in believing two premises: never, in the history of American higher education, has the coffee on campuses been better. And never in living memory— although I think here of photographs of just-founded 19th-century colleges, mostly of brick buildings set starkly in open fields, no doubt taken in early morning to allow for long exposure times, and characteristically empty of people— have campuses seemed so quiet.
No mystery about the reason: everyone is in front of screens, tapping, while large swaths of undergraduates are sent abroad to save on operating costs and dorm space at home. Department offices are almost always empty of students, who have no need to visit in person now that all transactions are online. The doleful racks of faculty publications hear only the clicking of keyboards. But if silences have qualities, this one is less monastic and engrossed than tentative and embarrassed—not a library but a subway car.
From one angle, collegiate silence seems tinged with sweetness: everyone quite genuinely wants to avoid offending by puncturing the calm; your right to your cone of quiet is maintained with touching concern. (Even in New York!) But the sweetness also seems placatory. Students have become wary enough to worry about who overhears any noise. Even the token gesture of a faculty petition in support of OWS was greeted with sudden panic by student comments on blogs: Won’t this insult the donors who keep the ship afloat? In between wondering where everybody spends their time, and missing some lost and possibly mythical boisterousness, I remember the instinctive response of those who think there’s a gun pointed at their head: shut the hell up.
New Years brings out the worst in me. The fresh starts, the resolutions, the general merriment—these things couldn’t be further from my mind when the countdown gets underway and the glass ball begins its ominous descent. Instead all I can think of is my thinning hair, my heavy legs, my terrible vision getting every day more terrible.
So imagine my joy when I heard about Kobe Bryant’s trip to Dusseldorf this summer. He was there to see a doctor, a man named Peter Wehling, who claims to have found a cure for arthritis. In June Kobe submitted himself to Dr. Wehling’s ministrations, hoping to repair a damaged knee. Skeptics will find Dr. Wehling’s techniques a little unorthodox. He extracts the patient’s blood; the blood’s growth factors are isolated and cultured with chemicals to increase their potency; then the blood is re-injected into the patient. It sounds sort of crazy, I know. But for Kobe the risk is worth taking. Success could add new life to his basketball career—a few more years to play, and the chance for a sixth championship ring, which would put him on par with Michael Jordan. And let’s not forget: many doctors in the 18th century had public relations problems, too, as they needed to rob graves for their anatomy experiments. We need to keep an open mind about this stuff.
When he returned from Germany, Kobe reported a positive experience. He believes the transfusion worked and has recommended Dr. Wehling to his good friend, Yankee third basemen Alex Rodriguez. Pope John Paul II has also sought treatment from the good doctor. I for one am excited about Peter Wehling’s advances in medical science. I predict that by 2015 we will all be walking around with the knees of men and women half our age. Decripitude will be so 20th century. The future is bright.
—Edward Morgan Day Frank
Here in Bogotá, today’s paper heralds the national economy’s strongest quarter in five years. Meanwhile, Colombia recently surpassed Brazil on the Gini Coefficient, making it the country with the highest levels of wealth inequality in Latin America. This is why I hope, unrealistically, in the wake of this year’s passing of the US-Colombia free trade agreement, that analysts casting their eyes southward don’t take the nation’s growth as proof of the success of its neoliberal policies. This would be too much like hearing, as we often have, that Colombia’s ruinous internal conflict has actually been a victory for US-sponsored counterinsurgency tactics, despite the unbelievable costs: the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, for one.
The year ended with the most successful and visible social movement Colombia has seen in a long time: students took to the streets in massive numbers across the country to protests a proposed reform that, by most accounts, would have severely underfunded and made inroads toward privatizing the country’s public higher education system. After the mobilizations gained widespread public sympathy, the government caved and withdrew the proposed reform. Now the nationwide student assembly finds itself in a position unknown to any of the movements that have cropped up around the world since the Arab Spring: having obtained a major initial concession, they have to figure out what exactly to bring to the bargaining table. Triumphalism, combined with the depth and complexity of Colombia’s problems, create any number of risks. The negotiations in 2012 will be a high-wire act. The world would do well to pay attention.
I am not in love, and was not for the whole of 2011. Rihanna, perhaps sensing a similar lack nationwide, magnanimously supplied the first person plural in her latest disquisition on the topic. Yet here in New York, “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place” served only to refract metaphysical and spatial constraints.
“All of us were drunk to some degree.” Perhaps that’s a better point for refraction. I underlined it in a book last month (indulging, for the last time, my worst inner annotater). But isn’t that how we wade through our relationships? These past few months dissolve in a fog of dating and not dating, kissing and not kissing, drinking and not drinking. Mostly drinking though, while reading, for that’s where our love lives get real exercise—we work through the last boyfriend, quietly refuse the present one, and imagine living up to promises made to the next.
I wish I meant novels—and really I do—but it’s the tabloids that spew fodder capable of distracting us, if only for the hours spent hunched in front of the computer, from our own failings. This December Candace Bushnell filed for divorce, but not before Elizabeth Taylor died (from congestive heart failure, no less). I swear it took more than a few parties after Kate Bolick’s “All the Single Ladies” to stop mapping her story of thwarted coupledom onto any unsuspecting 30 year old with a champagne flute (the Atlantic article received 48,000 likes on Facebook).
Not that the times didn’t proffer up a sufficient amount of “matrimania”—I too was captivated by Pippa’s eerily buoyant bottom, pretended to be disgusted by Kim Kardashian’s seventy-two-day whack at the institution, and cheerily celebrated the legalization of gay marriage in the city that saw the Stonewall riots. But, to be perfectly honest, the best bit of news I read was of a 40 percent increase, since 1986, in men dwarfed by taller brides.
Here in South Dakota—a hopeless place save a great barren beauty—I can report only that marriages are occurring at an alarming rate. “Wedding fever!” to steal a line from my 81-year-old grandmother (she celebrated her sixtieth anniversary in October). Getting hitched this weekend, at a nubile 21 years old, are a cousin and her farmer groom (they will soon move into the farmhouse adjacent to his parents’). A fellow bridesmaid—her college roommate—is engaged to yet another high school sweetheart. I have not one of those, and I can promise only a certain degree of drunkenness in my near future (one as near as tomorrow, thanks to a flask well hid beneath two generous layers of tulle).
I await the day I am drunk with love. Or at least the day I get back to New York—the best of all possible hopeless places—where the horizon is but a magnificent fog, obscuring both potential loved ones and the aisle.
In late August, I moved from San Francisco to Philadelphia, and it feels like I spent most of the fall on the bus between my new home and New York. Mostly the Bolt Bus, which offers relatively comfortable seating and wireless internet; twice, the Megabus, which doesn’t really offer either; and once, perilously, a Chinatown bus, which I had sworn to avoid after a New York to Boston trip many years ago ended midway with the bus engine spewing smoke.
The trip from Philly to New York is supposed to take about two hours, but it almost never does. When I say I’ve spent the fall on the bus, I really mean I’ve wasted most of the last few months idling outside the Lincoln Tunnel, listening to other people’s thudding music as it trudges out of their headphones (after sitting in traffic for four hours, even a metronome would start to sound slow). Twice, in moments of weakness, I splurged on train tickets ($71 each way). The trip is an hour and fifteen minutes, and–those two times—it took exactly that long. For this reason those train rides linger in my mind as the happiest times I had in 2011.
During a two-month stint in China this summer, I took some buses, but mostly I took the fastest trains and cleanest subways in the world. I had a splendid overnight sleeper from Yunnan to Sichuan, but the best was a high-speed rail from Beijing to Shanghai that took five hours (as opposed to the usual twelve). A television monitor on the train continually advertised the train I was already on. The seats were remarkably easy to come by. Just a few days earlier, there had been a horrific crash in Zhejiang province. The death toll was . . . well, nobody knows, exactly, because the Party swooped in to hush up the press, who were questioning corruption in the railway ministry. A journalist I know who was covering the crash had her story pulled from a magazine. The censors replaced it with a story about how watching the Harry Potter movies could make you a better person. The Chinese government has just announced that it will invest less in railway spending in 2012.
An impassioned debate among some recent college graduates living in a city: is it “wrong” to be on food stamps if you don’t really need to be? And then, of course, confusion about what constitutes need.
“It’s just stupid to be on food stamps if your parents will give you money to buy groceries.”
“Why is it stupid? It’s not like me getting food stamps means other people can’t. That’s not how it works.”
“Such typical rich kid behavior—anything you can get you think you deserve.”
“I’m a socialist. I think the government should give everyone food stamps. Plus, I stood in line for like three days to get my food stamps. I do deserve them.”
As of September 2011, 46.3 million Americans (about 15 percent of citizens) were receiving federal aid for food, meaning that this fiscal year, SNAP (The USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) gave them about $75.3 billion.
More than one irony-inclined internet personality farted out the same mock insight this fall: the best part of going to Zuccotti Park is the free food. Indeed, feeding everyone for free was one of the more successful of Occupy Wall Street’s various utopian initiatives; people dining at OWS were not asked to demonstrate their need through pay stubs or tax returns. It seemed to work OK.
At the grocery store with the foodstamper a week after I witnessed the above debate, and his food stamp card didn’t work. (In case you didn’t know, so-called food stamps come on swipe cards now). He had forgotten to fill out some ancillary piece of paperwork. He looked at his $200 of groceries, now all in bags at the foot of the conveyor belt. He glanced at me, then pulled out his actual debit card and paid for them himself.
“Is this the difference between you and people who really need food stamps?” I asked, “that you can pay if your food stamps don’t go through?”
“Shut up” he said.
But the question was not rhetorical.
This year I betrayed my country. Or at least that’s how it felt, even if, from what I’ve been able to learn, the US tolerates dual citizenship by means of something like a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. There I was, after eight years of paperwork, of interrogations by the Délégation du Québec about my knowledge of that province’s charming folkways, of counting every day outside of Canada lest I go beyond my limit and find my permanent resident status revoked: there I was, I say, in July, in Montreal, before an immigration judge, some Mme. Robichaud or Tremblay, swearing, along with seventy-two other soon-to-be-Canadians from thirty-eight different countries, my allegiance to Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada (a different person, by the way, than Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, even if the two persons inhabit the same physical body). This part was not so hard, as she looks like a kind old lady. But then came the line about “her successors,” and I thought about what it would mean to actually be loyal to that lad William, say, whose birth I remember as if it were yesterday, and I confess I began to mumble my lines. We did the recitation in English and French, and the French part was a good deal easier for me. Hell, I’ll swear anything in a language that resides only in my head and not in my heart. Behind me, by contrast, a man from somewhere in Francophone Africa bellowed out the French part directly from his heart. There were tears in his eyes and his voice quivered. I thought of the Ontario politician Garth Turner, who denounced the “Canadians of convenience,” that is, those who swoop through just long enough to get the passport before moving on. The African behind me was no Canadian of convenience, whereas I, I understood, might very well turn out to be one. In the end my principle motivation to become Canadian was that I might thereby be free to leave the place without having to count the days. I am now at liberty to abscond until 2040, if I feel like it, just in time for a bit of free palliative medicine in my final days. The man behind me believed in the idea of Canada, whereas I, whatever the current reality, cannot deny that it is the United States I believe in, that I carry in my heart, if I may be permitted to put it sentimentally, and that my association with the monarchy to the north will always remain rather more circumstantial. The US is a bloated and aggressive empire populated by snake-charming enemies of Enlightenment, Canada is a decent and sober social democracy, et cetera. But heavens, one is who one is, and in my shiny new Canadian passport, just after Lieu de naissance it says “Reno, USA”: surely the most significant bit of information in that document. It is a question of habitus, which is something so deep that the matter is already more or less settled even before we are begat. Mine in particular took shape in the late 18th century, and hates kings and queens, especially the ones no one believes in anyway. I am proud of my new status: I got 100 percent on the citizenship exam (what does A mari usque ad mare mean? Which province is the leading producer of wood pulp?), and I show off my passport like a fetish. But the taint of the betrayer is not going to go away.
—Justin E. H. Smith
Washington, DC remained the country’s only major real estate market to appreciate every year since 2007 and one of its fastest growing metropolitan areas. In May Richard Florida, the herald of the creative class, ranked the DC area the “#1 city for recent grads” and, for good measure, the second fittest city in the country. Our nation’s capital, as my boyfriend never fails to point out, has long been one of the epicenters of the “single women jogging with dog” movement. But this year the dogs were larger and more conservative—golden retrievers and black labs—and the women ran faster. With the specter of federal cutbacks looming, sales tax collections started to drop noticeably in the second half of the year, but the return on lobbying costs continued its steady rise to $220 for each dollar spent. On New Year’s Eve, the Plaza Hotel hosted the tenth annual James Bond Gala–“Hot Gold girls! Gold guns souvenirs! For YOUR Eyes ONLY!” A few blocks away the Occupy DC movement marked its ninety-third day in McPherson Square; fortified by a favorable permit decision from the National Park Service and a fresh infusion of protestors from New York, they were planning to settle in for the winter.