Burroughs Adding Machine

Social justice, arts and politics, life in New York City

Lightly on the Death Toll for Boston Bookstores

I live in a darn educated city, and bookstores are plentiful. Seems like the recession’s been bad for them, however: I just learned that the New England Mobile Bookfair, a behemoth of a bookstore that’s been around for 50 years, is up for sale. Rodney’s Bookstore has been in an indefinite store closing mode for several months; plans to close the Central Square institution at the end of the year may be on hold.

As a former bookseller myself and a frequent supporter, I worry about the disappearance of these institutions. Not only do bookstores–and used bookstores in particular–provide a purchase point for us consumers, but bookstores are community spaces, solitude- and sanity-keepers, a refuge for those of us readers with short attention spans who leap-frog from one book to the next.

Counter to the trend of receding bookstore business is the hopeful story of The Strand. Whenever I’m in New York, I drop by this literary landmark and their 18 miles of books. Founded as a book stall more than 80 years ago, The Strand is still owned by the Bass family and owns its building.

Makes you wonder: Do booksellers make good businessmen? Why are we always lamenting the death of the indie bookstore?

Filed under: books, business, economy, literature, , , , , ,

Is College Worth It?

I am a proponent of higher education.

In general, and removed from modern connections to financial success, the idea of higher education is one that pleases me to no end. I’m thinking about higher education–for an intellectually curious student, not just someone who attends college as another rung in the life ladder–as something that feeds the soul, introduces great thinkers, teaches us to question and reason for ourselves. Rebecca Mead meditates on the utilitarian value of higher ed in this week’s Talk of the Town. Separating college from money, she writes:

Unaddressed in that calculus is any question of what else an education might be for: to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.

I could not agree more whole-heartedly. The merits of higher education can be seen, if I look at my own place in life: Where would I be if I hadn’t gone to college? And if I had chosen a state school in the Midwest as opposed to the private, liberal education I ended up choosing on the East Coast? Would I have encountered and met the same diverse community? I think of certain friends whose taste in music, whose real engagement with good books, whose desire for travel all helped nurture my own passions. I think of my partner and his intellectual passions and deliberations, and how his powerful life of the mind impacts (directly, through our conversations, and indirectly through his actions) my own.

How has higher education influenced me? Above: Horsing around with friends my first year of college in 1990; Below: Addressing students at the university where I teach, earlier this spring.

Mead writes in response to recent talk that college just ain’t worth it. “Don’t go to college,” argue many, like economist Richard K. Vedder, founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Mead cites Vedder’s line of thought, including “eight out of the ten job categories that will add the most employees during the next decade–including home-health aide, customer-service representative, and store clerk–can be performed without a college degree.” The conclusion? The number of college degrees awarded statistically does not match what the economy needs for workers.

But this line of thought seems to ignore Mead’s, and my own, thinking that a college education can not be measured merely by post-collegiate salaries alone. And I’m not going to the other extreme, of the Steve Jobs and Ellen DeGeneres, famous folks who never received their diplomas. I’m trying to assess how college, as a total experience, both the in-class and out-of-class, makes us more whole. I think about how lucky I was to have spent six years as a student of higher education, and how this has led me to my current position within the academy. In a series of small, perhaps serendipitous, moments my college years provided the incubation period for me between adolescence (and adolescent thought) and adulthood. I think of the mess I would have been going straight from high school into the working world.

Filed under: economy, education, work, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ignore the Actual Cost of Your iPod. What’s the Real Expense?

Consumption. Capitalism. Environmentalism and government intervention and global resource management. Big words, often abstracted to the point of little meaning. What do these “isms” have to do with your iPod?

Writer Annie Leonard breaks it down in The Story of Stuff. “You can’t run a linear system on a finite planet,” she says, before launching into the interrelation between your iPod and the big box stores and toxic ecology and global labor forces. Perhaps a bit simplistic at points, but useful as a primer (or wake-up call). It’s often difficult to remember the tremendous natural resources needed to manufacture and consume the products in our everyday lives.

It shouldn’t be a shock to any of us, but the U.S. is a nation of consumers. It’s the main component of our American identity. Not cultural traditions or human diversity or unified pride in our people. We define ourselves through the stuff we buy. Even comedians recognize our love of stuff, and hilariously skewer it.

A bit of cultural exchange with our Ugandan friends: we brought Jiffy Pop, they roasted corn from their garden.

Maybe a small bit of proselytizing, but I’ll say it anyway: traveling in January to Uganda and Rwanda, a concrete thing I took away was not the poverty of the people, but the excess of American consumption. I and my students had so much stuff. Rarely did we notice the cumulative amount of our things–handheld iPod speakers, baseball caps, four or five bottles of sanitizer–in contrast to the folks we visited.

It was easier for us to discuss how Rwandans had nothing, rather than that we, as Americans, had so much.

So what’s the real cost of your iPod? Not the retail value, but the actual expense on our environment, our quality of life, the complexity of our cultures?

How do we justify, as Leonard points out in analyzing a $4.99 radio, the hidden costs: “the metal probably mined in South Africa, the petroleum was probably drilled in Iraq, the plastics were probably produced in China, maybe the whole thing was assembled by some 15 year-old factory worker in Mexico”? How does our careless spending (the majority here in the U.S.) wreak havoc on limited resources–both natural and economic–across the planet?

Filed under: africa, consumerism, economy, , , , , , , , ,

UCLA students protest 32% tuition hike

So we all know California, as a state, is bankrupt. Now the jewel in the state’s  system–its prestigious, trail-blazing public colleges and universities–is feeling the effect. Yesterday, the Board of Regents approved increases in student fees that will raise individual student costs by more than $2,500, or 34%. Needless to say, UCLA students were not happy.

Nearly a dozen students were arrested and reports claim one student was tasered. The first increase of $585 will take effect in January, and another $1,000 hike will take effect next fall. California’s public education system may soon rival Florida’s State University System for the title of worst-managed public school system.

Filed under: economy, education, , , , , ,

Making the world go round

world-money-7497271It has occurred to me lately that money does, indeed, equal power. Seems like common sense, right?

But for me, it’s been the convergence of many distinct places that I’ve noticed this privileging of money: in the irresponsible actions of mortgage companies and Wall Street bankers, of course; in the  evolution of shopping malls as the public square instead of parks and community centers; and in the decision-making processes of my undergraduates, who must (unfortunately) choose between private employment, public service, graduate education, or, literally, unemployment. That personal choice often boils down to the workforce (“Finally! A living wage!” they cry); volunteer organizations like Americorps (“I’m not making any money, but doing something good” as a palliative to their lack of choice); more higher education (“Putting off the real world”–a choice motivated, hopefully, by the desire for greater knowledge rather than fear of not finding a job), or a route afforded only to the very affluent or the very down-and-out: Unemployment. What’s a person with only four years of college to do?

This morning, I learned of the announcement of the FOX Network (that bastion of liberalism) that they wouldn’t carry President Obama’s address. At first glance, I chalked the decision up to politics as usual. Then I learned that in the past, the FOX Network had turned down the request to televise former President Bush’s address. I put two and two together: FOX has its own business interest in mind. The network is less about right or left ideology, and more about the millions of dollars they would lose in advertising revenue in exchange for the common good. For the cable network, broadcasting is less about providing some public service (e.g. information, public policy, education about our nation’s state of affairs) and more about the gains and economics of their corporation.

We need to find more opportunities for individuals to combine interest in the public good with a living wage. Even I’m not that naive to think that Americans are not driven by an individual, liberal, Capitalistic approach to life. “It’s the American way,” we say, shrugging our shoulders. Or worse: “What are we going to do, become Socialists?”, echoing fears of the 50’s Red Scare.

 

A Buddhist monk that I met at a temple in Bangkok. His vocation was not one of materialism, but rather enlightenment. Interesting to reflect on the ways that his nation has shaped his individual pursuit.

A Buddhist monk that I met at a temple in Bangkok. His vocation was not one of materialism, but rather enlightenment. Interesting to reflect on the ways that his nation has shaped his individual pursuit.

When I was travelling through Thailand a couple years ago, I remember being in awe at the sheer numbers of young monks on the street, carrying books and bunching their loose orange robes. So many men had chosen to commit themselves to learning, and this was awe-inspiring to me. Only later did I learn that this was part of their national agenda: many Thai men commit to sanctified religious training. It is not required, but highly encouraged.

 

In contrast, some nations have set a militaristic agenda: young women and men must serve the security interests of their countries. I have taught undergraduates from Israel or Korea who must interrupt their studies in the states to return to their home countries for a year of required military service.

What would the U.S. look like if we required our young people to serve one year in a religious school or the military? Public outrage, for sure (maybe even the burning of draft cards like in the 60’s). But maybe also an alternative way of thinking, a diversion from the pursuit of materialistic desires. Let me be clear, I’m not advocating for required religious or military service. However, I am asking what else is out there besides the pursuit of money?

Dr. Martin Luther King once gave an impassioned speech against the Vietnam War, asking for this shift in our nation’s priorities: “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

It is the last bit of King’s words that have always resonated for me: the ways that we, as a people, privilege “profit motives and property rights” more than people.

Filed under: economy, government, world, , , , , , , , ,

Writing

BIOGRAPHY

RECENT PUBLICATIONS
» "Pinays," AGNI, Spring 2016
» "Dandy," Post Road, Spring 2015
» "Wrestlers," Fifth Wednesday, Spring 2014
» "Babies," Joyland, August 2011
» "Nicolette and Maribel," BostonNow, May 2007
» "The Rice Bowl," Memorious, March 2005
» "The Rules of the Game," Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images (Coffee House Press, June 2003)
» "Deaf Mute," Growing Up Filipino (Philippine American Literary House, April 2003)
» "Good Men ," Genre, April 2003
» "The Foley Artist," Drunken Boat, April 2002
» "Squatters," Take Out: Queer Writing from Asian Pacific America (Asian Am. Writers' Workshop, 2001)
» "Deaf Mute," The North American Review, Jan 2001
» "The First Lady of Our Filipino Nation," The Boston Phoenix, 1999
» "Paper Route," Flyway Literary Review, 1996
» "Brainy Smurf and the Council Bluffs Pride Parade," Generation Q (Alyson, 1996)
February 2017
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Ricco Villanueva Siasoco is a Manhattan-based writer and non-profit manager. More

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