Welcome to Abandoned America

By way of Pocket, I came across this story about how dollar stores in rural and poor urban communities have become replacements for Walmart and other big name stores–and magnets for crime: How Dollar Stores Became Magnets for Crime and Killing. It is, as expected, a depressing read. The photos of the various stores, often surrounded by empty lots, spoke of neighborhoods filled with decay, abandoned by most and held hostage to these kinds of stores, that occupy areas long abandoned by other retailers.

But instead of providing a needed service, they serve as hubs to crime–robberies, shootings, drug deals and more. They fail to provide security to their low-paid staff and to the surrounding neighborhood.

The story talks first about North St. Louis, noting that the city declined from a population of over 850,000 in the 1950s to just over 300,000 today, a staggering decline that has left large tracts of the city occupied by shuttered buildings or vacant lots. I was intrigued and went to Google Maps to see what it looked like.

At first as I scrolled the satellite view of the map over the city, it looked pretty typical–commercial districts, residential areas with rows of houses. I zoomed in more and spotted the first vacant lot–I had initially mistaken it for a grass field. As I continued to scroll I was stunned at how prevalent these lots were. I switched to street view to “tour” the area and found a blighted landscape filled with shuttered businesses, empty houses and bricked up buildings who function has been erased by years of neglect.

It made me realize a couple of things. America is one of the largest countries in the world geographically–only Russia, Canada, China and India are bigger. And while the U.S. is populous–around 330 million–that number is concentrated around urban hubs in a few states like California, New York and Texas. Vast tracts of the country are largely empty, usually because the land is desert or otherwise ill-suited to large populations. But then you have places like St. Louis, where people have simply fled to the suburbs or elsewhere, creating these pocket ghost towns, where there are blocks of dilapidated houses, foundations with decades’ worth of weeds pushing through cracks in the concrete, and then suddenly a neighborhood that has some new housing, a gas station, a few amenities–an oasis before you head back into the desert of abandoned structures.

The U.S. isn’t the only country that has had cities abandoned, of course, but looking at the scenes in St. Louis, this somehow feels uniquely American, that a major city could just get left behind and forgotten, left to fall apart and disintegrate.

The scenes of desolation are despairing to see in broad daylight. I can only imagine the terror of moving down the streets of these places at night, surrounded on both sides by darkened buildings whose windows are either boarded up or broken.

Here are a few images I captured from street view, with the street view date included for reference.

This is both the smallest and scariest private club I have ever seen, sitting on the corner of an otherwise vacant lot, in an area with little else nearby. From the lack of windows to the black brick and barred red door, it’s like something from a horror movie. Street view goes back to 2011 where it was painted blue as the Jefferson Mini- Mart. From appearances, the mini-mart was already abandoned at the time. In its current incarnation it is actually open as the Orange Door. It has a 4.8 rating (scale of 5) on Google Maps, proving that looks can be deceiving. (May 2017)
Street view for this large abandoned church goes back to 2007–and it was already empty then. The main differences now are the main doors have been sealed, the sidewalks are more choked with weeds, and a few more windows are busted. (July 2017)
The 3D overview of the area the church resides in. Some of the vacant lots have been empty so long they have completely returned to a natural state. A number of the other buildings seen are also abandoned.
Ernie’s Market is now closed. The building seen to the right is currently occupied, as are several others in the immediate area, creating a strange juxtaposition of life amid ruin. (March 2015)

Complaint-free me: Postponed

My personal and to a lesser extent professional life is in what might call a state of turmoil right now, so I have elected to postpone the restart of the 21-day Complaint Free challenge, since I expect I’d just be constantly restarting and getting increasingly frustrated instead of making even incremental progress.

But I do plan to restart the challenge, hopefully sooner than later.

In the meantime, a re-post of the most amazing cat gif ever:

Complaint-free me, Day 2: Take 2

I completely forgot to do a write-up for my second day of my second attempt to go complaint-free for 21 days. This is because it rained most of the day, I stayed inside and engaged in very little interaction with other humans, greatly reducing the possible complaint window.

This is to say Day 2, the first day of summer, was a success.

Complaint-free me, Day 5: Back to Day 1

Today started with an email essentially invalidating a bunch of work I had done yesterday. I was not happy. I complained.

I moved my complaint-free band to my other wrist. I complained some more and moved it back to the original wrist.

Tomorrow I start over on Day 1 again. I regret complaining, but at the same time part of me is glad to have gotten it out of my system this early on. It made me reflect not just on my state of mind, but where I am right now, and helped clarify the path I want to take going forward (which is not the path I am currently on).

So, lemons made into lemonade. Or something.

Complaint-free me, Day 4: Oh, so close (to complaining)

The only thing of note today is I deliberately had to refrain from expanding on certain thoughts to others, because those thoughts would be complaints. I mulled the idea of de-complaining the thoughts by proposing solutions or whatnot, but it seemed too much effort for no real gain, so I just stilled my fingers on the keyboard.

On to Day 5!

Complaint-free me, Day 3: Is a magic number

I edged perilously close to complaining at a few points today, but again was saved by being forced to communicate through online chat and was able to resist the temptation.

My partner had a bad day at work, but upon coming home immediately set out for 30 minutes of balancing to re-establish his Zen. I appreciated him not using me as a sounding board for a litany of complaints. He felt better by not dumping on me about things I have no control over, and I felt better for not having been dumped on–and tempted to do the same in return. Win-win, as they say.

Complaint-free me, Day 2: Boogaloo

I admit, it feels like cheating to be doing the Complaint Free challenge when I’m working from home. It’s much easier to keep from complaining when you have to type out your complaint in a chat program and then hit the Enter key to send it vs. just opening your mouth and letting it spew out without thought.

Today that did not happen, so I am two for two so far on the challenge. I’ll admit there were a few times I came close, but I recognized each one and held my virtual tongue.

Complaint-free me, Day 1: Third time lucky

On February 3, 2018 I declared myself a victor in the 21-day Complaint Free challenge. By August I had started the challenge again, feeling I had lapsed. According to the entries on this very blog, I lasted seven days on my second attempt before going curiously silent about the whole thing.

Here we are more than two years after my initial success, in the middle of a global pandemic, a recession caused by the same, worldwide protests over police brutality and Donald Trump is President of the United States. If ever there was a time where it felt A-OK to complain, 2020 would seem to be that time. It’s also a great time to challenge myself to rise above the urge to complain, to stay positive and focus on the good, to find solutions instead of just griping about things, especially things I can change.

And so I have donned my purple Complaint Free bracelet again. For the first day I think I got through okay. If I complained to someone else (and I did ask some people to verify if I had), it was too subtle to notice, or I just wasn’t paying enough attention. While either is possible, I think I came through with a legit victory for the day.

The toughest part, as before, will be refraining from sarcasm, or at least sarcasm in the form of “complaining with humor”, which is very close to all sarcasm.

I completed the initial challenge very quickly–the book notes it takes most people 8-10 months to hit 21 consecutive days of no complaints–so there was always that nagging doubt I had complained a few times and not noticed it. We’ll see if I get similar results this time.

I’ll report back in 8-10 months (ho ho).

Jeremy (in 2020)

As happens sometimes, I went to watch a video on YouTube and found myself going down the rabbit hole, bouncing from one video to the next and there goes an hour of time in what feels like seconds.

It started with watching a live version of “Live and Let Die” from 2009, followed by the opening credits version, then another live version from 1973. The song was a big hit, but I’m still surprised because structurally it’s a bit odd, with no traditional verse/chorus and several sudden shifts in tone (which McCartney was known for, especially in his early 70s songs).

This eventually, somehow, led to an “uncensored” version of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy.” I love just about everything about this song: it’s catchy, evocative, haunting, it’s great fun to sing along with (“You too can be Eddie Vedder!”) and the video, which won MTV’s Video of the Year award in 1992, is equally effective, due to the young actor playing Jeremy, the striking art direction and, of course, the ever-intense Vedder howling away, veins on his forehead bulging.

I figured the uncensored part was the line “seemed a harmless little fuck” because MTV generally did not allow f-bombs to be dropped on air. But it turned out to be a mere second of footage right near the end, where Jeremy walks into the classroom, tosses an apple to the teacher, then turns to face his classmates. You see him make a motion as if he is raising a gun, then the shot cuts away to show the other children in tableau, with looks of shock and horror on their faces, many of them splattered in blood.

Some took this to mean Jeremy had shot up the room, but the uncensored version, in that one second of previously unseen footage, shows him raising the gun and putting it in his mouth. It’s quite chilling, and while I always thought that’s what happened, it was still stunning to see it. I get why MTV would not air it–probably out of fear of inspiring troubled kids to emulate Jeremy–but it’s good to see Pearl Jam finally make the original version of the video widely available. Its message of bullying, depression and suicide are probably more relevant now than they’ve ever been.

A sad coda in the comments (I know, never read the comments, but the ones I read are surprisingly decent) notes that the actor who played Jeremy died in a drowning accident in 2016 at the age of 36. The band went to his funeral.

Here’s the video:

A brief post about privilege and the impact of social media

Today a lot of media sites are participating in support of an initiative, using the hashtags #TheShowMustBePaused and #BlackLivesMatter (not without some unintended consequences).

Here’s what you’ll see if you access Apple music right now, for example:

This is in response to the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by members of the Minneapolis Police force. Since word of the killing, complete with footage, came out on Monday, protests have formed around the world and particularly across the United States. Most have been peaceful, some have been violent, some have been infiltrated by white interlopers looking to make the peaceful protesters look bad by association with their destructive actions.

These protests against police brutality have been rife with even more police brutality, with people doing nothing at all being attacked, teargassed, and beaten. Journalists are being violently attacked. It is disgusting and lays bare just how perverted the police forces in the U.S. have become, interested more in oppression and violence than actually protecting people, especially when it comes to anyone whose skin color is not white.

I am a white man, about as privileged as can be. I am a member of a minority, but it is an essentially invisible one. Most people won’t know I’m gay unless I specifically mention it, or, I don’t know, wear nothing but Pride-themed clothing. But I am very obviously a white guy. I cannot conceive of the things black people must go through in the U.S.–or even in Canada, which has yet to exorcise its own racist demons. It fills me with anger and despair that people can so thoroughly let themselves be subsumed by hate in service of power and authority, of feeling superior to others.

And in the U.S. they are aided and encouraged by a terrible monster of a man, Donald Trump, who is leading the destruction of the country, lashing out and inciting from the basement of the White House, the windows dark at night as he huddles in safety deep below ground, a fitting place for an unrepentant troll.

The Verge has a story today on how Twitter and Facebook should just ban people like Trump, because their tweets and posts are fomenting hate and division, and getting people killed. I agree. This is just one story of many you can find like it on the web right now, but marvel at how a tech site–a place where you go to read about gadgets and reviews of MacBooks–feels compelled to publish an editorial like this. This is the world we live in now.

Ban them all by T.C. Sottek

How things have changed for me, how they haven’t (Pandemic edition)

Like puberty, the global pandemic has been impossible to avoid. But at least this time my voice didn’t change.

While the future remains unwritten and hopefully won’t turn into a real life recreation of The Stand, here’s what’s changed (and what hasn’t) during life in a global pandemic.

Also, I like lists.

Here’s what’s changed:

  • Work from home. This is the biggie, of course. I started work from home (WFH) on March 18, so it’s been about two months, though it feels like a lot longer. The idea that this would happen at the beginning of the year was absurd. I expect to be WFH at least through the summer, which will mean at least six months total, and it could extend to the end of the year, which would be 10 months total. That’s a lot of commute time saved.
  • Speaking of commute time, I have no commute. I used to ride on two different SkyTrain lines and spend just over one hour traveling to or from work. Now I roll out of bed, cross the living room and I’m there. My commute has gone from over 60 minutes to under 10 seconds.
  • I am getting more sleep. This is directly related to no commute as I am getting up an hour and a half later now.
  • I am saving money. This is related to WFH and having no commute. I am not buying a two-zone monthly fare card (currently $131), plus my use of transit has dropped to near zero. I have been on the SkyTrain twice in the last two months, versus 44-50 trips per month previously.
  • I am gaining weight. Snacking is a lot more convenient. I am working on this, but I have added 5+ pounds since this began.
  • I am exercising less. I’ve been doing walks, both on and off the treadmill, but I’ve only done a single run outdoors. I’m just not comfortable running outside right now, even though I know it’s not actually high risk or anything.
  • Reading time has declined. I am currently five books behind on my modest Goodreads Reading Challenge for 2020 because my reading time used to be during my commute and, well, see the second bullet point. I’m starting to finally read again, so may start catching up on this.
  • Shopping has shifted online or been severely reduced. I’ve purchased stuff from Apple and Best Buy online (and Amazon, of course) and had it delivered, something I generally would not do (I’d just go to the respective stores). This usually means I wait longer to get something (which is fine). I-person shopping is always done solo and no more than once a week if possible. Shopping in-store is relatively unpleasant now due to physical distancing requirements and some members of the public being indifferent or actively hostile to these requirements. The online shopping experience has varied as follows:
    • Amazon: The closest locker is closed, so they deliver direct to door. Usually once they get in the building the drivers leave packages at the condo door. This means stuff could potentially be stolen. Not good.
    • Apple: They ship free (yay) via UPS. UPS comes to the building, they try buzzing our suite number (this doesn’t work, as the buzzer number is not the same as the suite number–which they can see if they read the list of occupants next to the buzzer), then leave a note and I have to pick up the package the next day at a store a few blocks away. This is not convenient, but it’s less risk.
    • Best Buy. They ship through Canada Post. If the package is large, the delivery person will leave a key to a Canada Post large item locker in the lobby of our building, across from the mailboxes. This is convenient, and I wished Apple shipped this way, even if it meant a day or two extra for delivery.

What hasn’t changed:

  • Work is mostly the same. With in-classroom issues eliminated, the actual work I do is much the same as before, I just do it from a desk at home instead of a desk on campus. I like WFH and hope to keep doing it because not having that one hour commute is a gigantic improvement in quality of life.
  • Still playing Diablo 3. But I’m nearly done getting my final character to level 70. After that, all the treasure goblins in the world will not bring me back (maybe).
  • Mealtimes and other routines, like a walk at noon. Times and locations have shifted, but the activities are still the same.
  • And other miscellaneous stuff.

This weekend marks the beginning of the easing of some restrictions, but I don’t expect things will change much for me. Physical distancing will still be in place when shopping and many mall stores will remain closed (like Apple, for example) or will be restricting their sales to things like curbside pickup. I guess we can go to provincial parks again (during the day), though as I type this it’s pouring rain. Normally that’s a bummer on a holiday weekend, but this time it may just help us flatten the curve a little more when so many people are anxious to get out and get “back to normal”–something I suspect will not be happening for quite a while.