Canine-internet metaphors

Dogs take a candid interest in the smells of other dogs’ pee, and one day a couple of years ago, when I was walking our late lab-shepherd mix, we met a hound who ignored us in order to focus on the scents left on a tree. The hound’s owner apologized by saying, “He’s checking his email.”

Yesterday I heard another such canine-internet metaphor. In anticipation of meeting an elderly dog on the corner, our puppy collapsed on the sidewalk, as if lying in wait in the tall grass. When the elderly dog reached us, Toby sprang up, but the traditional greeting ritual between dogs—butt sniffing—was one-sided, because the elderly dog, uncurious, just stood stolidly and patiently in place. “This is my indifferent lab,” the dog’s owner explained. “‘You do whatever you want,’ he’s saying. ‘You go ahead and Google me, but I’m just going to stand here.'”


Another thing I’ve long meant to blog about: car diapers. I wonder whether they exist outside Park Slope. In how many American neighborhoods do parallel parking, overprotectiveness, and automobile vanity co-exist? The car diaper is a large sheet of rubber that is draped over a car’s rear fender in order to protect it from the scratches and scrapes incidental to parallel parking. They aren’t called car diapers, of course, by their purveyors. Indeed they seem to have sort of self-consciously aggressive names, like “Bumper Bully” and “De-Fender.” But car diapers is what they look like. Some are attached by shutting them half in and half out of the trunk, so they flop over the fender, usually with a cut-out so that the license plate remains visible. A driver rarely scrapes up another car’s rear fender while parallel parking, because one always has a clear view of the other car’s rear fender. It’s one’s own rear fender that one scrapes, by misjudging the distance behind. So a car diaper is a responsible and civic thing to own—an admission of one’s incontinence as a driver, or anyway, as a parallel parker. Still.

To be fair, I am in no position to make fun of car diapers, seeing as how I am an inveterate user of book condoms, also known by the trade name Brodart Just-a-Fold III Archival Covers.

Probably I am willing to mock car diapers because of the same character flaws that have made me a cyclist. So while I am bashing car culture, I might as well throw in this observation: On the streets of Park Slope, the most dangerous driving seems to occur when drivers are in the throes of the illusion that they are “catching up.” To explain: If a driver feels that a safe and pleasant speed on a residential street is 15 miles an hour, but an obstacle (such as a double-parked delivery van) temporarily forces the driver to slow down or even stop, he often responds, once he has passed the obstacle, by “catching up.” That is, he suddenly accelerates to thirty miles an hour, and holds that speed for half a block or more. What he is “catching up” to is where he thinks his car would be if he hadn’t been forced to slow down. It wasn’t his choice to slow down; it was (and I am rankly indulging here in a fantasy of driver’s psychology, which isn’t such a stretch for me because I, too, drive) somehow unfair that he had to slow down. By revving the engine, he expresses his anger at this injustice and recovers for himself the timespace that the universe, in the form of a double-parked delivery van, had tried to take from him. On a bicycle, too, I suppose, one might try to “catch up” to one’s fantasy-unobstructed self after an obstacle, but I don’t think it happens very often. I don’t find myself ever doing it, maybe because it would take a burst of muscle power that isn’t generally available. In a car, though, the engine is always ready to give you more speed than is safe; the cost of “catching up” in a car isn’t to one’s energy supply as a human organism; it takes the form of an added hazard to oneself and to those who have the misfortune to be sharing the street with you while you’re doing it. Car drivers, become more zen! You are where you are. You do not have to catch up to where you think you are.

To be fair and balanced, now that I have dissed place-anxious drivers, I will say a few words about a similar risky and unpleasant habit among my fellow bikers. This long-harbored meme goes in my head by the name of, How Fixies Cause Global Warming. Not really, of course, or anyway, not by very much, but let me explain. What I am objecting to is a practice that has been well described by Bike Snob NYC: when a hipster on a fixie comes to a busy intersection, he does not stop on the near side of the pedestrian crosswalk and wait for the light to change. Oh no, he considers that the momentum that he has built up in his bicycle is too precious to squander by stopping, so he passes over the pedestrian crosswalk and then, just inside the intersection, circles back and forth, in a sort of flattened figure 8 pattern, hoping against hope that there will be a break in the crosswise traffic that will allow him to sneak through. When he does find such a break in the traffic, I sigh with relief. He is gone from my life, at least until I catch up to him at the next intersection. When he doesn’t find a break, however, he himself becomes a considerable obstacle. He almost always finishes his flattened-figure-8 performance with his bike stationary after all and positioned sideways, blocking my path into the intersection. He almost never realizes when the light has finally turned green, because (1) he is too far into the intersection to have a proper view of the traffic light, and (2) he is too “street” to pay any attention to traffic lights generally. So when the light turns green and I’m ready to go, he’s sideways, in my way, and squinting in the wrong direction. And the final aggravation: when he does start moving, because he’s on a fixie, he’s starting his bike in the equivalent of seventh gear or whatever, and he . . . moves . . . the . . . ped- . . . -als . . . ve- . . . -ry . . . slow- . . . -ly . . . . If he had a real bicycle, with some low gears and some high ones, he would be able to start quickly from a full stop, and get out of my way.

The reason momentum is so precious to fixie-riders isn’t because they have a better grasp of physics than other people, nor necessarily because they’re in worse physical condition, but because it’s hard to start riding a bike in seventh gear from a full stop. So fixie riders try not to stop at all, and they end up cluttering intersections whose lights have turned green. Once this is understood, it is a short step to realizing that the decision to forgo gears must be a tremendous waste of human energy generally, and any waste of energy, even the energy generated by hipsters eating power bars, is a contribution to global warming, so fixies cause global warming. Q.E.D. (As I admitted before, not by very much. But, you know, some.)


As I was coasting down the Manhattan Bridge’s final slope into Chinatown this afternoon, I realized that the orange-line train to the left of my bike, descending the same slope, was tracking my speed exactly, and when I turned I saw the conductor grinning at me. He must have been waiting to see if I would notice. He waved, and I waved back with a wave that nearly knocked off my own bike cap, so when I recovered I waved again for good measure.

I’m trying to shift my attention, this week, from one project to another, and all I seem to be able to think of are disconnected anecdotes, some of which I have carried around for more than a year now. For instance, there’s the story of the local church book fair. Attending it a few years ago, I found a first edition in its dust jacket of a not terribly well-known novel from the 1930s, which, I knew from having looked the title up on Bookfinder not long before, some booksellers priced in the thousands of dollars. I bought it for two dollars! I was tiresome about it at dinner parties for months afterward, though of course the profit to be made remained theoretical, because I couldn’t bear to sell it, and it sits on a shelf a few yards from this keyboard as I type. (Moreover, as long perusal of the blog Bookride has taught me, books that are priced on the internet at ridiculous prices do not necessarily sell at such prices.) At next year’s church book fair, I was prepared to score triumph after triumph, but when I arrived, a few hours into its progress on a Saturday morning, I found it filled with college-age people carrying handheld scanners. They picked up book after book—bleeping their bar codes, checking prices on the internet, and plopping all titles worth more than a predetermined threshold into large boxes between their feet. Automated capitalism had destroyed another niche of humanism, I moaned to friends, making myself tiresome in a new way at that year’s dinner parties. A friend pointed out that it could be argued that the injustice was actually in the previous state of affairs, when card counters like me knew that particular 1930s novels harbored literary value, and that the internet-connected scanners merely evened the playing field. (They didn’t even it completely, of course, because 1930s first editions don’t have bar codes. They don’t even have ISBNs.) But it was strange to watch a technology that gave to people who didn’t even necessarily have the habit of reading books the ability to judge their value. At the time I had also been bewailing the disappearance at the local YMCA of the Plexiglas book holders for the elliptical trainers. One by one the book holders had cracked and been discarded, in a process as gradual and inexorable as the upgrading of the elliptical training machines themselves, which were alwyas replaced, when they broke down, by machines with pre-installed television monitors. In the end, every elliptical trainer in the gym had a television monitor, and there were no more Plexiglas book holders. Instead there was a thin ridge beneath each television screen, where it was possible to prop up a glossy magazine, if the magazine wasn’t perfect-bound. Without the restraining lip of something like a Plexiglas book holder, however, perfect-bound magazines and books tend to get jiggled shut by the vibrations of an elliptical trainer in use. I tried for a while artfully folding a towel over the corners of my books’ pages, to keep them open by weighing them down. But the towel had to be refolded every time I turned the page, and there was in addition the social pressure of being the only person in the gym to insist on reading a book when so many nice television screens had been made conveniently available. Somehow the two phenomena—the deployment of the handheld ISBN scanners and the vanishing of the Plexiglas book holders— seemed of a piece, at least in my mind, as if technology and the pursuit of economic efficiency were rationalizing the reading of books out of existence. Not long afterward, I quit the gym, because I was riding my bike all the time anyway.

At this year’s church book fair, which took place not too many weeks ago, there were fewer dealers with handheld scanners, and none of them seemed to have hired college students to help them for the day, as they had the year before. The books themselves seemed to be of lower quality; maybe the church had invited a bookseller to buy the better titles for a higher price beforehand. This time around, the economic metaphor, if there was one, seemed to be that in a recession people were pleased to have an opportunity to buy cheap things in large quantities—to fill a cloth shopping bag with books and pay no more than twenty dollars. I got half a dozen Classiques Garnier paperbacks from the 1950s, in yellow covers with sewn bindings and “vellum” paper—Stendhal, Rousseau, and Voltaire, perhaps someone’s college curriculum.

The View from our window

Matteo Pericoli, Caleb Crain's window in The View from Your Window, 2009

No doubt you have wondered what the mysterious blogger behind Steamboats Are Ruining Everything sees when he looks up from his laptop. The answer (at least when I work at the kitchen table): a lot of sky, and a few backyards in southern Park Slope, Brooklyn. You can see the view for yourself at left, as improved by the art of our friend Matteo Pericoli. Having drawn Manhattan from the inside and the outside, Matteo has returned to draw New York as sixty-three of its writers, architects, designers, and producers see it, in a book titled The City Out My Window. Besides our window in higher-fi, and a few of my thoughts about it, the book features the windows of Mario Batali, Stephen Colbert, Nico Muhly, and Lorin Stein. Matteo promised not to show the interior of anyone's home, and he doesn't, but the views are strangely revelatory anyway—inside-out Peeping-Tomism, somehow. For further sample peeks, including the views of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Wynton Marsalis, check out Matteo's website.

Park Slope Democratic Primary Voters’ Cheat Sheet

If, like me, you live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and are rash enough to have voted in previous Democratic midterm municipal primaries, you will have been so bombarded by campaign literature and robocalls in the past few weeks that you will be suffering from information glut. In other words, you will have felt obliged to immediately recycle all campaign fliers, you will have deleted without listening to them the lengthy voice messages left to you by Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo, Charles Rangel, and a cast of thousands, and you will have told innumerable cheerful people with clipboards that you are on deadline and can't talk right now.

Unfortunately, you will still feel obliged to vote on Tuesday, and now, thanks to your own cussedness, you don't know anything about the candidates. I herewith offer my cheat sheet, just compiled. Please note that I'm not offering my endorsements, because I'm not knowledgeable enough to dare.

The purest information source seems to be the impartial New York City Campaign Finance Board's 2009 Primary Election Voter Guide, which gives brief resumes of all candidates, in a consistent format, and presents their answers to a few simple questions. I live in Council District 39 of Brooklyn, but this particular voter's guide is useful for all districts in all boroughs.

Specific to Council District 39, the Brooklyn Paper ran a brief Q&A this weekend with all of the City Council candidates: Brad Lander, Bob Zuckerman, John Heyer, Josh Skaller, and Gary Reilly. The Brooklyn Paper has itself endorsed Heyer, which seems a somewhat odd choice for this community, given Heyer's opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

I usually resort in such circumstances to the crib sheet printed by the New York Times in its City section the weekend before an election . . . but the City section is no more, and I saw no crib sheet today in the Metropolitan section, which replaces it. After dutiful searching, however, I can report that the New York Times endorses Brad Lander for City Council, Bill de Blasio for public advocate, and David Yassky for comptroller. The Times has also published answers by candidates for public advocate to a standard battery of questions. They have also published in the printed paper a similar table of Q&As for the comptroller's race, but I can't find it online.

Update, Sept. 14: The New York Times has added a short primer to the races for public advocate, comptroller, and city council.