Giving Thanks (Despite Our Faults)

Thanksgiving.

Crisp leaves underfoot. Stinging fresh air. Roasted turkey. Glutinous stuffing. Fruity, creamy pies. Frantic airports. Family around the table. Football. Horns of plenty. Pilgrim pageants. The national folktale of our collective well-being. A day of gratitude.

Last year, two days in advance of celebrating a pandemic Thanksgiving stripped of communal trappings, I sat alone in my office and zoomed into SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) base-group training. Our ever-gentle facilitator, offered a prompt. “I’d like to open our space for anyone who wants to share their struggle with what is coming up on Thursday.” Matoaka is so thoughtful, ran through my head, giving people an opportunity to express the disappointment of a non-traditional Thanksgiving.

Wrong, conventional white man. So wrong.

An outpouring followed, of rage and disgust that this so-called ‘holiday’ exists. That we actually celebrate our decimation of Native peoples with this fantasy of peaceful community. Further masking the fundamental reality of our nation: violence.

I listened to the anger, I heard the pain of women (I was the only male in our training group) who suffered Thanksgiving as yet another form of erasure and oppression. I learned about The National Day of Mourning, a fasting ritual held every Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock to acknowledge the genocide of indigenous people.

I could not deny their truth or their anguish. But it didn’t resonate either. Yes: humans are cruel; power corrupts; and the winners write the history. But I cannot understand the value of agonizing our faults so deeply that they debilitate us. Rather, let us to enlarge our history to embrace voices silenced by simplistic myth.

I love Thanksgiving; I always have. Hands down, my favorite holiday. The least commercial, most collective celebration of our year. Acknowledging the blood seeped into the holiday’s origin story does not negate the grace embedded in giving thanks.

I give thanks for the abundance that blossoms when humans rise above base instinct; I revel in the bounty of coming together; I celebrate our potential: that one day the conqueror and the vanquished will embrace and move forward: in equity toward each other; in balance with our planet.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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Who is My Neighbor?

I’m confident there’s something greater than us out there. Not a deity that directs our daily lives: that abdicates our individual responsibility. Nor something fashioned in our own image and likeness: that’s simply a narcissistic failure of imagination. I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of god. But so am I. And so are you. And so, from a religious perspective, I’m no Christian.

Yet I am culturally Christian. Steeped in its fundamental moral and ethical traditions. The Bible. The parables. The ten commandments. I don’t adhere to every fable: the celebration of the prodigal son at the expense of the steadfast one is simply appalling. Yet my moral compass points New Testament north. Less Hammurabi’s eye for an eye. More Gospel Matthew, bent toward forgiveness.

One cornerstone of cultural Christianity is, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” I suppose in Palestine circa AD Zero, your neighbor was pretty easy to identify. The extents to which anyone walked was limited; everyone you met was your neighbor and it behooved you to treat them well. You had zilch influence on anyone beyond your immediate geography. They were out of scope.

The first part of the definition for ‘neighbor’ still holds. The people who live in my immediate proximity, who walk the same sidewalks and attend the same schools are certainly my neighbors. Beyond that, the definition gets muddy.

A typical blog post, authored by The Awkward Poser or pretty much anyone else, follows a predictable trajectory. A personal vignette illustrates a social condition, problem, or opportunity. Sprinkle in a bit of irony, a dose of humor, and resolve with refreshing insight. Keep it light, but not trite, in under 1000 words

This post does not follow that trajectory because, in truth, I have no idea where to draw the boundaries that define who is my neighbor. I am simply going to listicle the gradations as I understand them.

My neighbor is:

  • A person who occupies my immediate geographical and social sphere. Which, in my domain means they may not be white, but they are well-educated and affluent.
  • A person who occupies my immediate geography but not my social sphere. There is a housing project four blocks from my house. I hardly interact with anyone who lives there.
  • A person who lives in the city of Cambridge. Cambridge is only six square miles, but it includes over a hundred thousand people. How could I possibly love them all as myself?
  • Every person who shares my political and social views. Is being a neighbor allowed to be easy?
  • Everyone, regardless of their political and social views. That makes being a neighbor incredibly hard. How can we possibly love someone as ourself who is diametrically opposite ourselves? Even if we could love them, we’d have to love them in some other way.
  • Every citizen of the United States. Aren’t we supposed to hold much in common?
  • Every other person in the United States. The undocumented occupy the same space, right?
  • Every person who wants to get into the United States. Is it our duty to share what is good and bad about the US of A with anyone, simply because they want to come in? If they are our neighbors and we are Biblically inclined, then we must.
  • Every virtual person we encounter on the internet. Many are real; their entreaties and GoFundMe’s are sincere. But many are trolls or bots. Do neighbors have to be human?
  • Every creature we influence on this earth. The birds, the bees, the pandas, the spotted owls. They are our neighbors in a geographic sense. But if I exert myself to their preservation, it is often at the expense of some other creature.

Thus, twenty centuries on, the Biblical imperative to love they neighbor as thyself is, at a minimum: exhausting; in reality: futile. There are too many of us making too competing demands. Call me callous, but I simply cannot care as much about an ill person who lives in Southeast Asia as I can about the man who lives down the street. At least I can bring my immediate neighbor a casserole or accompany him to the doctor. I can’t offer anything so tangible, so direct, to the person on the far side of the globe.

And yet, I cannot draw a line through my list and announce those above as my neighbors, those below outside my consideration. My moral compass wants to include everyone I encounter under the umbrella as my neighbor. The sheer number of encounters that bombard us in the twenty-first century tramples on that Biblical ideal.

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$1.37 of Giddy Happiness

As a first order approximation, the amount of money a person spends is a good reflection of how sustainably they live. It’s not an exact correlation—environmentally negligent junk food costs a lot less than locally-grown produce—but the ratio tracks well for most human carvings and their planetary impacts.

I’ve never been much of a shopper, so spending little money isn’t difficult; and ever since my time in Haiti, I’ve made a personal parlor game of celebrating days of spending zero dollars. The Awkward Poser’s folly against the bombarding temptations of our consumer economy. Still, even I am not immune from the adrenaline jolt of savvy shopping.

It’d been a tough week. Three days of drizzly rain. A dear friend in Worcester in and out of the hospital, then back in. Finding a new tenant, off-season, after one suddenly moved. Jumping through hoops with the city arborists to remove a tree that’s shearing my neighbor’s retaining wall. A family member in Utah lost in a coma. The usual stuff of life: sliced grim.

I needed a walk. Fresh air. Heavy-breathing at the gym. I also needed spackle to repair damage in the empty apartment. $6.99 at Whites Ace Hardware in Porter Square.

I’d squirreled a $5 coupon issued from a different Ace Hardware in my wallet. “Will you accept this coupon from another Ace?

“Sure thing. It’s a corporate coupon. That will be $1.37.

“How’s that? The spackle’s $6.99; the coupon’s five bucks.”

“First, I applied the 10% senior discount. Then subtracted five dollars. The sales tax only apples to the remainder. That makes $1.37.”

“Wow.” Amazed how the clerk applied benefits I didn’t even know existed, and then tallied them to my best advantage. I walked out of store whistling a happy song. The emerging sun seemed a little brighter, my step a little lighter. The jaunty satisfaction of such sweet purchase. Was there ever a day when a tub of spackle delivered so much joy?

Of course, White’s Ace Hardware won as well. I may not shop often, but I won’t soon forget this great deal. I’ll be back.

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Death of a Family?

October 28, 2021

It’s after midnight. I cannot sleep. I rise from my thrashing, flame on the computer, and spill my thoughts.

My sister-in-law is lying in a hospital bed, 2000 miles away. Body temperature lowered to 75 degrees. In hope that when the medical personnel warm her up she will come back to life. In some form. Six minutes without oxygen is a long time. That’s the length of time her heart was starved. The medical jargon is convoluted but the facts are simple. Julie teeters on death. Complications from COVID.

Julie’s 64 or thereabouts. After-midnight stats are unreliable. She’s beautiful. Got this dimple squish in her nose that struck me odd when we first met, forty years ago. Until it seemed unique. Then distinctive. Her love of music and her positive outlook is astonishing. She also bakes killer cinnamon rolls. A dozen years ago, she abandoned her Eighties’ mass of curls for a blunt cut and I realized—wow—this woman’s come into her own. That’s when I moved past loving Julie because she’s my sister-in-law, and just starting loving her. No adjectives or obligations attached.

My brother Bill’s text about his wife arrived last morning, along with a group email from my sister. I was soon added to a thread daughter Jessica began. Jess’ first message described how Bill’s COVID came on first; he’s already been in and out of the ICU.

Anger tornadoed up and through me. My head pulsed. I could barely finish reading. I took deep breaths, dozens of them, typed out a reply, and then opted out of the thread.

“Thank you for letting us know. I am so sorry that Julie is in such a precarious state. She’s so lovely; I have always been fond of her grace and devotion. I am doubly sorry because we all know you and Julie could have minimized, or even prevented, this from ever happening. By denying sound science, you’ve deepened the tragedy.”

How could I be so hard-hearted during this fragile time? I hit ‘send’ and let the repercussions fly.

I mind my own business; don’t quiz anyone of their vaccination status. I got my two shots, wear a mask indoors, stay six feet away from everyone. I don’t like it, but it’s not all that hard. When recommended precautions evolve and change, so do my behaviors. This is a new, virulent disease; our understanding continues to unfold. I could still contract COVID, of course. No one’s guaranteed immune. But if I do, I believe I’ll find solace in knowing that I took the recommended precautions for myself and my community.

There are a few things we know for certain. That if you are seventy with a history of respiratory disease, as my brother is, you present a high risk. That if you bring COVID home, it’s easy to spread. That if you’re vaccinated, the risk of getting COVID nosedives, and if you suffer a breakthrough case, it’s more likely mild.

My brother and his wife chose not to get vaccinated. We didn’t discuss it; the information was simply conveyed.

I can no longer pretend that whether a person gets vaccinated is a rational choice, deserving a sympathetic response.

So why didn’t I squelch my itch to type, “denying sound science,” and simply send a message of sympathy? Because the image of sweet Julie lying in a cold coma snapped something in me. I can no longer pretend that whether a person gets vaccinated is a rational choice, deserving a sympathetic response. Such silence condones their behavior.

Within a few hours, blowback came. From another family voice. How could I toss out an ‘I told you so’ under the circumstances?

I could disagree with that interpretation of my message. The sorrow of an accident is great, but the grief of a trauma over which we exercise some control is deeper, uglier. But that would be quibbling since, no doubt, I ricocheted blame for Julie’s condition. I extracted it from the sphere of the arbitrary and Almighty. I placed, at least some of her agony, back on those suffering.

The range of humans that flower from a single gene pool is amazing. My immediate family and their offspring represent phenomenal diversity. Aside from being mostly white and altogether too-Irish, we hit just about every demographic point: red, blue; rich, poor; drop-out, Ph.D.; evangelical, atheist; alcoholic, teetotaler; veteran, felon. I’ve always prided myself that, no matter how different we are, we stay in touch. Not every-Sunday-for-dinner-close. Still, I’ve always remained on speaking terms with every member of my family. Even when they’re hard for me to figure out. Ditto when my peccadillos confound them.

But tonight, in the after-midnight blackness, I can’t forecast how that tradition continues. What is the right path for me to be a good person: politely accommodate whatever my family says and does under the banner of family solidarity; or stand true to what I know is true.

I strive to see others point of view. But I cannot, cannot, cannot fathom any reasoning why intelligent people whom I love choose not to be vaccinated against this horrific disease. An inaction of perverse selfishness, cruel to their family, callous to society. If their disdain of vaccination is as strong as my conviction, we enter an arena with no middle path.

In this moment I am so angry at my brother, I’m unable to be a good brother myself. I cannot share his burden. I cannot console. Will I find compassion and generosity in my heart to move past my anger? Will I extend the empathy he and Julie need? Or will my principles provide meager solace? Will my anger fester? Prompt reciprocal anger? Drive a rift that we cannot heal? We are none of us getting younger, and some of us are very ill. No matter what differences have surfaced in the past, we’ve always come together again, in time. Will we come together this time? Or will a piece of our family die?

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A Member of the One Percent

(No, not that One Percent)

There’s a new crop of one-percenter’s in our nation. Not the one percent who hold ninety percent of the wealth. Rather, a distinctly different group. The one percent who hazard to ride on public transportation. We represent a complete reverse from the turn of the last century, when ninety-nine percent of all travel was on public transit.

Public transit use has been in free-fall for the past 120 years, except for an uptick during World War II when Americans actually modified individual behavior for a perceived greater good. How quaint!

Once the war was over and the consumer economy developed full steam, public transit kept slip-sliding away. The reasons are legion: increased affluence, our love affair with the automobile, disinvestment in streetcars, increased investment in pavement, Madison Avenue’s persistent trumpet of autonomy, the Interstate Highway System, demolition of urban neighborhoods, fossil fuel subsidies, railroad decay.

For most of the 2000’s, public transit use hovered around two percent of all vehicle trips. Most American cities of any size had some sort of subway, streetcar, or bus system, though one-third of all public transit trips occurred in New York City alone. Virtually all systems lost money. Large, older, dense cities like Boston and Chicago, even D.C. and San Francisco, accepted these costs to counter-balance horrific car and truck congestion. And some growth cities, like Denver and Houston, added streetcar systems in the hope of curbing individual auto use. To little avail. Public transit might be charming in Europe, or essential in developing mega-cities like Sao Paulo and Wuhan, but it is an anachronism in most American lives.

Then the pandemic hit and all things communal went from merely annoying to potentially fatal. Public transit use plummeted. For months, the number 75 bus rumbled past my house in darkness; never a passenger regardless of day or time.

For almost a year I stayed off the buses and trains. Then last spring I started to ride again. Not often; there still aren’t many places to go. But occasionally I find reason to commuter rail out to Worcester or subway downtown. The stations are clean and empty. Ditto the trains.

This fall, with schools in full session and more businesses open in person, car traffic around Boston is tense as ever. Every evening news includes pulsing maps of thronged highways. But when I ride the train—sometimes the only person in the car—station after station of commuter lots sit empty.

Today, people abandoning public transportation has little to do with the pandemic: we crowd into restaurants, bars, and stadiums at much higher densities. The T is pretty inexpensive (a trip from Newtonville to Worcester costs me a whopping 11 cents per mile). And though the media loves to dwell on the derailments and delays that occur on our aging, undermaintained system, MBTA buses and trains run with remarkable regularity.

There will be some rebound in public transit use, as car traffic snarls to a halt or gasoline prices hike. But I doubt we’ll return even to the pathetic pre-pandemic two percent number. Once unfettered from patterns, we don’t return to those we never much liked. And Americans really don’t like public transportation.

Which, to me, is a shameful reflection of the worst elements of our society. The decline in our use of public transportation reflects our paramount aspirations: independence; isolation; a literal fear of being in each other’s presence. It’s also a potent example of how easily we abandon any pretense of sustainability. Our disdain of public transportation further normalizes a so-called society in which ninety-nine percent of us are too atomized, too privatized, too fast-moving, too self-absorbed and too self-important to actually interact as a society at all.

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Dancing with Angelina

Turns and Twirls for People with Parkinson’s Disease

One of my childhood nicknames, Two Left Feet, was all-too accurate. My stout, clumsy body didn’t fit into a family of agile baseball players. Over time I trimmed down and reached average height. But I never acquired the quick reactions required for team sports. Instead, I developed the methodical gait of a distance runner, an oarsman, a dancer. My penchant for poise over speed led me to yoga, and when I became a yoga teacher I took particular interest in people with movement challenges. Folks with weak backs, sciatica, and Parkinson’s. Thus I came upon Urbanity Dance’s community class for Parkinson’s patients.

Angelina arrives ten minutes early, spots my new face, and hustles over to introduce herself. She volunteers her age, phone number, and email address. “Ask me anything you want,” she says before I have a chance to say a word. Angelina moves as quickly as she speaks; her arms and legs twitching with every word.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder that affects movement when the muscle-triggering cells in our brain degenerate due to insufficient amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Uncontrolled tremors are Parkinson’s most familiar sign, but the disease can also produce stiffness, slowing movement, changes in speech, and erratic gait. There is no cure. Medications help people control Parkinson’s, while exercise has proven effective in alleviating symptoms and extending mobility. Physical activities that incorporate pattern and sequence, like Tai Chi, yoga, zumba, and dance, are particularly effective.

From my seat across the circle of five dancers I notice that even when Angelina stops talking, she doesn’t stop moving. Her left thigh swivels from her hip, her shin pivots at her knee, and her foot traces a broad arc across the floor. Before Angelina’s left foot reaches her right, it ricochets back to where it began while her right leg and foot mirror the movement. I try to discern a rhythm in her windshield wiper motion, but random twitches and sudden jumps defy pattern.

Class begins as the teacher, Betsi, invites us to envision Spain. Her arms trace a flamenco rhythm. Right swoop and snap, left swoop and snap. She adds a staccato foot shift and tap, right then left, and encourages us all to follow. We repeat the 32-beat seated sequence—twice—while the keyboard player picks out a zesty melody. By the third repetition, the circle reflects the pattern.

Engaging dance to alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms began over a decade ago when the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group teamed with Mark Morris Dance Group. Dance for PD  has grown to over 100 cities in nine countries. The focus is dance as a pathway to greater mobility, not therapy derived from dance. Participants are dancers, not patients. Teachers are dancers, not therapists. Classes take place in studios, not clinics.

Betsi begins a series of languid arm movements; elegant arcs reach out and up, in and down. Within moments we coalesce into unified motion. I notice Angelina’s feet are quiet. Not still, yet calm. I wonder how the rhythm, pattern, music and reverie contribute to her ease. It would be difficult to construct a scientific study to prove the long-term benefit of this momentary lapse from frenzy, but simple observation reveals that in this moment, Angelina assuages constant uncontrolled movement.

After an hour of chair dancing we stand up, grip the back of our chairs and execute bigger moves based in traditional ballet. Then Betsi calls for a Virginia reel. Angelina claims me as her partner. Her face is determined: dosey-does and hooked arms require a lot of concentration. But when we circle in the correct direction, her resolve melts to a smile.

Betsi signals the musician to improvise. Angelina shouts, “Let’s dance!” Takes my hands in hers. The keyboardist fingers a swing beat. She throttles up the pressure in her hand. Angelina’s the kind of woman who likes to lead. But I’m wary of her stability, so I take control. A solid Lindy step: side; side; back step. She mirrors my pattern. I raise my right arm and guide her through an underarm turn with my left. Keep everything close, trace my left hand along her right arm and grab her right-hand firm. She pushes against my strong lead; this girl has dominated many a wedding dance floor. But I am determined on keeping her upright. I guide Christina through another turn, then another. She spins on a perfect axis, her feet land where they need to be. I stop worrying about having to protect her from falling. We just dance.

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The Universal Charm of Spokes

Lincoln Street in Gardner Massachusetts is mid-way up the hill. Higher than the rows of worker housing that sit tight to the shuttered mill buildings below. Less elevated than the formerly grand mansions of the mill owners above. A solid street of century old dwellings, originally inhabited by foremen and moneymen. Now sheltering a smattering of immigrant families moving up, old-time malingerers floating down. A mid-rung on the American ladder of success. Its Victorian detail sheathed in vinyl siding.

My friend Huguener recently bought a house for his family on Lincoln Street; a 3,000 square foot behemoth. Huguener wants to figure out how to how to make his mark on a place that began life as a sturdy single family, was cut up into four units, damaged by fire, and rebuilt as a maze of purple partitions. There are several potential solutions, but first step requires accurate drawings of the existing condition. I just spent four hours with tape measure and pencil, angling into every corner, basement to attic. It’s great to return to the autumn air, primed to ride my bike ten miles to Wachusett Train Station, and then let the rails roll me back home.

A husky guy with a beautiful dog comes out of the house near my pole. ‘Jerry’ is chatty. He’s lived in the house all his life, except for two years in the Army. He thought of moving on, but then his parents took ill. Now they’re gone. So he stays. The unique particulars of a universal story. Jerry reveals reams of information in the short time it takes to load my pannier and don my helmet. He’s genuinely pleased about his new neighbor, and Huguener’s plans for improvement. The thought races through my mind that perhaps we are making progress. A generation or two ago a Haitian family moving into a neighborhood would trigger white flight. But ideology can’t fester on this glorious day. We’re just a couple of real people having a real conversation in a real place.

I linger in our chat, even as I know I have a train to catch. Finally, it’s time to pedal on. I roll my bike away from the post.

BANG!!!

The loudest blow-out I’ve ever heard. My ears ring. Jerry shouts, “What’s that?” He looks about, leery. “I thought it was a gun.”

I see my tire, in shreds. The tube is slit and mangled around the frame. I have no idea what occurred. I’ve got well over a hundred miles on that tube; thousands on the tire. It rode fine all the way here. Foul play? I look up and down the street. Dismiss that theory.

“Wow, that was loud.” Jerry pulls at his ear as echoes ricochet up and down the street. “What are you going to do?”

“I carry repair tools and a spare tube.” True. Yet I lie. This blow-out is beyond anything my spare tools can fix. I’ll wheel the bike out of Jerry’s sight, pretend to make a repair, and call an Uber.

“You can’t fix that. Let me drive you to the train station.”

“No, I can’t impose.”

“Forget it. I’ve got time and you’re not going anywhere on that.”

An hour later, I’m riding the gentle downhill path in the train from Wachusett to Belmont. October’s passing leaves create a brilliant collage. The day could so easily have been a tragedy. But I’ve learned, when things go wrong on your bicycle, the world responds with generosity.

At Kevin’s insistence I threw the damaged bike into the bed of his pick-up. Along Route 2 I heard about his military experience and his current ailments: described with equal enthusiasm. I shared the triumph in his voice proclaiming how walking his dog helped him lose forty pounds. I offered  Jerry money when he dropped me off, well in advance of my departure time (cars and truck go so fast). He refused. Perhaps pouring his stories over my fresh ears is his compensation.

When the train trucked up the hill, a friendly conductor emerged, gave my bike the once over, and motioned me to follow her. She put me in a particular car to ease my exit in Belmont Center. Later, when she collected my fare, we chatted about the book I’m reading. Pressed the boundary of mere transaction with actual conversation.

I have come to believe bicycles are perhaps the world’s best diplomats. No one is ever wary of a person on a bicycle. Ever. People jump to service of cyclists in distress; simultaneously intrigued by our peculiar transport and gladdened at the chance to extend themselves in such a clear yet virtuous manner. The bicycle enables each of us the comfort to express our best selves.

I have hassles ahead; navigating the deformed bicycle from train to home; replacing my damaged tire and mutilated tube. But all of that is later. In this moment, as the yellows and oranges and reds stream in and among the fleeting green outside my window, I am pleasantly satisfied. My near-tragedy triggered not one, but two, memorable interactions. That’s a sweet deal.

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The Neutral Zone

This time of year the days and nights are even-handed, the temperature is benign, neither too warm nor too cool. A kind of balance that reminds me of a virtue in yoga that I discovered long ago.

After a few hundred classes, the euphoria of yoga wanes. Not enough to make me stop practicing, but enough that my after-class high is diminished, and like a junkie in search of a bigger fix, I yearn for more. Fortunately, more is there. Though instead of manifesting as more adrenaline, ‘more’ reveals itself through greater control, and deeper peace.

In yoga, we embrace what is uncomfortable, settle into it, befriend it. When I rise out of eagle pose at the end of warm-up, when the sweat has started to flow across every pore, I feel dizzy.

I’ve learned to accept the wooziness, to stand still and upright, to allow the spinning in my head play itself out. Experience has taught me that I will not fall; that my equilibrium will sort itself out in stillness; I need not lurch my body in pursuit of more gravity.

I’ve learned that, in standing head to feet pose, I can balance better when I grip the entire connection between my foot on the ground and the one I hold between my hands; a route that extends up through one stiff knee, across my butt, out through my clenched thigh, across the stretched Achilles. My legs find stillness only when I acknowledge their connection to every other part of my body.

As the initial thrill of yoga gives over to greater understanding, I’ve discovered that achieving full expression of a pose, from an accustomed position of standing, kneeling, or lying flat to a yogic position of strength plus balance, includes passing through a neutral zone, a moment of suspended time and mass en route from idle rest to conscious alignment. The neutral zone doesn’t exist at the beginning of the posture, as I extend arms or legs in a new direction. Nor does it exist in its full expression, which must always be realized with maximum effort. The neutral zone is that pinpoint of time and space when forces of momentum counter disequilibrium. When my body is not balanced, yet I do not fall.

The moment casts shadow on Newton’s second law of motion. For even though I move, my mass times acceleration, for an instant, equals zero.

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Gimme Shelter – 3

A Primer on Housing America

In two previous posts I outlined a brief history of affordable housing in the United States and the current mechanisms for creating more. Still, the gap between the affordable housing supply and demand increases. Is there any way to turn that around?

Part Three: Fresh Strategies for Providing Affordable Housing

There are approximately 141 million housing units in the United States. We added about ten million units over the past decade, which represents continued flattening over time (11 million new units 2000-2020; 14 million 1990-2000; 18 million from 1980-1990). Still, the net increase in the number of housing units outpaces the rate of change in our population (7.4 % increase 2010-2020; 9.7% increase 2000-2010; 13.1 % increase 1990-2000; 9.8% increase 1980-1990). Housing supply siders advocate that if we simply build more housing, prices will stabilize and affordability will increase. Yet, for forty years we’ve consistently added proportionately more housing units than our population increase, So, why do we have a persistent shortage of affordable housing?

Two powerful demographics contribute to the problem. First, family size in the United States continues to shrink. In 2020, the average family size was 2.53 people per household. In 1980, it was 2.76 people. This seemingly small difference (0.23 people per household) balloons to a demand for over ten million additional housing units. Regardless, simple division illustrates that 141 million dwelling units can accommodate 330 million people clustered in 2.53 family units. With ten million to spare. Yes, but…

Vacancy rates stubbornly hold at three to four million units at any time. Over five million units are second homes—vacant most of the time. And housing is simply not as portable as people and jobs and economic opportunity. For every growing city with expensive and scarce shelter, there are a dozen dwindling burgs where houses depreciate and languish, empty. Thus, demand exceeds the number of housing units in places people want to live. The whole situation is aggravated when available housing costs so much more than many can afford. As a result, too many people spend too much of their income on shelter.

Our mechanisms for creating more affordable housing are tepid; our collective will to make safe housing a basic right is feint. Supply side housing advocates suffer the same blinders as supply side economists: the rich simply consume too many ‘benes’ for anything much to trickle down. Forty years of creating more housing than our relative population increase has produced bigger and bigger houses occupied by smaller and smaller families. It hasn’t created more affordable housing.

Revised zoning laws: enabling accessory dwellings; reducing parking; requiring inclusion; are all promising strategies to promote more housing that could be affordable. But if we are serious about generating more affordable housing, we have to think more comprehensively, and more boldly. We have to acknowledge that our housing problems are intricately tied to our economic inequality, our unsustainable consumption; our dwindling sense of community. We need to be as bold as Ebenezer Howard and last century’s Utopian idealists. We need to create housing that will root thriving, sustainable communities.

Three simple ideas.

First, create housing target zones. Incentivize people to move to existing communities with solid housing but declining population: Western New York; Mississippi; Nebraska. The pandemic and the Internet have proven that geography is fluid. True, many people prefer to live in cities. But the right incentives can help revitalize once vibrant towns to be lively again.

Second, promote smaller and more efficient dwelling units through ‘graduated’ real estate taxes. Just like a graduated income tax, a family with a large house, or multiple houses, should pay a higher tax rate on their excessive real estate. Meanwhile, a family with a modest home should pay proportionately less tax, which will help make entry-level home ownership more affordable.

Third, reinvigorate the Utopian notion that creating housing is an opportunity to reflect higher ideals. ‘Affordable’ housing shouldn’t be architecturally stigmatized on the outside, but within, it should experiment with new ways to accommodate family and community. Non-profit and government supported housing should be more congregate in nature, incorporate a range of private and shared spaces, explore how we can all live better with less stuff and more interaction.

Housing in the United States is a direct reflection of our culture, it promotes autonomy, privacy, and consumption. But our culture is environmentally unsustainable, mentally isolating, and physically unhealthy. Let’s reconceive affordable housing. Not as an inferior reflection of what the private market already provides. But as an experiment in preferred ways to live, which the rest of the housing market can then follow.

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Gimme Shelter – 2

A Primer on Housing America

Last week, I provided a brief, if somewhat snarly, history of affordable housing in the United States. Today, I offer an overview of the strategies and mechanisms available to create affordable housing today.

Part Two: Creating Affordable Housing Circa 2021

330+ million Americans live in approximately 141 million housing units in the United States. Over two million of us live in public housing, 4.7 million live in Section 8 housing, and a smattering live in other kinds of subsidized shelter. Still, there are only 36 affordable housing units available for every 100 low-income households. Almost two thirds of qualified families either pay too much for a roof overhead, or suffer subsistence housing. What mechanisms do individuals, organizations, and governments have to alleviate this situation?

Public Housing and Section 8. Over 3,000 public housing authorities own and maintain the nation’s public housing stock, much of which is now over fifty years old. Housing Authorities also manage local Section 8 programs, which are split between project-based vouchers (the subsidy belongs to a specific housing development, which is owned by a non-profit rather than the housing authority) and portable vouchers, which a family can use to rent an approved unit of their choice. If you are low-income person lucky enough to land either a public housing unit or Section 8 voucher, you pretty much stay put, as wait lists for these opportunities often span more than ten years. The number of new public housing units being built is nil; the number of new Section 8 vouchers tiny. These are steady-state programs, at best, that won’t make a dent in unmet affordable housing needs.

Non-profit Developer Housing. Since the federal government stopped actually creating new housing, non-profit developers utilize a web of economic development grants, housing set-aside funds, tax-exempt bonds, Community Development Block Grants, low-income housing tax credits, and community reinvestment loans to create affordable housing. These efforts probably do more to provide cover for politicians who want to be able to champion the idea affordable housing than actually generate it. The complexity of permitting and financing affordable housing is a significant reason why affordable housing units cost 25% more to bring online than privately financed housing.

Affordable Home Ownership. Over the past fifty years, the rate of home ownership in America—65%— has been pretty consistent. The percentage shifts in a narrow range in sync with economic cycles, but the average barely budges. Unfortunately, home ownership rates for Blacks and Hispanics are well below 50%. One attempt to increase home ownership rates is to provide affordable home ownership opportunities for moderate income people. Financing these programs is as byzantine as rental programs, but the incentives of ownership are strong. However, most of these programs cap a family’s ability to accrue equity and deny passing a dwelling on to their heirs. As a result, they do not provide the same ladder to economic security that people who purchase houses in the private market and pay them off over their lifetime enjoy.

If there is any bright spot on the affordable housing horizon it inhabits a single word: zoning. More individuals and communities are coming to realize that traditional zoning is environmentally unsustainable, increases sprawl, and exacerbates economic inequality. In the 21st century there have been small, yet significant, moves to reverse restrictive zoning. This can be as simple as reducing parking requirements from two cars per unit to one car per unit, thus increasing the number of units a particular site can accommodate. Several communities now allow accessory-units in any district, including single family zones. This allows folks to make in-law apartments, add a small studio, or create a basement rental unit. Accessory-unit zoning can immediately increase the potential number of dwelling units in a community by 25% or more, while spreading them out among existing structures with almost no additional infrastructure.

There are also two zoning trends specifically targeted at creating affordable housing. The most common is ‘inclusionary zoning.’ Inclusionary zoning requires developers to set aside a certain number of units in new projects for moderate income households. The percentage is pre-determined, and is usually a function of what a ‘hot’ real estate market will bear. In Cambridge, MA, where rents and housing prices are sky-high, developers must provide 20% inclusionary units. In a cooler market, like Des Moines, that threshold requirement doesn’t fly.

Inclusionary zoning provides the ancillary benefit of economically integrating housing on a project level. I’ve met enough people who live in subsidized housing to know that some people welcome this, while others prefer to live among their peers, even poor peers. Inclusion in Cambridge is clear: the subsidized units must be within the development. In other cities, like Boston, direct inclusion is optional. A developer can make a ‘set-aside’ payment to an affordable housing trust fund to build housing elsewhere rather than include subsidized units in their project. Thus, the shiny Seaport District of Boston includes almost no apartments for poor people, while Seaport developers underwrite housing in Mattapan and other traditionally poorer neighborhoods.

Another zoning mechanism for increasing affordable housing is allowing more generous development options for projects in ‘overlay’ districts. Cambridge recently created an ‘affordable housing overlay district’ that increases density, reduces setbacks, and lowers parking requirements for any project that is 100% long-term affordable. This makes the approvals and permitting process easier, and increases the capacity of a given site.

Despite a lot of talk about affordable housing in our nation in 2021, our nation’s political apparatus is hardly primed to invest in directly in building housing, and the financing process for affordable housing remains, well, unaffordable. Many housing activists have redirected their focus from pressing for affordable housing to simply pressing for easier development standards, under the assumption that if more housing can be built, housing will become more affordable as a result. This is a logical argument, but smacks of supply side economics, which leaves me justifiably skeptical.

At this moment, we are losing the battle of creating enough affordable housing. Zoning freedoms may offer increased affordability. Will that be enough to address the need? I doubt it. Next week I’ll suggest some other strategies.

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