How We Ended Up Doing It Ourselves

When we first moved to Southern California, one of the biggest challenges was finding a synagogue. We found to our dismay that a great deal of the problem centered around money. Synagogues are not like churches, where the plate is passed every time worship happens. Rather, you give all your money up front, in the form of a membership, which includes the right to enter the synagogue and worship on the holiest days of the year: the High Holidays. We did not have that kind of money as graduate students — thousands of dollars — and so we were at pains to find someplace to worship on the High Holidays. The synagogue with which we have been affiliated since then was good enough to give tickets outright to those with university IDs. But on graduation, we ran into the same problem. Luckily, by that point, we had found the synagogue choir, and were enthusiastic participants. There were a few years of pushback from the Rabbi, as my wife is not Jewish, but we had a wonderful time singing with other members, who became our friends. Once we put on the white robes, no one asked us for tickets. But there were the occasional attempts to “make us legal” — to take us on as scholarship cases to whom membership was donated. I accepted this — it seemed to make people happy — until one night, the synagogue secretary called and said that we needed to send money — that the synagogue had been keeping track of the money it had spent on us and wanted more of a contribution from us. To my disturbance, I found out that our seats did not have a marginal cost, which was next to nothing, but that the charity the synagogue had extended to us was in “real money.” In other words, real donors had put in real money to pay for the synagogue’s list price for the seats. And at some point, we would be expected to pay the synagogue back. It was an impossible situation, but our friends in the choir smoothed it over, in the interests of our staying. So we stayed for a few more years. But one year, the nature, function, and experience of the choir changed in a permanent way, one which we could not accept. And my wife was simply too tired, after so many years, to get through the rehearsals. I struggled on for a couple more years, for my friends’ sake and for the sake of the seats, but I couldn’t do it. What finally ended it was that I lost my sense of pitch, and I could not hold a tune anymore.

In this way, our affiliation with the synagogue tapered off. One year, one of our friends asked the Rabbi why we weren’t there, and the next year we got tickets, but I am tired of living off charity. We’ve asked whether there’s some way of earning back our tickets in kind, but they are not set up for it. The truth is that we do not belong there; we will never have enough money to belong there and to pull our own weight. Everyone has been very, very kind to us — the Rabbi, the Cantor, our friends in the choir — but in the end, everything really is dependent on the money the synagogue brings in. They cannot operate the synagogue at the high level it’s attained, with a religious school, social action programs, a beautiful building, etc., if people get in for free more than once in a blue moon. We were in the choir for 15 or 16 years, but you can’t rest on your laurels forever.

So, this year, we’re going to do it ourselves, as we did in the past. We have the prayerbooks, we have the order of service, and we know where the singing goes, as choir members do. It is difficult to have the illusion of a communal experience, which these holidays truly must be. It is hard to pray alone, and to have a sense that it means what it did in the synagogue. But the fact is that charity, no matter how kindly offered, is double edged, and that someone always pays, somehow. We have gotten used to an experience that is better than we deserve, and now it is time to make our way according to our own deserts. In the end, perhaps we will be less distracted by the externals, and find in our own hearts and spirits that which we require. The U’netane Tokef prayer says, “But repentance, prayer, and righteousness may avert [God's] severe decree.” One does not need infrastructure for any of those things, only an open heart and a willing mind. And it may be that God’s severe decree is coming for us, no matter how good our intentions, where we celebrate, or how much we pledge in the Kol Nidre Appeal. It would be so much simpler if we were an upper-middle-class or lower-upper-class all-Conservative-Jewish family with two great jobs and two kids. But if God had meant us to do things the easy way, and come in by the front door, he would have surely led us along that path. Our path is different.


The Grey Lady Chooses Sides

It is a little disturbing when the Grey Lady chooses sides. In the old days, “without fear or favor” was the journalistic watchword, as was the adoption of whatever could approximate “reportorial objectivity.” But such things must have disappeared with the rise of “advertorials,” the general enmeshing of the news and financial departments, and the desperation caused by the implosion of print newspapers in general. For we see that in its coverage of the labor dispute at the Metropolitan Opera, the Times has become the unashamed mouthpiece of the Met’s director, Peter Gelb. It is just too bad.

To me, the conflict is very simple. The musicians, choristers, and stagehands are being paid wages which were adjudged as fair at the last contract negotiations. When I hire someone to fix my refrigerator, he charges me $100 for labor and we agree, that is the price of the repair plus parts. If he comes back two years hence to do the same repair, I might foreseeably pay him $125 for labor. But under no circumstances would I try to force him down to $75. That is ungentlemanly and likely to get me a knock in the head for my troubles. If I feel the impulse to plead poverty, I need to either do the repairs myself or consider putting the repairman’s fee toward the cost of a new refrigerator. Impugning the character of the repairman — claiming that he lives a life of ease and sufficiency and therefore neither needs or deserves his wages — is beside the point and should garner me another knock in the head.

The job of the choristers, musicians, and stagehands at the Met is to put on operas. This they have done with surpassing skill, no matter what dogs of productions Gelb throws at them. (I am thinking in particular of the most recent Ring Cycle, with an undulating, erratic, mechanical stage floor that seemed to have been designed by a defense contractor in terms of both its functionality and its cost overruns.) It is Gelb’s job to fill the seats and get the donors to write checks. If he cannot do this in a way that meets payroll, he has failed, and should get out of the way in favor of someone who can do the job. Sadly, the Met’s board has given Gelb’s approach a vote of confidence with a ten-year contract extension and millions in bonuses.

I imagine that looming in the minds of all parties are the events at the Minnesota Orchestra, which just barely survived a year-long lockout but only did so because the musicians had allies on the board. Even so, it has emerged in a weakened state, and might not have emerged at all. But instead of taking this to heart, both sides believe that they can play “chicken” with it. If a lockout comes, it will put a stake in the heart of the institution. Unless Gelb believes that he can transport the Met to Shenzhen and outsource the duties of the Met’s performers and stagehands to Foxconn, where they can be automated and/or performed by starving wretches who will rehearse for fourteen hours a day without food, that will be it. We will have to put our ticket money into CDs or a subscription to the Sirius Metropolitan Opera Channel, and relive the past instead of cultivating the future. What a prospect! And yet, through all this, the Times issues a sussurrus of rewarmed Gelb press releases and lets flow the voices of pundits who will tell you, as Necker once did, that the peasants are insufficiently taxed. The Times is the very voice of reason to the faithful readers who see it as their main source of information. When the Met falls, this will be laid to the workers. The alternative — that an equitable settlement will be reached — seems less likely daily.


Keep On Keepin’ On

I sometimes wonder why I ever went to school and why I ever put so much money into books. I had a Mellon fellowship when I began school, and I was richer than I had ever been in my life. Naturally, the money all went for books — a complete Arden 2nd Shakespeare, a Kleine Pauly, the Revels series, a German-Latin Spinoza, a Colli-Montinari Nietzsche, and so on. But now, I am in a job that doesn’t use that part of my Ausbildung, and my wife and I sometimes wonder whether we could have fewer than fourteen bookcases.

Bad idea. This past week, I was asked to help write a paper on client communications modules — the software that lets real estate agents and clients communicate online about what houses the client would like to investigate or buy. I thought of this wonderful passage from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception:

In the experience of dialogue, there is constituted between the other person and myself a common ground; my thought and his are interwoven into a single fabric, my words and those of my interlocutor are called forth by the state of the discussion, and they are inserted into a shared operation of which neither of us is the creator.

And I put it in, certain that it would be taken out as being too high-flown for the purpose, even though it seemed ideal for expressing the relationship I had in mind. For whatever reason — probably the patience and tolerance of my boss — it stayed in.

So, don’t toss your books, even when you think you need the space. Your past is a part of you, and it should not be thrown away lightly. As Curtis Mayfield once said, “Keep on keepin’ on.”


The Superlative Horse

In Lieh Tzu, chapter 7, we read the famous passage:

Duke Mu of Chin said to Po Lo: “You are now advanced in years. Is there any member of your family whom I could employ to look for horses in your stead?” Po Lo replied: “A good horse can be picked out by its general build and appearance. But the superlative horse — one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks — is something evanescent and fleeting, elusive as thin air. The talents of my sons lie on a lower plane altogether; they can tell a good horse when they see one, but they cannot tell a superlative horse. I have a friend, however, one Chiu-fang Kao, a hawker of fuel and vegetables, who in things appertaining to horses is nowise my inferior. Pray see him.” Duke Mu did so, and subsequently dispatched him on the quest for a steed. Three months later, he returned with the news that he had found one. “It is now in Shach’iu” he added. “What kind of a horse is it?” asked the Duke. “Oh, it is a dun-colored mare,” was the reply. However, someone being sent to fetch it, the animal turned out to be a coal-black stallion! Much displeased, the Duke sent for Po Lo. “That friend of yours,” he said, “whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast’s color or sex! What on earth can he know about horses?” Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. “Has he really got as far as that?” he cried. “Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses.” When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal.

The late J.D. Salinger liked this passage so much that he appropriated it, in its entirety and word-for-word, from the 1912 translation by Lionel Giles, for his novella, “Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters.”

But to me it brings to mind the dangers of embarking along Kao’s path. It is possible to conceive of a generation trained to detect and track down superlative horses, ignoring the accidents of sex or color. With the death of Duke Mu, the rationale for the superlative horse goes away; perhaps there are now a few cars or motorcycles. And all people now want are horses qua horses — brown ones, female ones, strong ones — which the seekers of superlative horses are incapable of detecting, distinguishing, or delivering. Instead of Kao’s talent being the path, as the passage implies, to preferment, it is a path back to his origins, as a hawker of fuel and vegetables.



Behind “business,” the most popular major at my school is accounting. This is because it seems to lead to a medium-status profession directly following a degree. No student I know has a passion for accounting. It is simply a series of rules to memorize that will lead to the correct representation of a person or organization’s financial status. There is no connection between accounting and other fields of study. As a result, the students view everything else they have to study as baffling impediments to their degrees. They struggle with writing assignments that assume that they know about other areas of knowledge or share the background of the instructor.

We are turning out a generation of these students, student who do not know what they are missing or understand that there was once another way to be a student.

For about the past two years, I have done what I could to bring my students — learning-disabled, low-income, low English proficiency — back into contact with my decades-old way of doing things, the way that I “believed, taught, and confessed.” That seems to be coming to an end, with the de-funding of my institution’s “learning center.” It’s unclear what I will do next. I have been thinking about volunteering my hours there, to try to keep some of what I have done alive. I can ill afford it, but if it is a choice between being unemployed and helping students while unemployed, the logic is not so foreign.

All I can say is that without the alternative I and my colleagues had to offer, we will see a long line of unhappy, single-minded accounting majors stretching into the future like Banquo’s descendants. They will view being taught by computer as a relief.



The Dog Ate My Homework

Justifications for the Republicans’ failure this week have been coming thick and fast, but I think I like this one best of all: their computers weren’t working. Their candidate, ideology, policies, and strategy would all have been fine if it hadn’t been for those darn computers messing things up.

(Of course, as some of the linked commenters have pointed out, the results of an IT project based on the management style of Bain Capital may have been foreseeable.)


The Late Bookstore

A couple of people have let me know that my piece on the demise of the former UCI Bookstore has readers in the outside world, something I never would have guessed from the comments section here. Their reaction has been, “This is terrible! I never knew about this! How do we get our UCI Bookstore back? Do we protest, boycott, Occupy? You tell us to ‘despair.’ That can’t be right.”

The short answer is that it’s simply too late. There was a period of so-called “public comment” about a year ago which had a small number of takers. I think that the people who commented were, like me, ignored and put off, but that would have been the right time to raise a hue and cry.

At this point, the store has sold off practically all of its extant book inventory — tens of thousands of books. (I think there may still be a few hundred book SKUs (items) in the system that aren’t textbooks.) Some titles were sold to customers at reduced prices, some more recent titles were returned to the publisher at their original cost, and everything else went to a jobber who paid pennies on the dollar. The store has doubtless taken a big loss on those books, but consigning them has meant the store can free up shelf space for more profitable inventory, like plush anteaters.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a Save The Bookstore movement coalesced, and had at the top of its list of demands: “Bring back our books!” From a business perspective, this cannot be done. You cannot liquidate inventory at pennies on the dollar and then bring back the exact same inventory in at the regular wholesale price of 25-40% off list. If I were the Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, I would fire the Bookstore director who did such a thing. The only way out would be if a director could make a compelling case that the store could sell, say, at least three copies of each book every year. That is far in excess of the sales rate of the average trade book at the former Bookstore, which was .75 to 1 copy per year.

If the director were to commit to selling three copies of every title every year, the customers of the store would have to make a commitment to buy them. I could see a sort of Kickstarter-style campaign, where people would agree to reserve $25, $50, or $75 book gift certificates, good for one year and not redeemable for cash, in their names. If the inventory were funded up to or over a certain level, say, $75,000, the donors would be charged, the certificates issued, and the inventory purchased. Without such a setup… we know what that looks like already, where well-intentioned people loved the Bookstore so much, they bought all their books online. When I think about the Bookstore in this respect, I think of Abie Glassman, the Jewish peddler from John D. Fitzgerald’s Great Brain children’s books. Glassman came to stay and sell notions in Fitzgerald’s fictional Mormon community. He cared about his customers, and he was beloved. Nonetheless, he starved to death because nearly everyone went to the official Mormon ZCMI store; it was simply more expedient for them to do so.

The idea of a crowdsourcing campaign gets to the bottom of “how to get our store back.” The argument for the destruction of the Bookstore was economic; any counter-argument, at least in the current reality, will have to be economic as well. A university bookstore is a business. It brings money into the University. When that money dwindles, it means that there is less to support University programs, and, especially when State money keeps getting scarcer, administrators have to fill the gap, period. Anyone who wants to bring the UCI Bookstore back will have to come up with a realistic business plan of his or her own, one that fills that gap over the long term, or comes very close.

I said, “at least in the current reality.” In the world of principles, which is where many readers reside, things are — or, should be — different. Access to books, and the promotion of higher forms of literacy, should be parts of a university’s mission. Libraries, by their nature, go only so far with this mission; every book acquired must be argued for, and every book acquired must help develop a collection. A real university bookstore is not under these constraints; people are exposed to the streams of fiction and non-fiction in real time, and they can get what they want without contending with someone else’s loan period. What is that worth? Could a university bookstore be operated, not as a profit center, but as the part of the educational enterprise that encouraged reading? Those who play the zero-sum game would ask, “Which would you rather have: a real university bookstore or more students getting financial aid?” I invite you to think your way out of that question.


This is, perhaps, too harsh a place to end, so I will return to an earlier time. When I was a graduate student and entry-level worker at the Bookstore, there was a frequent customer from the English department named Professor Homer Obed Brown. He was known at the store both for his benevolence and amiability, and for his besottedness with books. When, in my capacity as a graduate student, I would go into his office, every horizontal surface would be piled four or five feet high with books, the library’s mingled with his own. When, in my capacity as a Bookstore worker, I would walk with him through the store, we would talk, and he would absentmindedly slip books into his basket, until at last he would present himself at the register with some twenty-odd books at a time. I would like to think that, if he were alive today and had known of the Bookstore’s problems, he would have solved them by buying up the literary criticism section outright.


De Minimis

It is strange to be inside a system in which I am to an adjunct what an adjunct is to a tenured professor.


My Bookstore

From the second year of graduate school until about five years after I left, I worked for my university’s bookstore. I did a variety of things, ranging from heaving medical textbooks onto the shelves for $6.15 an hour to working as the “Internet Projects Manager,” which basically meant that I was a one-man web development shop in direct competition with Amazon.

It was a wonderful place, with visionary people. We had a classical music CD department, an anime department, and about 100,000 books on the shelves in academic and non-academic subjects. We had an ongoing reading series with authors from our MFA program, like Maile Meloy, Glen David Gold, Aimee Bender, and Michael Chabon. My bosses turned me loose on web technology a couple of months after the final bits were dry on the first web browser, NCSA Mosaic. We were one of the first bookstores to try e-commerce, and my bosses and I wound up on the cover of the June, 1996 cover of American Bookseller and in the LA Times.

Amazon put an end to our nascent, at times Rube-Goldberg-like efforts, and I struggled with the limitations of being one person trying to fight an e-commerce battle I had no chance of winning. One boss left in frustration, then I left, and the second boss retired a couple of years after that.

After that, the focus of the store shifted away from strategy and towards operations. By the time a few years had passed, without anyone at the store completely realizing how quickly it was happening, Amazon had eaten our store’s lunch. Together with its competitors, it had peeled off too many of our textbook customers. It was because of a monopoly on textbooks and their profits that we’d been able to do all this great stuff; without that monopoly, the number of students coming through our doors started to dwindle and our margins started to thin.

The end of the store soon followed, brought from on high by administrators who were frustrated that the store was no longer a cash cow. There was a sham of “consultation” with the University community — my letters were met with form letters — but management consultants were brought in, and they made the brutal suggestions that you would expect. My friends there who cared about books and literary values were forced out, along with all the employees over 50. The store has now been emptied of books. It is now selling textbooks, plush animals, and sweatshirts. It has been, in a word, deconsecrated; the word “Bookstore” has been taken out of the name.

So here is a photograph of the shelves that used to hold literary criticism and philosophy, now filled with plush anteater mascots. Look upon it and despair.

Shelf of Anteaters

Shelves where the books used to be: UCI Bookstore, now “The Hill.”


NOTE: I’ve published a follow-up piece to this article at http://printculture.com/the-late-bookstore/.