Buenos Aires: Grandeur and Decline

January 19, 2011

We arrived in Buenos Aires on a Sunday afternoon. As our hotel was located in the older part of the city in San Telmo, we were a stone’s throw from the famous Sunday market that takes place along one of the neighbourhood’s many cobbled streets. The fair featured stall after stall of traditional antiques, leather goods and artisan crafts, though it is on the verge of becoming a typically commercialized attraction in which the majority of what is on offer consists of t-shirts, wooden mugs for mate, smoking paraphernalia, custom wine bottle holders, and other cheap, tourist-oriented kitsch. The atmosphere was fun, crowded, and noisy, with street performers of all kinds competing with the noise of various versions of Depeche Mode and Sting songs rearranged as tangos (very weird) and the occasional shout of a tourist discovering that his wallet had walked off with a local. Roving bands of drummers paraded up and down the street, drowning out all other sounds and sweeping everyone up in their rhythm. I even saw the elderly couples who had been dancing tango in the market’s central square stop for a moment and unconsciously move their heads and hips to the drumbeats.

The beautiful old Confitería Del Molino: closed to the public

Later that night, we discovered that the crowds had masked sidewalks that were filthy and falling apart, littered in feces and crawling with cockroaches, and so uneven that taking one’s eyes off them would make tripping every three steps a certainty. Perhaps, again, this is what they mean by “bohemian,” or “full of character,” in which case Buenos Aires certainly qualifies. It is European in style and influence, but I found it lacking the sparkle and excitement of European cities. It felt run down, in disrepair, tired. More than anything else, I was saddened by what I found there.

Everywhere there is the feeling of former grandeur in gradual and unimpeded decline. Blocks of high rises with stunning turn-of-the-century beaux-arts architecture are shuttered with security fences and alarm systems, or crumbling and “undergoing refurbishment” (for decades). Almost every public monument – and there are many – is closed off to the public with a high, permanent fence, and visually marred by layers of graffiti. A tour guide explained that Buenos Aires had been a wealthy city in the late nineteenth century, and underwent a building boom at that time, but when the global market crash hit in the 1930s, many families lost everything and their homes have never been cared for since and have fallen into disrepair. The exceptions are the ones that were adopted by the government and turned into state buildings – but they certainly do not escape the graffiti treatment that is near-ubiquitous across the city.

A typical sidewalk

Buildings at ground level are often shuttered and covered with graffiti

As a whole, Buenos Aires looked as saggy and tired as an aging tango dancer, still wearing the revealing, sparkly dress and 4-inch heels of days gone by, but gradually slowing in her movements and with a little less of the famous kicking.

The locals seemed to echo my sense of disenchantment. Everywhere we went in Argentina, there were complaints about the interference, partisanship, and general ineptitude of the government led by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Its latest schemes include firing chemicals into the clouds to break up hail in Mendoza (Cloudbusting, anyone?), switching the capital’s coin-driven bus system to one with cards (as they already have in Santiago – but here already a year overdue with no apparent progress), and making the banking system more stable. (Incidentally, while we were in Buenos Aires a bank robbery caused a run on banks that meant we had to go to four different bank ATMs before finding one that had money left to dispense.) Where in Chile there was hope and excitement about the future, in Argentina and especially in Buenos Aires we found a general sense of pessimism and hopelessness that matched the state of the city’s once-great buildings. I recalled that in The Economist‘s “The World in 2011” publication, the South American leader chosen to expound on the hopes for the future of a continent that has not lived up to its potential in the past 200 years was Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera. Kirchner is up for re-election in October. I asked one of our tour guides who she thought would win and she shrugged hopelessly and said that even though nobody likes the president, she would likely be re-elected because the opposition is in even worse shape.

A beautiful mansion, now part of the Four Seasons Hotel, in Recoleta. Note the sidewalk.

And yet, like the aging dancer, the city still has its charms. The upscale neighbourhood of Recoleta features beautifully kept mansions and intact sidewalks (a novelty), as well as wide, tree-lined avenues. Puerto Madero, the old port area that has been completely revitalized in the last 10 years with hundreds of condos, restaurants, and pedestrian paths, has the feel of any world-class, modern city. The historic cafés and restaurants we found all served excellent food, and with their wooden tables, tango posters, and colourful clientele, it wasn’t hard to believe that they really hadn’t changed much in 100 years. The wine flowed freely, the people were interesting and friendly, and the weather was warm and breezy throughout our stay.

And, of course, there was the tango itself. It is a dance of anger and sadness, and it fits the city well (even though I must note here that Montevideo, across the river in Uruguay, claims to be the city in which it was born). One hears the tango everywhere, from street musicians to cafés to the radios of taxi drivers. And people really do dance in the streets. We saw a tango show that was about as touristy as we had predicted it would be, but that was nonetheless an impressive display of athleticism, beauty, and styling gel. We took a tango lesson from a local, which was more focused on our working together as a couple than the steps themselves, which indicated to me how much more the dance is about feeling and style than it is about technical mastery (those famous ankle-over-the-shoulder kicks notwithstanding).  And, on our last night, we went to a real-life tango club, nestled deep in the stylish neighbourhood of Palermo Soho. The crowd was mostly in their middle age, though we were by no means the only young people there. All the women, regardless of age, wore very high heels and very clingy dresses. The dancing was beautiful – not showy, or technically perfect, but full of emotion. Couples would regularly switch partners, and spend almost as much time talking and laughing as dancing.

Cafe Tortoni, famous for being the meeting place of the artistic elite of Buenos Aires for decades

I liked this side of Buenos Aires, the part that wasn’t posturing for tourists (and often failing to impress), but that showed off the still-vibrant core made up of the people who live there. I would return to the city for this feeling, one I still can’t put my finger on; Buenos Aires, despite my disappointment, still fascinates me because I felt as though history was alive and ever-present there, in the fairs and the foods and the tangos. There is still the porteño spirit in the air that was once behind all those buildings and monuments. I think the city is too proud and too fiesty to stay in decline for long.

Encore, Encore! On Music and Unpredictability

November 18, 2010

I attended a remarkable performance at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last night, and after a partial standing ovation, I was surprised to discover that we would be treated to an “encore” of sorts. Naturally, as is now the custom, it was not a repeat of anything we had just heard, but a different piece entirely. I recalled other acts I’ve seen where an encore was welcome and the pieces increasingly popular (for example, with George Michael, who did three, each contaning songs better and more well-known than the last). There were others where encores were notably absent, and the audience felt almost as though they hadn’t had their money’s worth from the evening.

I assumed it was a growing trend, this repeated encore thing, perhaps showing my bias of believing my contemporaries far sillier than our ancestors in putting up with and propagating it. Some research, however, has proven me to be wrong on this score. According to Oxford music historian Michael Burden, giving “encore” performances in fact dates to the early eighteenth century Italian opera circuit in London, when audiences would call for a repeat of an aria by a particularly good prima donna or primo uomo – sometimes right after the initial performance of the piece itself. This means audiences, who had already heard the main theme twice (as per the common ABA da capo format of such music) would ask for it again, and sometimes multiple times, with increasing ornamentation each time from the singer. It all got to be a bit much for some opera-goers, fatigued by performances that were already getting to be increasingly long, sometimes to one o’clock in the morning. (No doubt this was especially hard on those who only attended the opera for fashion’s sake.) It also became too much for many singers, who would often become exhausted and even have to take an extended break to rest their voices. Yet those who did not capitulate would be punished, sometimes for years, in the form of hissing amongst audience members and derision in the fashionable papers.

Thus, a tradition was invented. It appears we are now able to exercise some restraint in our calls for “encores,” and yet we still expect them. It is part of the performance, the elaborate dance between the musicians on stage and the audience. We are all performers now – we play our parts as appreciative audiences with the requisite ovation, even perhaps the standing sort – over the course of an evening. It can be tiresome, all this pageantry, when one might simply prefer to attend a concert, hear the lovely music, pay due appreciation, and depart. (And please feel free to debate with me in the comments section whether you believe standing ovations to be too common and expected – as I do – or audiences too stingy if they fail to leap to their feet – as I’ve heard.)

But the pageantry is now one of the only defining features of live music, encores included. The music is usually not new to us, as it was to eighteenth-century opera-goers. We can hear it whenever we like. So why attend a concert in person when we all have access to world-class recordings of any imaginable piece we would want to hear at the click of a button? Why bother with the expense, the inconvenience of travelling to and fro, the irritation of listening to hacking coughers rattling lozenge wrappers in the seats behind us, when we can simply enjoy the same music in surround sound with sub-woofer enhancements from the comfort of our own homes?

It’s the unpredictability, the multi-sensory experience, the feel of being in the audience. Pick-and-choose music downloading programs like iTunes (and of course Napster, LimeWire, and the like) have brought the recording industry to its knees. They’ve also hampered the ability of artists to choose how their music will be enjoyed (i.e. in the form of track layout on albums, etc.). But it is the appeal of live music, with its surprises, unpredictability and interactivity, that will ensure the continuation of the music industry. Differentiation will come in the form of the unexpected, even if we as audiences expect some kind of extras to make attending worth our while. We will ask musicians to push the limits of how we experience music. After all, as Burden points out, the whole idea of an encore is “not simply to hear it again, but by definition, … to hear it differently.”

We might as well expect more of them. Encore.

Make Money First: The Trouble With Meritocracies

October 19, 2010

For a while now, I’ve been trying to put together a post about the value of polymaths in modern society. 200 or even 100 years ago, such people would need no defenders. What could be more valuable or intrinsically rewarding than being interested in everything and interesting to others? Yet today, polymaths are often seen as dilettantes, unable to focus enough to be serious about something and get a job. There is work, and then there are hobbies, and one should learn to tell the difference and divide one’s life into segments. Few careers reward diversity of knowledge. Fewer still pay well. My tentative title was going to be, “Great Careers for Polymaths,” but the idea made me queasy. Why, I asked myself, do I need to justify having multiple interests with the language of making money?

Because, I realized, we value wealth first. What I mean by “first” is that the goal is to be “secure” financially before seeking career satisfaction, getting in shape or getting married. Wealth is the elusive gateway to a complete life, but many mistake it for a complete life in and of itself.

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The Necessity of Traditions

September 20, 2010

A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful, life-changing experience of being a bride. The positive (and stressful) aspects of the wedding are obvious, but I was surprised by the constant presence of the past – my own, my family’s, and that of those around me – throughout the planning process. It seemed as though the wedding and associated events almost ran themselves. I discovered that much of what weddings are about is set, if not by law then by the dictates of formality and tradition. From the timing, content, and participants in the ceremony to the many, many superstitions about the day (such as the irritatingly ubiquitous “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”), weddings are almost like pre-determined packages, complete with expected players who must attend, observe, or otherwise provide their input.

Being a happily modern woman, I had (and exercised) the option of picking and choosing to suit my taste — no three-tiered fruit cake or garter, but large bunches of flowers and the fancy white dress were okay — but I felt throughout the process that unless I protested something and deliberately carved a new and different path, it was considered to be included by default.

It was a powerful reminder of the role that tradition plays in our lives, especially at those times considered particularly significant. Traditions are things to fall back on. They are the unspoken way things are, promoting a shared understanding among their followers. They provide comfort and consistency across generations and cultures, which is reassuring to all those they impact.

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The Rise and Fall of the Grand Narrative

August 12, 2010

Those of you who read my blog regularly will know how frequently I lament the increasing specificity required of academic writing, and how it threatens to render the profession obsolete due to lack of readership or general interest in the subject matter. My thoughts were echoed in a recent book review which, in discussing the life of Hugh Trevor-Roper, a prominent historian, remarked that he could never be the great academic he wanted to be – an E.P. Thompson, or a Thomas Macauley, or an Edward Gibbon – because of two key factors. The first was the passing of the “grand narrative” approach to history, which is now seen as unprofessional, or worse, imperialistic in the Marxist teleological sense. The second was a result of his being British, and, as the article notes, “By Trevor-Roper’s day … Britain had become too insignificant to provide the subject of a grand narrative of progress in the style of Macaulay.”  The only nation that could conceivably produce historians claiming to write the story of its own empire today would be the United States, and those who do are usually right-wing polemicists who garner little respect in academic circles.

It’s true that the grand narrative has its drawbacks, as I’ve written before. Huge swaths of history that don’t fit in can be glossed over or ignored entirely in order to weave a tight story. And the grand narrative remains a common way for writers to (consciously or otherwise) impose a single, usually Western, trajectory upon world events that can be interpreted as modern intellectual imperialism. But it remains an anchoring lens through which historical events can be contextualized and patterns examined, and is usually more interesting than a narrow study. So what has caused the violent turn away from the grand narrative?  Is it justified?

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How Gen Y Can Reinvent Work-Life Balance

May 4, 2010

It’s May again, that exciting time of year when newly-minted college graduates venture out into the world and attempt to find a job. Or perhaps go to Europe and attempt to find themselves instead until the hiring freezes are lifted.  What will increase their chances of success?

It seems as though it’s getting harder and harder just getting onto the bottom rung of the “career ladder” (a term which, as someone who works in HR, I can tell you is on its way out as an inappropriate metaphor for the working world – think less in terms of defined rungs and more in terms of the moving staircases in the Harry Potter movies – you never know where you’ll end up). What happened to slogging through a terrible entry-level job booking meeting rooms and fetching coffee, paying one’s dues in order to move up to a better job in a year or two? Is that still necessary, or have things changed?

Well, as it turns out, a lot of things of changed. Many articles have been written about them: an economic slump which has meant declining hire rates and more people being let go; a majority of baby boomers who were supposed to be leaving the workforce in order to live out their golden years on pensions we’re paying for who are not; a glut of “over-qualified” university graduates with little practical experience (which, as we all know, entry-level coffee-making jobs require) who are driving up competition for the few full-time jobs that are out there; and organization structures that are getting flatter, with fewer roles at the top. So the situation now is that one can work making coffee and booking meeting rooms for three or four years and perhaps find there’s no promotional pot-of-gold at the end of the rainbow, or find that it’s still a few years out.

So where does that leave new graduates? If “paying your dues” was the baby boomer way to climb the corporate ladder (which actually existed then), what happens now? As my favourite career blogger, Penelope Trunk, once wrote: paying dues is out; that kind of lifestyle doesn’t allow for real growth or balance at work, because it forces new recruits to work ridiculous hours doing menial tasks. (It also sets a precedent that’s hard to follow once you have commitments outside of work.)

What’s better? In theory, doing many different things to acquire enough experiences to figure out what we really want to do over the long term. One of the advantages new grads have is the freedom to move around and go where the jobs are. But the trouble with this theory is that the way the job market is structured now, we need to be very sure of what jobs we want, specialize early, and be prepared to slog it out for several years gaining “relevant experience” in our field. There is little room now for dilettantism, or having jobs “on the side.” Everything is a career choice.

Take the classic “job on the side” for everything from aspiring writers to rock stars: teaching. Teaching used to be the kind of thing that anybody could do (and there were, accordingly, great teachers and some not-so-great teachers in the mix). Now students are fighting tooth and nail to get a place at teacher’s college, often resorting to attending a school in a different country. And once they graduate, the job market looks terrible – there is a two-stage application process even to be considered for a supply teaching job.  And don’t even get me started on academia as a career.

So despite the fact that it’s better to do different things, we’re now seeing a kind of apprenticeship model reborn, with high entrance requirements to every guild. Career experts say that Gen Yers will have something like 10 different careers in their lives – but in order to do so, we’ll need to have transferable skills, and know very well how to market them. In practical terms, this means that job-hopping, or even industry-hopping, is key, to prove all the different places in which one’s skills have been useful. It’s a kind of paradox where focus and diversity of experience are battling for dominance.

One solution might be to have multiple income streams, or to get experience with various combinations of paid and unpaid work. (Or maybe to start a blog and wind up with a movie or book deal out of it.) Like the realization that your romantic partner can’t be everything to you, we’re now seeing the idea that your main job can’t be everything either, from a remunerative or skills-building perspective. (Forget the idea that a job by itself can’t make you happy in life; we exposed that fallacy several years ago.) This trend is called having a “portfolio career,” that is, using a functional skill to diversify revenue streams.

We’re used to seeing this with careers in things like music, where a conductor will (for example) have a community choir, a church gig, some wedding performances on the go, and a few students all at the same time. When one revenue stream dries up, he or she will pick up another. But it’s new for accountants, or those who might want to mix traditional employment (at a major corporation, say) with self-employment. They key is diversity within a specialization, having skills that people will pay for and capitalizing on them in several different ways.

It also means that members of this generation will have to live with more uncertainty about their careers. Perhaps this is the price we’ll pay for more control over the skills we use and how we spend our time day-to-day. Does this signify a shift back to a pre-industrial time where people could choose how much they worked? Not fully, I’m sure, but it may be the beginning of a new, hybrid system where workers can control their output and work to their real interests more. Maybe this is the new “work-life balance.”

If, that is, all these new grads ever manage to get hired into that first job.

What do you think? Will you try to mix paid and unpaid work? Do you plan on job-hopping or industry-hopping? Do you anticipate that many members of Gen Y will choose to have multiple/multifaceted careers? Or is this a trend that will only affect a small subset of the population? Is it better to work a terrible (paying) job for three years or to get lots of volunteer experience instead?

A Culture of Free = Communism 2.0

April 14, 2010

Past ideologies and cultural movements were usually associated with a class, or a gender, or a specific subset of the population that wears funny hats and goes to art shows. These days they’re associated with whole generations, Gen Y in particular. And Gen Y’s ideological leanings are ambitious. A recent article in Adbusters claims that “there is a revolutionary current running through the subconscious of this generation that has yet to be realized or defined. We champion piracy, instinctively believing that information should be free and open, that intellectual property law is contra-progress and that capital is not a necessary intermediary for social organization.”

Capital is not necessary for social organization – that is, we want things to be free. Today, everything from news to music to classified ad services has a new benchmark to attract our attention: no cost to us, and preferably none of those pesky ads, either.  It is a race to the bargain basement, which Gen Y began, but which now encompasses everyone. Meanwhile, content providers are struggling to keep up (and many are not). And the “culture of free” has become an ideology.

I’m going to make the bold statement that I don’t believe we are revolutionary for wanting to get things for free. This supposed worldview – that information should be accessible and open – was and is just a convenient position to hold right now. It is no coincidence that the noble championship of piracy arose when most of the members of Gen Y were teenagers, making them a) not yet old enough to be generating capital of their own and happy to get something for nothing; b) at the age when they wanted to “stick it to the man” (or however that sentiment is phrased now), especially the capitalist pigs who profited off their (parents’) hard-earned cash; and c) able to master new pirating technologies before anybody else could devise a clever way to stop them doing it.

Piracy therefore developed so rapidly simply because there was an option. People figured out how to share music (and books, and movies, and opinions) in a new way, and so they did.  It started with just ripping and burning, making mix CDs rather than mix tapes.  Eventually P2P took off because it was offering a useful new service: downloading music directly to one’s computer.  There was no legal competitor, so the free (not-yet-illegal-but-definitely-immoral) version took off. And now it is expected by all that the thieving will continue unabated. We are affronted when record labels attempt to regain their lost profits from hapless downloaders. We scorn those who prosecute the programmers at Pirate Bay. And we revel in the fact that blogs are thriving while subscription-fuelled media giants are hemorrhaging readers.

Now, there is certainly something to the argument that the freer exchange of copyrighted materials that enables piracy can be a good thing. It exposes people to more music, and many people who “pirate” music get engaged then proceed to purchase more music or go to more concerts than they would otherwise. But I dispute the idea that the free stuff movement is anything more than a convenient justification of existing behaviour. Ideologies rarely stick solely because they are noble and altruistic. More often they are useful, and solve practical problems. The “free stuff” movement solved the problem of paying for copyright materials.

History has seen many excellent, convincing justifications for getting something from nothing. Real pirates and thieves perfected the art of it, and were/are only stopped with effective policing (whether by international tribunals or the more traditional method of hanging). Aristocrats, priests, and the nobility for most of human existence claimed that they deserved by divine right to profit from their vassals’ labour. They were only coerced into some semblance of fairness by the threat or occurrence of violent uprisings. And communists claimed the right to free things with an ideology based on the natural inequalities between humans. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs, as Karl Marx wrote. But Communism has never really been successful because whenever some people are getting something for free (or with minimal labour), others are working hard and getting nothing.

This is a fact that modern pirates inherently know: the record label executives and established acts are suffering, but so are the sound engineers and indie artists. So how did stealing from others turn into an altruistic ideology?

Part of it is the appeal of the “web 2.0” culture: it is democratic, innovative, and authentic. It bypasses the elitist filters of Hollywood, publishing or old media. According to Andrew Keen, a leading critic of the Web 2.0 movement, it “worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone–even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us–can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves.” It is appealing because it allows us all to be dabblers, part-time writers (through blogs) or directors (through YouTube) or experts (through Wikipedia). This is, Keen argues, exactly what Marx promised of Communism:

[I]n communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

And yet the dabbling, for all its appeal, is why the “culture of free” is ultimately unsustainable. Humans want recognition as individuals, and Gen Y wants this more than anybody. But dabblers are rarely experts, and their output is rarely singled out for recognition. As Keen notes, the problem with the democratization of media is that it creates a situation in which everybody has an opinion but nobody has an audience. And no audience means no capital, which will become a problem when Gen Y moves out of their capitalist-pig-baby-boomer-parents’ houses and has to pay for their own internet connections.