Monthly Archives: April 2012

Bloggers work for free

An interesting follow-up to my recent post on blogging. This piece of commentary comes from the UK’s Guardian and talks about how a growing number of writing professionals are now charging nothing for their work.

(Click on the link to read the article)

Other professionals don’t work for free. So why are writers expected to?

I’d like to know what you think about the piece. Do you believe that writers are being exploited or are they playing the game as much as the media companies that control the rights? Do you think democracy is being threatened or should so-called writers get a ‘real’ job and stop complaining? After all, no one is forcing them to do this kind of work for free. Most do it willingly. Others might feel that they have no choice.

After reading this, though, I’m thinking of forgetting about freelance writing as a bit of a stop-gap between careers. How will you make money if so many of your colleagues don’t care if they are paid nothing? That’s part of the problem.

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Cars, buses and high-speed rail

Bus stop bench

My neglected bus stop five minutes from my house - always deserted and never appealing. I've never once used it.

A return to one of my favorite subjects, public transportation. I was involved in a small collision in a parking lot last week. Nothing major (an annoying fender bender), but it reminded me of how much I now rely on the car. My life would grind to a complete halt if I didn’t have access to my mother’s car. Even if I had the will to use public transportation in Southern California, I wouldn’t get very far, very quickly.

It has been one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make since leaving London last year. I was used to walking everywhere and taking the tube and the bus when my two feet wouldn’t carry me as far as I needed to go. In the months I’ve been here, I’ve swapped tube stations for miles of busy, five-lane freeways. Instead of buses and trains, I am a slave to a 2011 silver Toyota Camry. Sometimes I love the car; at other times I wish I had more choice.

I’ve not tested the limits of public transportation here – I’d rather be confined to the house like someone under house arrest – but other people have. My cousin works in Escondido, a city to the north of San Diego. It takes her about 45 minutes to get there in the car when there is no traffic. She wanted to avoid putting so much mileage on her leased car and hoped there would be a train that she could use instead. Her options were limited and not appealing. Here’s the breakdown of her journey:

1. Drive for about 10mins in her own car or take a 30-minute bus ride to the downtown San Diego Coaster train station
2. Take a 1-hour Coaster ride to Oceanside (about 45mins north of here)
3. Switch trains to take the Sprinter for 1 hour to Escondido
4. Take a 5-minute bus ride
5. Walk 20 minutes to get to the elementary school where she works
TOTAL APPROX TIME: 2 hrs. 55 minutes vs. driving 45 minutes

She chose the car, as would every single logical person on the planet, even the ones who believe the car will be a major factor in the Earth’s destruction. Forget about saving the environment, most people would prefer to save their sanity.

A bus or a bust-up? Hard to know…

Meanwhile, it astonishes me that sane, business-minded people can’t see the great advantages of having a better linked-up metro system. In downtown San Diego, there is opposition to BRT (bus rapid transit) on one of this area’s main streets (Broadway).

Bus route 855 sign

I don't know where the 855 goes and how long it takes. The only people who use it are those who don't have a car. That's probably a good way of measuring true poverty in California.

The biggest opposition seems to be coming from local businesses, which fear noise, pollution and overcrowding.  The detractors are utterly convinced this will drive people away from the area. This argument seems a bit flawed to me. There are already plenty of buses going down Broadway, and some of the current traffic will be diverted to neighboring streets, to accommodate the faster buses with their own dedicated bus lanes.

Surely, there will be more people using these buses and that will mean more potential customers. Locals have also been promised wider sidewalks, and new paving and curbs with improved lighting.

These kinds of buses have worked successfully in other metropolitan areas, but the loud protestors are convinced they will destroy ‘the fabric of our downtown’. The project will cost $30m and is meant to be completed by 2014 if it doesn’t get scuppered.

A bullet to the economy

On the other side of the spectrum is the high-speed bullet train in California, the first of its kind in the country. It will connect San Francisco and Sacramento in the north, to Los Angeles and San Diego in the south. The estimated cost of the bullet train – which would travel 800 miles – is a staggering $68bn and it, too, is facing some stiff opposition.

Already, $30bn has been shaved from the budget, which had swelled to nearly $100bn. To get the project off the ground, the High Speed Rail Authority needs $2.6bn in state bond funds. This will release an additional $3.3bn in federal funds. If the Authority doesn’t get this, the project is as good as dead in the water.

The high-speed train was first approved nearly 15 years ago but has met with a huge amount of controversy and delays. The projected completion date is 2028 and it will utterly transform travel within the state. It remains to be seen if the first track ever gets laid.

It’s hard to comment on something this ambitious and I’m no expert, so I will state the obvious. The cost is gigantic and the state of California is broke. However, I can also see the huge benefits of a high-speed train that connects dense parts of the state with each other. The freeways are disastrous, overused and often inefficient. I spent five hours traveling to Los Angeles recently on the interstate 5. I wanted to kill myself at the driver’s seat or kill the person next to me. Any wonder why there is road rage? The journey should have taken just over two hours.

I’m hardly in love with London’s tube. It’s hard to love a thing that is mostly dirty, packed and stuffy. There were days – usually around 8am, smelling someone’s armpit in an overcrowded train – when I would have preferred risking London’s insane traffic. Yet I know that the benefit of having the trains far outweighs anything negative I can come up with.

Southern Californians will never having anything to rival this – and that’s a shame. I’d like more choice, the ability to go out with friends without worrying about how I will get home after two modest glasses of wine. Instead, a good deal of people around here drive over the legal limit. I’ve done it and so have almost all my friends. (My brother has a DUI and most of his friends are now on two.)

While people argue about rapid buses and high-speed rail, I’ll be climbing into my Toyota Camry – or should I say my mother’s Toyota Camry, since I can hardly afford a car – and driving, driving, driving.

Some facts from London Underground:

  • In 2010/11, LU  carried a record number of passengers, exceeding 1.1bn journeys for the first time. [San Diego’s transit system provides about 33m miles of annual transit service, carrying 70m total annual passengers]
  • In 2010/11, LU ran over 69m train kilometers, the equivalent of 1750 laps around the world or 90 trips to the moon and back
  • London Waterloo is the busiest station on the tube network. It carries 82m passengers a year. An approximate 57,000 people enter Waterloo station during the three-hour morning rush hour.
  • London Underground has been known as the tube since 1890

(Sources: London Underground and Sandag)

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Filed under American life, Getting around, transitions, Uncategorized

It’s crowded in the blogosphere

It’s a curious thing to be labelled a blogger. In the absence of any other occupation, I guess it’s what I do – and I don’t even do it that often. I’m not blogging as if my life depended on it. Good thing I’m not actually expecting to make any money off it. The fact that very few people make a living from blogging has not put off a slew of writers I’ve encountered through my very part-time ‘job’.

Parade cover

According to this magazine, we'd all be better off being funeral directors and putting our writing ambitions back in the drawer. (Unless you are Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, who has earned $10m.)

A few months ago I joined a group on LinkedIn called the Freelance Writers’ Connection. I was hoping I would be inspired to look for writing work (hasn’t happened), learn more about where I could find freelance work (kind of happened) and meet people who might prove to be good contacts (still to be determined).

Instead, what I have indisputably gained by joining this group is a hell of a lot of email, mostly about blogs. About two months ago, a member of the group posted a thread asking people to share their blogs. He got a landslide of responses. As a member, I am emailed every single time someone replies to this thread. To date, there have been over 300 replies and counting. Normally, when you post something on one of these groups, you are lucky to get 10 people paying attention.

It has made me wonder what motivates people to spend so much time writing on a crazy number of subjects, especially when it doesn’t pay. Here’s a sample of blog themes, courtesy of my freelance writing group.

A blog about:

  • a disabled foodie in Toronto
  • a mediocre mother
  • a good mother
  • a blind traveler
  • gay teens
  • fly fishing
  • insecure writers
  • Zen and tennis
  • twists of fate
  • the Holy Land
  • the Universe (an ambitious theme if you ask me)
  • dogs
  • cats
  • movies
  • rants, ravings and ruminations

I’ll be totally honest with you, I kind of started this blog to see if it would help me find a job. So far, the answer to that is no. I’m still thinking I could show it to someone one day, but possibly not to a future employer, who might be scared by a number of things I’ve revealed so far. The more I write, the more I think I need to keep it from anyone who would potentially hire me. So, I think I am now writing as a form of therapy or to stave off boredom.

If I could start all over and choose a profession today, blogging would not be high up on my list. I think I’d go for funeral director. An odd choice? Not according to Parade, which published its annual ‘What People Earn’ issue. Marshall Kelly, age 62, is a funeral director from Arkansas. He rakes in just over $100,000 a year and chose his field because ‘the work would be steady’. Wise man.

Another job with good potential is voice actor. Dan Castellaneta, 54, from Los Angeles, earns $9.7m as a voice actor. In 1990 he was earning $660,000 a year. The recession hasn’t affected his earnings. A nice job if you could get it. (Dan is the voice of Homer Simpson, by the way.)

Then there’s Alberto Reyes, 46, a casino host from Las Vegas. It sounds like he keeps high-stakes gamblers from killing themselves. ‘We go to the Grand Canyon, we drive race cars. It’s not just about living like a superstar; I also keep them out of harm’s way.’ He earns $118,000 doing this.

On the other side of the spectrum is a martial arts instructor from Michigan who earns nothing after being forced to sell her business; a self-employed tour guide who only makes about $7000 a year in South Carolina; and a guitar shop owner from Missouri who also makes nothing from his business. Owning your own business appears to be a scary thing.

The Parade article would not be complete without the inclusion of one blogger. She used to make $60,000 a year as a media consultant in Atlanta in 2001. She now earns nothing, but seems happy blogging about her life as a mother in Los Angeles. I’m glad she finds this satisfying, but I can’t help thinking that I am in the wrong line of work if I want to own a house one day and move out of my mother’s.

For any bloggers who have made it to the bottom of this post, why do you blog? Or what would you want to do for a living if you could start all over again? Feel free to dream big.

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Legoland over spring break

Legoland Las Vegas exhibit

Las Vegas without the gambling

Spring break stretches ahead of me like the Grand Canyon – staggeringly huge and slightly scary. I don’t remember ever doing anything particularly memorable for my spring breaks as a child, but I feel somewhat obligated to do something special for the Chatterbox, who is only five. Not doing this puts me in the realm of the Bad Parent – or so I have told myself.

I don’t know who first utters the word ‘Legoland’ but once it is floating through the air, the Chatterbox grabs hold of it and never lets go. For several days she keeps mentioning Legoland and telling any child who comes within five feet that she is going. At this point I am willing to empty our bank accounts so that she can go, if that’s what it takes. I suspect Legoland, and other theme parks of its ilk, know they have parents over the barrel and maximize this knowledge to their advantage.

It costs $87 per person to visit Legoland California on a combined ticket. Children are something like $65. We get the Chatterbox in ‘free’ with a special deal at Denny’s. We have to eat at the diner to get the coupon, which costs us $35 for two adults and one child. The night before the big outing we read the fine print and find out that we have to buy the more expensive combined ticket (an extra $15 per adult) to get our child in with the deal. I’ve never been good at mathematics, but I’d estimate that we saved ourselves absolutely nothing. The whole thing smells of a scam for people who don’t know better. I suspect we didn’t even need the coupon, just the right URL to enter online.

But we put these thoughts behind us and brace ourselves for the day ahead. It’s going to be fun, fun, fun, I tell myself. If I repeat it enough times I might actually start to believe this. Before we’ve even stepped one foot inside the park, we’ve had to fork over $12 for the parking. Legoland may be for children, but these prices are totally grown up.

San Francisco

The streets of San Francisco

Our first stop is a tour of small cities put together with a bewildering number of Legos. We go through Las Vegas, see New York skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty; we sail past the Sydney Opera House on a cruise boat and walk past San Francisco’s downtown. Washington D.C. is particularly impressive – the White House stands out against a green lawn, tall and bright. Some of the exhibits, however, are looking a bit worse for wear, especially the ones on water. Sailboats look dirty and tipsy, leaning heavily to one side. The New Orleans exhibit is getting remodeled, and I suspect it hasn’t aged well.

This tour, however, does not capture my daughter’s interest for long. She is impatient to get on a ride. Unlike Disneyland, I don’t know what kind of rides Legoland has to offer and it’s not entirely clear from the visitor’s map either. We strike out in a random direction and stumble across a dragon ride with a line that doesn’t look horribly intimidating. It’s a hit.

Lunch is not. We walk around the park looking for something that won’t cost us a fortune and settle on a tacky restaurant with a medieval theme. It’s expensive and not great value, but we kind of expected this. After lunch there are more rides – we wait about an hour for a rollercoaster that is just on the wrong side of scary for a five-year-old. We also tour an exhibit inspired by Star Wars and pose next to Darth Vadar. This, mercifully, is free.

We are tired and it’s getting cold, but the three of us drag ourselves to Legoland’s new water park. We paid an extra $15 and we are going to get every penny’s worth, even if we freeze to death. The English Husband, who is well used to a stiff breeze, strips off and drags the Chatterbox to some water rides. I take shelter on a chair and wrap a small towel around me. I am still cold. The water park looks great for a summer’s day, but right now I just want to get in the car. I’ll even take refuge in the Volvo car made out of Legos if I could get the door open.

Volvo Lego car

Not our car, but I wish it was

On the way home I think about whether or not the experience is worth it. It’s all a matter of perspective. As an adult, I could really live without ever going to Legoland again. Sure, the Lego sculptures are interesting for about half an hour, but it’s hardly worth the hefty price tag you pay as a family. And while Disneyland is something that adults and children can enjoy, this park doesn’t quite have the ‘wow’ factor.

The next day I take the Chatterbox to the swings behind our house. A little boy sits down at a swing next to her and she tells him about her trip to Legoland. I hear her chatting about how cool it was and what she did. Maybe this experience is something she will remember for a long time. At that moment it’s worth the money. Next time – if there ever is a next time – I think I will skip Denny’s.

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One night in Palm Springs

me, English husband

In the courtyard after lunch

I don’t know anything about Palm Springs before we get there, apart from the fact that it’s a desert. I have a vague notion that it was once a playground for Hollywood elite, who would vacation there in the winter. When I was a teenager I also remember that it was a spring-break destination. It went off the radar before I had a chance to visit.

As we approach the city, the landscape is at once beautiful and desolate. Mountain ranges loom before us, covered in jagged rocks. One of the largest mountains is rimmed with snow, and my brother’s girlfriend tells us that we can take a tram to the top (elevation 8500 feet). I am astounded that you can go from searing heat to freezing cold so quickly. I’m tempted by the aerial tramway that goes up the cliffs of the Chino Canyon, but my brother’s fear of heights means we will give it a miss. I’m also not sure we are prepared for the change in temperature – there isn’t a decent jacket between us.

We drive through the downtown district of Palm Springs and it’s full of small, low-to-the-ground buildings. I fall in love with the mid-century architecture – many of the buildings date from Palm Springs’ heyday in the 40s and 50s. We stop at a restaurant with a pretty courtyard that looks out to the dramatic mountains beyond. They are incredibly close and look burnt orange and brown in color. Contrasted against the piercing blue sky, the canyons almost look like they are jumping out of a child’s pop-up book.

There’s no doubt that Palm Springs is arid. Much of the landscape is unforgiving, with a constant glare from the bright sun. But there are green spaces and desert flowers that beautify our surroundings. I can’t help feeling like it’s a bit artificial, though. Left to its own, the desert would bleach everything white and kill all but the hardiest weeds and thorny cacti.

The window of an uptown design shop

Ciara, my brother’s girlfriend, walks with me up and down the strip (the walkable downtown area). It reminds me a bit of London’s Leicester Square because it feels like a tourist trap. I am fairly certain we are in the tackiest part of Palm Springs. There are shops selling lots of rhinestone-studded t-shirts and tank tops emblazoned with the words ‘Palm Springs’; there is a huge Starbucks on one corner and we pass an Irish pub, confirming my suspicion that there is one of these in every city in the world.

Uptown is downtown’s classier cousin. There are design shops selling interesting pieces, from lamps to coffee tables. There are lots of restaurants and thriving bars, and funky vintage clothing stores; I suddenly feel like I could be in west Hollywood, with its artistic, bohemian feel. I am also a bit surprised that Palm Springs has such a large gay community. Outside of San Francisco, I’m not sure I have seen so many gay couples. It’s more obvious here, though, because the city is much smaller.

gambling sign

Just in case you discover you have a problem in the bathroom

That night we find out it’s a Dinah Shore weekend. Known in the gay community as ‘The Dinah’, Wikipedia claims it’s the largest lesbian festival in the world and takes place annually in Palm Springs over five days. The English Husband asks our cab driver if she’s playing in Palm Springs. ‘She’s dead,’ he replies. The English Husband doesn’t know much about old American lounge singers. Apparently Dinah Shore, a renowned golfer and one-time resident of the nearby Coachella Valley, is a gay icon and, this weekend, her many fans make a pilgrimage to Palm Springs for pool parties and a golf tournament.

Our cab driver also explains that Palm Springs is largely made up of people over 70 who play golf. The rest are ‘snow birds’, wealthy part-time residents who flee cold winters. I think these are over 70, too.

At Tinto, an upscale restaurant in the Saguaro Hotel (the old Holiday Inn, now remodeled), we have a tasting menu for $55 per head. The chef specializes in tapas. We sample a huge selection of cheese, fish, vegetables and some meat. The standout item, however, turns out to be smoked marcona almonds.

Michael, our friendly waiter, explains how he came to Palm Springs from Chicago. He survives the incredibly hot summers (an average of about 115 degrees Fahrenheit) by going to a friend’s freshwater pool in the mornings until he has to go to work. From what he says, I sense that the city may not be as liberal as it appears on the surface.

Michael tells us that he once had a condo where his neighbors left him a note telling him not to plant trees around his home. His current condo complex won’t allow him to use a grill outside because his neighbors don’t like the smell of propane gas. Michael may not be allowed to grill food on his balcony but he can smoke all he wants.

Next stop is the Village Pub, a reminder that I should never drink in a place that uses a g-string and a Bud Light t-shirt to make a window display. I look around and I would guess that the average age in the bar is about 21. Could these be the snow birds’ grandchildren? I’m not sure where all these kids come from, but I wouldn’t really want to spend more than 10 minutes in this place sober. Being half drunk, I might stretch this to half an hour.

We end the night at a casino, although I’m not a gambler and find these kinds of places soul-sapping. This one smells of cigarette smoke (yes, you are allowed to smoke inside) and desperation. Unlike the Village Pub, the Spa Resort Casino is full of pensioners that appear to have been there since the afternoon (it’s now past midnight). Most of them are seated at slot machines, reflexively pushing buttons like desiccated robots.

windmill farm

Windmills greet you as you make your way into and out of Palm Springs

We leave after the English Husband wins $70 at Blackjack. As we walk back to our hotel, I see the mountains silhouetted against the night sky. The desert night sky is stunning – you feel like you are part of the galaxy. In a large city you can easily forget how bright the moon and the stars can be. The next morning I clear my head in the pool. I’d like to come back to Palm Springs, but next time I might get off the strip and see what lies beyond.

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