culture

San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I was able to visit twice recently: April 26-29 to attend the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, and May 24-26 to take a workshop at the Center for Digital Storytelling. In both trips I was also able to visit family and friends.

What I forgot to do both times was to go see what’s in the space formally occupied by a bookstore: A Clean, Well Lighted Place for Books. Why? I wanted to revisit the scene of one of my earliest introductions to the wonderful eccentricity of SF.

It was the summer of 2002 and I was in town to visit my girlfriend (now wife) in our long distance relationship. It was a weekday, so I was wandering around town while she was at work. Earlier that morning Valerie had suggested that I go check out the bookstore, which was a short walk from her apartment. As I entered I saw an older white man browsing a table full of paperbacks. He caught my eye because he looked like my department chair at the time!

I walked toward him, behind two other men: a white guy, and a Latino. My department chair look-alike said hello to each person, using his take on culturally appropriate greetings.

To the White man: “Hey, how ya doin’?”

To the Latino man: “¿Hola, cómo estás?”

To me, the African American man: “As-Salaam-Alaikum, my brother!”

I can’t remember how the other cats reacted, but I just nodded, as I was too shocked to provide a culturally appropriate response, such as “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam.” I’ll be ready next time, however!

I know many folks who are annoyed by those who use what they believe are cultural appropriate expressions with members of different ethnic or racial groups, especially when they are incorrect in their assumptions. I welcome these attempts, as they are reaching out to try to make a connection, when they can so easily ignore those who are different from them. What do you think, readers?

Today I created my very first Craigslist curb alert. More accurately, a friend created one for me. For folks who don’t know what this is (as was the case for me before today), a Craigslist curb alert is a notification on the craigslist.org website about garage sales. In preparation to move to Wisconsin I’m putting the Minneapolis house on the market, and step one is to clean out nine years worth of junk from the basement. A friend informed me that 90% of “junk” would be snapped up by others if I put it out for free. So I gave it a try.

The first customer arrived 15 minutes after the announcement was posted, and he was followed by a steady stream of others…and the first guy returned an hour later (!). When I left for the airport two hours after the announcement was posted 80% of the items were gone; maybe when the friend takes in leftovers tomorrow his predicted 90% mark will be met.

The most interesting thing about the curb alert? A very rich assortment of people picked up stuff. There were recent immigrants who walked over from a nearby public housing project, as well as people rolling up in BMWs. There were blacks, whites, Latino/as, and Asian Americans. Children hauled items alongside the elderly. The scene was a little United Nations!

One family tried to give me $5 after taking several items. I hope I did not violate some Craigslist rule by refusing it. I was just happy that I was saved a trip to the city dump!

For a few years I’ve worn a t-shirt with “contexts.org” on the front, and I have received a few questions about it over the years, though always from folks who appear to be middle-aged, middle-class whites. Today two “unusual suspects” asked me about the t-shirt: a white teenage guy who took my order at a sandwich shop, and a thirty-something African American man sporting dreadlocks and multiple tattoos. After I explained that Contexts is a sociology magazine for a mass audience the African American guy exclaimed, “I love sociology! I will check out contexts.org when I get home.” Awesome!

I am currently living in Charlotte, NC. My wife has a new job here, and I’m using a Spring 2013 release from teaching to work on research projects here before moving to Wisconsin in July to start my new position as a dean. I have been travelling to Minnesota at least once a month to meet with research collaborators and attend meetings for service obligations. On the April 10-12, 2013 trip a neighbor who knew about my Minneapolis-Charlotte dual household arrangement told me about a letter to the editor in the Minneapolis StarTribune, “Minnesota Not So Nice,” in which a recent transplant from Atlanta, GA (my home town!) concludes:

“Minnesota Polite?” Sure.
“Minnesota Reserved?” Definitely.
“Minnesota Standoffish?” Absolutely.
“Minnesota Nice?” Yeah, not so much.

Earlier in the piece the author notes, “I moved up here a year ago from Atlanta, where having a 20-minute conversation with strangers in line at the grocery store, waving at cars driving down your street and making newcomers feel welcome is an everyday occurrence.” He goes on to provide examples of “Minnesota Nice,” where Minnesotans are courteous but reserved, and slow to open up to newcomers.

My family moved to Atlanta from Raleigh, NC when I was two years old, and I lived there until I graduated from college (Georgia Tech) in 1990. From 1990 until 2012 I lived in the Midwest, in Indiana and Minnesota. Since my return to the South in December, 2012 I have discovered just how much of a Minnesotan I have become in 13 years (I moved there in August, 1999). I don’t like it when strangers come up to me in Charlotte stores to chat (for example, an older African American woman once stopped me in a Target: “Where are you from? You look like my godson! What’s your name?”), and when I go to the dry cleaners I pray that I get the surly but efficient cashier, and not the chatty guy who forgets to give me my receipt. The surly one must be from the Midwest.

Of course, “Minnesota Nice” can be used as a stereotype when it goes beyond existing evidence, but there are indeed regional cultural differences that one quickly discovers, as has the writer of the letter to the editor. Learning the nuances of these differences can ease a transition to a new environment. I’m looking forward to going back to the Midwest, and discovering unique aspects of life in Wisconsin. Maybe there is a “Wisconsin Nice”?

Today I am thinking about the TV show Breaking Bad. No, not because I am excited about the recently announced August 11, 2013 second half premiere of season 5; I have Ted Beneke on the brain. For readers who are not Breaking Bad watchers (or for those who are, but have forgotten some of the minor characters), Ted Beneke was the president of a family-owned fabricating company that employed Skylar White as the bookkeeper. Skylar White used $600,00 of the proceeds from husband Walter White’s meth manufacturing operation to close an IRS audit of Beneke Fabricators and pay back taxes Ted owed to the IRS. OK, got all of that? There will be a quiz on Tuesday :).

Ted is on my mind today as an example of “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by sociologist Thorstein Veblen in the 1899 book ­The Theory of the Leisure Class, and today defined by Wikipedia as “the spending of money on and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power – either the buyer’s income or the buyer’s accumulated wealth.” In an attempt to save his troubled business Ted sold many of his luxury goods, but after the cash infusion one of his initial purchases was a new Mercedes-Benz car. When confronted by Skylar about why he did not spend the money on seemingly more important items such as re-hiring furloughed employees, Ted responded that he has to look impressive when he meets with business clients.

I bought a “new” car last month, partly because my current car is not a pretty sight, with its peeling paint and cracked windshield. “New” is in quotes because the car is a 2007 model with 67,000 miles on it. That’s an improvement over the current 2000 ride, but it’s the first time since my initial car purchase in 1987 that I have not selected a new car. (The current 2000 Honda Accord was a gift from my mother-in-law to my wife when she went to graduate school in 2010.) The initial 1987 purchase at the beginning of my sophomore year of college was a 1979 Honda Accord with 120,000 miles; it had 190,000 miles when I bought my first new car (a 1992 Acura Integra) in 1991. I subsequently leased three new cars. When the last lease expired in 2010 my wife and I decided to not get another new car in order to save money for her graduate school expenses; I rode the bus to work and used the Zipcar car-sharing service while my wife used her mother’s car in North Carolina.

While I don’t need to be quite as concerned with appearances as businessman Ted Beneke, I don’t want to look shabby as a new Dean! My initial preference was to lease another new car, but I’ll be putting too many miles on a vehicle in the next couple of years to justify leasing, so I decided to investigate used cars. I ended up with a Nissan Murano SL. The “L” in SL is for “luxury,” so I’m happy. A Murano is not a Mercedes by any stretch of the imagination, but it has style, so I don’t have to worry about the negative perceptions of owning a “hooptie,” a car with problems. I suppose, though, that driving a hooptie would invite less scrutiny than if I were rolling around a college campus in a $100,000 car. I won’t have to worry about the latter possibility for many years to come…if ever.