Wednesday, November 14, 2012

My Next Show

EDIT: (11/26/12) Dates have changed since last posting and are now accurate below

I will be performing at the Manhattan Repertory Theater with DICE Theater company. December 7 and 9 (won't be part of the Dec 5th show due to work conflict).  More details below.

Reserve tickets by emailing

It will be intense, and not all stories will be resolved. But we got a standing ovation last time we did it, so something about it works.

See you there!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

My First Day With Occupy Sandy

Kendra and I went to check out one of the two major headquarters of the Occupy Sandy hurricane relief effort. Anyone reading who's ever been part of Scav Hunt at the University of Chicago would instantly feel at home. Same form of no-budget organized chaos, only this time instead of trying make an x-wing out of Paris Metro tickets, contacting a medal of honor recipient, or cobbling together a nuclear reactor, we're trying to help people who've been hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy and it's aftershock nor'easter.

This is Occupy, so yes, it's ostensibly political. There's an orientation every half hour where they make the point that our job is not charity, it's something they call "mutual aid." In other words, the mission is not to parachute in, drop blankets and food randomly, and leave. It's to come in and see what's already on the ground and how we can best help, even if it's just listening to people, and often it's following orders of people who live in the communities and know much better what's going on than any of us. Also just as important, the help is for you, too. All volunteers need to take care of themselves and each other.

Granted, the manner of the presentation will turn some people off in being overly generalized. Even those who like the sound of an anit-racist, anti-classist, etc. movement would be a bit irked by the attitude with which the platform is presented to new recruits in this orientation, but their hearts are clearly in the right place, the orientation only takes about ten minutes and is then done, and more importantly these people are organized and they know what they are doing.

How organized? Slate thinks they just might be outdoing the Red Cross. If Kendra and my experience were any example, as soon as we came in with donations (which we had seen calls for on their site), unannounced, at a time nobody had asked for people, we were effortlessly funneled first to a table where we could drop stuff off, then to a coat check, then to an orientation which started in less than ten minutes, to a second canvassers orientation, then to join a group that was ready to go with a van, fully supplied, to Coney Island. As they gave us flashlights, ways to contact the system to tell HQ what was needed where, we were informed that social workers would be on hand to talk to us afterwards about our experiences if we needed someone to debrief with, and we were encouraged to grab something to eat from the kitchens if we were hungry (though they were so quick that we didn't have time, so we just snacked from the cooler our driver had been provisioned with instead in the van).

Key to the system in place is a knowledge of community organization from the activist founders of the original occupy wall street movement, and clear setup that conveys as much information as possible with as little human resources wasted as possible. Unlike most other volunteer organizations, they accept everyone who comes and wants to help, no questions. You very well could end up just picking up trash around the neighborhood, but you will be doing something. The sheer numbers ensure that something is getting done, and the leaderless lateral system of communications ensures that if someone screws up, the mistake is channeled back to HQ, learned from, and adapted to future teams and efforts so that it (probably) won't be made again.

As someone who is applying to graduate schools to learn about international development, I feel I just might learn more from these guys on how to run an effective development organization than I'd learn almost anywhere else.

The New York Times ran a great article on how it looks in there:

In short, while I always sympathised with the Occupy Wall Street movement, I used to not feel they were all that effective because of lack of goals. Suddenly, they have a goal, they have relevance, and oh man, are they effective.

Check em out:

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Life with Sandy Frankenstorm

Eight days ago I got stuck for a few minutes on the Charles river at sunset. The "T," as the subway is known in Boston, had to stop on its way from Harvard to the station where I'd be meeting a cousin for the first time in years. Apparently there was a sick passenger ahead. Not so great for the sick passenger, pretty nice for me as I watched the view.

I didn't realize it then, but this was going to be a theme for the next few days.

I hadn't really known anything about Hurricane Sandy, or Frankenstorm as people were calling it, until I was on my way back to New York Sunday morning. I figured it was going to be another Irene-- all bark and no bite. But the I found out that they were closing the subway that night at 7pm. So I started making arrangements from my bus back to Chinatown. By the time I had crossed from Massachusetts into Connecticut, I had preliminary arrangements with my students to arrange their sessions as conditions developed, and a plan with my girlfriend to camp out at her place in Park Slope for the storm. I made sure I could bring my bicycle, just in case.

After I got home, I rushed to unpack one bag to pack my big backpack (same one I use as my only bag on international travel), meet with a neighbor for a quick GRE study session, pick up a couple gallons of water, then ride my bike to the subway. I got into a position where I could hold the bag, the bike and myself upright for about an hour and rode it out to Brooklyn. Then I hauled everything to street level, got some cash from an ATM, and pedaled to Kendra's.

I'd be misleading you if I described the next few days in terms of a young couple huddled in a small space in a hurricane. Picture and guy with his girlfriend who don't see each other enough finally getting some quality time, stocked up with lots of good food, DVDs and a Netflix account. If it were still raining and we still didn't have to go to work. we might still be there now. All we saw out the window was some wind and rain. The lights flickered a few times. That was it. We starting joking to each other that it was the "best hurricane ever."

We stopped making those jokes on Tuesday. Not because of us; the internet had cut out, but we were still having a great time. It was when we started looking at the news headlines and pictures on my phone. Staten Island, Red Hook, the Lower East Side, flooded. A Rockaway town called Breezy Point in smoldering ruins. The lower third of Manhattan without power. All seven subway tunnels under the East River out of commission, at least one filled with water from track to ceiling.

We spent another couple days in Brooklyn, me waiting as each of my students canceled their appointments, one by one. They didn't have school. One was without power in Tribeca. Another was without power in New Jersey and with a tree fallen across their driveway.

So I stayed in Brooklyn through Halloween. Went to Barnes and Noble where I studied for the GRE, and Kendra edited one of her author's manuscripts. We stopped by a cell phone store to check something for her, and then and checked out the biggest fallen tree in the neighborhood (apparently some teen there stepped out of her house with a friend, looked at the small crowd of onlookers taking pictures, rolled her eyes and told her friend "It's been like this all day.")

Halloween night we picked our way among sugar-loaded, three-foot, creatures rocketing around the streets to eat homemade apple caramels and cake, and watch Hocus Pocus with a half dozen of gay male friends (the token straight couple has to be there somewhere, right?).

So it was Thursday that I finally decided to head home. Friday was my GRE, and I had a couple students in Manhattan who wanted to meet up. So I got my stuff, said goodbye to my girlfriend, and brought my bike and somewhat lightened bag to the newly running, fare-free subway line.

It got me as far as the Brooklyn side of Brooklyn Bridge. I had no idea what I was going to find on the other side. What was flooded? What had power? Would it be gridlocked, or empty of cars entirely? I biked towards the bridge's bike path and saw bikes coming over in the other direction. I hailed a group of them and asked what things were like on the other side. It became clear quickly that they were French tourists and didn't understand what I was asking. A good sign-- if tourists are biking around, it can't be that bad on the other side.

Sure enough, when I hit downtown Manhattan for the first time in a week, everything was dry, and the traffic was light. It was also a bit confused. No electricity anywhere, and therefore no traffic lights. Police in neon vests were directing traffic at almost every intersection.

It was like being on a fairground after it had closed. You're so used to seeing everything in operation that the absence of any people and open shops feels eerie. I could hear generators and cars around, but I've never seen Chinatown or SoHo that quiet. I rode up to Bleecker and Houston and the only traffic was a dude in the middle of the street dragging a shopping cart.

At Union Square I saw a line of about forty people near a small truck. On the back of the truck was a cardboard sign advertising a place to recharge your cell phone. I biked up Park avenue and started seeing military vehicles parked along the streets.

I took a picture at 39th st, the line where power was and was not working. In the foreground, traffic lights that weren't working. In the background, traffic lights that were, and traffic to go with them.

By 50th street, it was completely gridlocked. by 59th it was back to a normal day in New York.

My apartment had power and internet. Several things in my fridge had gone bad. Everything else was fine. I saw two of my students, one a little earlier than usual. He lives somewhere with what normally has a view of the whole island south of 50th st. But in the dark that night, it looked like the city stopped existing about twenty blocks away. Everything was black except the freedom tower construction in the distance.

After taking the GREs yesterday and recovering with some friends in a postage stamp sized Hells Kitchen apartment, over wine, food, conversation and a little live music, I've come back and started figuring out what to do next. I'm listening to a lot of local public radio, hearing stories about what happened, what's happening, and what will happen here. I've signed up to volunteer with relief efforts with the city and with the organization New York Cares. There's essentially a waiting list for opportunities, that many people want to help out.

I don't have an ending to the story. Maybe I'll have one for you soon. We're still recovering.