Berkeley: the magic and the guilt

I’ve been thinking a lot about Berkeley lately. It’s where I’ve lived for the past seven years and the only home I’ve known in the Bay Area. One of the reasons I’m so excited about the new Yahoo job is that I’ll be working at least some of the time at Yahoo! Research Labs – Berkeley. I love Berkeley. Berkeley is the kind of place where a simple trip to the grocery store can leave you wondering if the people you just saw acting strangely in the produce section were engaged in some sort of deliberate performance art, or perhaps just unconsciously living their own mundane lives. In Berkeley, there might not be a difference anyway.

My love of Berkeley aside, I have to agree with what Michael Chabon wrote in the hands-down best essay on life in Berkeley, “The Mysteries of Berkeley“: this town drives me crazy. In this essay (which I just discovered this week), Chabon affectionately explores all the annoying yet energizing subtleties of life in Berkeley that make it the place that I want to live:

I’d be willing to bet that, pound for pound, Berkeley is the most enraptured city in America on a daily basis.

If that statement has the ring of boosterism, then permit me to clarify my feelings on the subject of my adopted home: this town drives me crazy. Nowhere else in America are so many people obliged to suffer more inconvenience for the common good. Nowhere else is the individual encumbered with a greater burden of shame and communal disapproval for having intruded, however innocently, on the sensibilities of another. Berkeley’s streets, though a rational 19th century grid underlies them, are a speed-busting tangle of artificial dead ends, obligatory left turns, and deliberately tortuous obstacle-course barriers known as chicanes, put in place to protect children—who are never (God forbid!) sent to play outside. Municipal ordinances intended to protect the nobility of labor in Berkeley’s attractive old industrial district steadfastly prevent new-economy businesses from taking over the aging brick-and-steel structures–leaving them empty cenotaphs to the vanished noble laborer of other days. People in the grocery store, meanwhile, have the full weight of Berkeley society behind them as they take it upon themselves to scold you for exposing your child to known allergens or imposing on her your own indisputably negative view of the universe. Passersby feel empowered—indeed, they feel duty-bound—to criticize your parking technique, your failure to sort your recycling into brown paper and white, your resource-hogging four-wheel-drive vehicle, your use of a pinch-collar to keep your dog from straining at the leash.

. . . . .

The result, perhaps inevitable, of this paralysis of good intentions, this ongoing, floating opera of public disapproval and the coming into conflict of competing visions of the path to personal bliss, is a populace inclined to kvetching and to the wearing of the default Berkeley facial expression, the suspicious frown. Bliss is, after all, so near at hand; the perfect egg, a good night’s sleep, reconciliation with one’s mother or the Palestinians, a theory to account for the surprising lack of dark matter in the universe, a radio station that does not merely parrot the lies of government flaks and corporate media outlets—such things can often feel so eminently possible here, given the intelligence and the passion of the citizens. And yet they continue to elude us. Who is responsible? Is it us? Is it you? What are you doing, there, anyway? Don’t you know the recycling truck won’t take aluminum foil?

In Berkeley, it is possible to engage in more various and simultaneous forms of guilt than any place on earth. The citizens of Berkeley are connoisseurs of guilt, and relish their guilt in all its distinct flavors like a leisurely dinner at Chez Panisse. Keeping up with the Berkeley Joneses is about successfully displaying your guilt publicly, not what kind of car you drive (unless, of course, it is a Prius with the proper bumper stickers).

My simple consumption of a banana earlier this week very nearly turned into a paralyzing existential crisis. For anyone outside of Berkeley, eating a banana would simply be viewed as a positive step towards the “five a day” fruit and vegetable goal, a healthy treat. That’s exactly how I felt until I noticed the “Fair Trade Certified” sticker on my banana. Supporting fair trade through fruit consumption should make me feel good, but it only spurred a reflection on all the presumably unfair trade that had produced the fruit I had so carelessly enjoyed just a day earlier. I managed to push those thoughts from my mind long enough to finish the banana, but then as I was walking over to the garbage can with the peel, I stopped in my tracks as I realized that I had never gotten around to getting a proper compost bin going. I really shouldn’t throw banana peels in the garbage, so I left the peel out on the counter and put the compost bin on my weekend to-do list. Within a couple of days, a swarm of fruit flies had occupied my kitchen and I was faced with yet another Berkeley dilemma: should I zap those bastards with good old-fashoined Raid or consult with one of my many neighbors who seem to have an unusual level of expertise in environmentally-friendly ways of killing insects? I managed to pull myself out of the fetal ball I had put myself in on my (likely-produced-under-torturous-conditions) rug and mustered just enough strength to throw the banana peel in the trash can and coat those fruit flies in a layer of Raid that could have forced the surrender of the Japanese in WWII.

Sorry, Berkeley. I will try to do better next time.

4 thoughts on “Berkeley: the magic and the guilt

  1. I’m amazed at how we’re becoming much more conscious of our spending habits anymore.

    I know myself, I’ve been making an effort to support those who I believe in. Be it, IT Conversations, Evil Genius Chronicles, or Cory Doctorow’s last book. It gives me great satisfaction put money in the pockets of those I believe in.

    I buy most of my vegetables at an organic market of local farmers, as I can see (and talk to) the person who grew the carrots I’m buying. I appreciate the one on one contact, and that’s the best PR these folks can have. I enjoy giving them my money and that means I’m much more inclined to say good things about my purchasing habits and experiences. Hopefully in the end, it’s more business for them.

  2. The more I hear about life in California, the more I am convinced it might soon renounce its allegiance to the United States and form its own country.

    Living in DC there is an art to political correctness and causes, but it comes nowhere near the levels you describe.

    If I adhered to that many causes at once, I might spontaneously combust. Can anyone in good faith work in the Berkeley area without giving 95% of their paycheck to assist with these causes?

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