Saturday, December 24, 2005

Oh, Tannenbaum

A friend told me about getting a Christmas tree this year, and I started thinking about how, very early in my life on my own, I put up lights, sprayed "snow" on my windows, and put up a few decorations along with cards, but that lasted only a season or two. I couldn't tell you then why I stopped, or when I started trying to ignore Christmas, trying to turn it into nothing more than a mid-winter respite from work.

I think now that decorating made me feel lonely. It couldn't bring my mother back; it couldn't bring my father's vitality back; it couldn't transport me back to my family life; and it couldn't be a substitute for a family. "You can't go home again."

Some of my favorite Christmas decorations were a plastic Santa in a chimney (going down, as his bag was full), a tiny Nativity scene that went on top of the skirt under the tree, and a string of green bells we hung between the living room and extra room. There were others, but even now my memories are fading.

For me as a child, these decorations, along with the snows that we usually had, symbolized the specialness of the season. At night, with the lights off and the colored tree lights on, I felt that the trailer looked as warm, comfortable, and cozy as any home, more so than at any other time of the year. It was truly a magical transformation.

One year at the public library there was a caroling event. With snow on the ground and a few flurries in the air, voices raised in song, and little lights all around, I felt more of the Christmas spirit then than I ever have—that the world is a beautiful place, and that all really was right with it. I thought then that I would be able to repeat that experience and that feeling many times, not knowing what it means to be an adult and how rare that feeling would be when I grew up.

The store displays that move native Chicagoans as part of their traditions leave me cold. To me, they have no associations with my childhood, and instead appear to me as the worst of commercialism—expensive, gaudy, overdone, the kind of thing that impresses with size and scope rather than with originality, simplicity, and meaning.

Only once have I felt like a happy child again. It was a few years ago in downtown Oak Park, in the midst of the small, quaint shops decorated with charming scenarios, where I was strolling with a friend. The stores and streets were softly lit, snow was on the ground and then in the air, and for an elusive moment the world itself seemed to be at peace with itself. I can't describe the scene or the mood or evoke it in anyone else; I can experience it, and that only rarely and unexpectedly.

I'm tired of people who run down Christmas. As I wrote last year, you choose what Christmas, any holiday, or any occasion means to you. You can choose it to mean frequenting malls and listening to bad music, out-shopping the Joneses (or your mother-in-law), getting into debt, hating the gifts you receive (or don't receive), and resenting half your family if you're lucky enough to have one. You can choose to spend Christmas whining about the problem that you are part of and contribute to. You can bellyache about everything or try futilely, as I tried, to create or capture the impossible, and make yourself miserable when the magic doesn't work.

Or, instead of stressing yourself out by trying to create joy and being crushed by the inevitable and invariable disappointment when you fail (and getting angry that no one is cooperating with your efforts), you can understand that moments of true joy, of epiphany, are unplanned and unexpected. Let them happen and savor them forever when they do.

In the meantime you can bring joy to yourself by bringing it to others—those out who have no money to spend, no one to buy for or to outdo, and no family to fight with.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.


Sunday, December 18, 2005

The error of my ways

When I moved to The Flamingo I upgraded to digital cable, which required a box. A "trained technician" was dispatched to perform this intricate installation. When he was done we tested it, and the cable and TV appeared to be working. Then I had the idea of testing the VCR (yes, I still have a VCR), which didn't work. The technician played around with it for a few minutes, then said, "It doesn't work; the movers must have dropped it." I told him the movers had never seen or touched it; a friend and I had personally carried it over from the old place a block away—and that it had been working earlier that week. "Maybe you dropped or bumped it, then," he said. No, I think we would have noticed that. It was not a point worth arguing, however; the VCR didn't work, and the technician was unable to help or to admit he didn't know how to. He left, having placed the blame squarely on me.

A few days later I looked at the setup and decided that something didn't look quite right and that switching a couple of the cables around might work. It did; voilà—a working TV, cable, and VCR setup. And I'm not a trained technician.

When something goes wrong or doesn't work, the first reaction seems to be, "Did you . . .?" that is, to avoid responsibility and shift the blame to someone, anyone, else. At work, if there is a mistake in a report it must be the fault of the assistant or the junior staff person, even though they are not the reviewers who sign off.

Even our political leaders refuse to admit their errors, no matter how obvious they are or how thoroughly they have been demonstrated. The question is, do the leaders set the tone for the rest of us, or do we choose and support them because they reflect the standards we embrace?

To me, the ability to admit mistakes is courageous, while the inability to admit them is cowardly. It takes strength to face up to errors and their ramifications; it takes only stubbornness, arrogance, and bravado to deny culpability.

In our world, though, a leader is "strong" when he or she clings to their own errors and prevarications, as though wishes were horses. People perceive them as having the "strength of their convictions"—no matter how flawed the convictions. Those who confess to mistakes and errors in judgment are seen as weak, tentative, and indecisive—even though they have been brave enough to face the people and the consequences, whether it's mere humiliation or a more serious outcome, such as a trial and potential conviction and sentence.

In everyday life, we blame someone else for our failings; if children don't learn, it's the teacher's fault; if there's a mistake on the printed page, it's the printer's fault; if a team performs badly, it's the weather or travel. So it's not surprising that we vote for leaders who are just like us, fallible yet self-righteous and frightened of punishment. When they do prove to be wrong beyond doubt, we abandon them like proverbial rats. It's not our fault for choosing them. How were we to know?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The population clock

For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder. —Paul McCartney

When my dad was born in 1913, there were about 97,225,000 Americans. In 1927, when he was 14, the world population reached 2 billion. Now, in 2005, the U.S. population is about 297,871,654; the world census is about 6,484,942,703. These population clocks will show you how fast these numbers are rising now. We had to invent computers, satellites, and the Internet simply to stay connected and to communicate.

To me, the world feels smaller and more crowded. Every weekday, someone looking out my north windows would see a long line of traffic, moving only in bits and spurts, between about 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. More people, more crowding, more strain on resources and infrastructure.

What affects me most on an emotional level, however, is the increasing scale of our endeavors—increasing in size, not in vision. Cities and suburbs sprawl further and further outward, taking over farmland like an out-of-control slime mold takes over a lawn. There are more towering skyscrapers, more massive office parks. High school buildings without windows that look more like prisons than like places that inspire curiosity and learning. Soulless McMansions, with spacious living rooms no one uses and entire bedrooms used as closets. Urban streets congested with so-called "mini"-vans and hulking SUVs.

Stores have become bigger and bigger, offering more and more stuff that is is both unnecessary and cheap. Walgreens, once a small local pharmacy, is a burgeoning chain. Walmart has achieved world domination not only of consumers (of the unnecessary and cheap) but of suppliers, too, not to mention the Chinese labor market. At the cold, uninviting, gray Sam's Club and its warehouse clones, you can buy copious quantities of toilet paper, huge chunks of cheese, and olive oil by the gallon.

Corporations are out of control. Friendly, familiar-sounding local brands like Marshall Field's have been sold off to conglomerates with generic names like Federated, General, Retail Brand Alliance, etc. Local bookstores, once small, cozy havens for bookish introverts, have been replaced by Borders and other national chains, as well as

All this bulk is emphasized even in the materials with which we build. Warm brick and wood have been replaced by concrete, steel, and glass. Even stone and marble, hard but warm in color, have lost their cachet with modern sensibilities.

I saw part of an interior design program in which burnished steel kitchen cabinets had been finished in an icy blue. The kitchen, which should be one of the coziest, warmest rooms in the house, resembled a luxury morgue for the wealthy. Yet this appears to be the latest and greatest in design—dehumanized scale and dehumanized appearance. This room looked more appropriate for conducting lab experiments than for sharing a cup of coffee or tea with a friend.

Clearly, a scale that is larger than life and a design that is colder than death are very popular for the moment. People are buying these buildings, homes, and cars; they're shopping at these stores. And they're admiring the newest designs. A man on the street was quoted as saying he was glad to see new concrete, steel, and glass towers; he disliked the traditional brick and wood. Other comments were similar.

There's nothing inherent in our natures that makes us gravitate toward the stupendous and cold, but what does? I wonder if all this ostentation in size, all this pretentious modernity and mass, is simply our effort to stand out, to raise ourselves above our 6+ billion fellow travelers, to be "bigger and better." With every new tower higher than its neighbors, with every new store more comprehensive than its fellows, with every new car larger and meaner looking than its highway companions, with every house more spacious than the ones around it, the result is a weird uniformity and blending in. All the rows of McMansions with SUVs parked in their driveways and garages, all the steel-and-glass office towers, and all the warehouse stores, all the 12-lane expressways inspire little more than a dull sensation of "standing out by fitting in." It's all a mass of cold gray.

As the population grows, shouldn't we preserve our individuality and the significance of the individual by returning to a human scale, a personal style?

Think big—think small. Most of all, think for yourself. Is that monotonous gray wall of office tower really "beautiful"?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Cynical marketing: Bratzpack

There's an organization for children that collects Christmas gifts for their charges. The organization provides the name, age, and gender of each child as a paper tree ornament; participants select their ornaments and buy two gifts for each child—one practical (hat, glove) and one fun (toy). There's no official spending limit, but participants are supposed to use common sense so one child doesn't receive something extravagant like a Game Boy in front of children who may have received stuffed animals, trucks, and dolls.

The person managing this program showed me a toy that, to me, could not be more appalling (and which she in good conscience chose not to send along with the rest). It was a doll named "Dana" from the "Bratzpack." "Bratz" comes in all ethnicities, but interestingly they all look exactly alike (clearly cast from the same mold); only the hair, eyes, skin tone, and makeup tints change to indicate ethnicity. So far, "Dana" sounds no worse than a cheap doll. But there's more.

"Dana" is, in fact, a cheap whore. Her makeup is the first clue, but it's the outfit that seals the deal. The halter top and platform shoes are just the beginning; they merely top off a skirt so mini that, were "Dana" anatomically correct (they do have navels), would reveal pubic hair. On the back of the box, her quote is: "Hey! My name is Dana! My friends call me 'Sugar Shoes' because when I step out I do it sweet!" Clearly, she's dressed to "step out."

Yes, "Dana" is decked out exactly like the working girls in certain districts, who lean into stopped cars to negotiate rates with the drivers.

This "doll," which had been donated for a 5-year-old, is recommended for 6-year-olds and up. I imagine that's based solely on parts small enough to swallow, not on appropriateness.

If you gave this trash to my (theoretical) 6-year-old, you'd never see her or me again.

While we were discussing the utter inappropriateness of "Dana," a third person came along who said "Bratz" dolls are hot (in the sales sense) and that some are programmed to talk—including to talk back to their mothers. "And mothers actually buy these things for their kids," she concluded.

I visited the "Bratz" Web site (I'll spare you the link) and noticed that there are even "Bratz" babies—which look exactly like the other dolls, just with shorter torsos and legs.

So people are buying their small children dolls that overtly represent urban prostitutes and sleazy second-rate rock stars and that are rude and smart-mouthed to boot? Who are these parents? Can we provide them with the latest in free and effective birth control before they breed again?

And who are the greedy bastards who developed and proposed marketing this garbage? What discussions went on during those meetings? "No, wait, the skirt's not short enough . . ." "The girls on the corner of X and Y do the black outline lipstick . . ." "That's it! The perfect slut for my little Ashley to cuddle with. We'll be rich!"

Not being a parent and not having friends with children nearby, I have no idea what kids are playing with these days, other than the obvious—computer games. My 44-year-old mind is in a time warp, where Barbies were the raciest toys we had, which we tortured by tearing off their heads and limbs, or by pushing them face down into the dirt. We had dolls that looked like babies or toddlers and that talked, cried, and even wet their diapers. I had one that was about my height, but she still looked like a child. We had Matchbox cars. We had trucks and model trains. We played tag, freeze tag, and redlight/greenlight. We slept with stuffed animals. The most realistic movie we'd ever seen was Charlotte's Web, which made us cry (but not give up ham or pork). When I see things like the "Bratz," I wonder how much the world has changed and why, whether it's for the better, and how much has passed me by.

What happened to giving wide-eyed innocent 5- or 6-year-old girls sweet, soft, comforting dolls like Raggedy Ann and Andy or little stuffed animals?

As for "Dana," I felt relieved that she was encased in plastic. Given her makeup, dress, and demeanor, who knows where that ridiculous mouth has been?

Afterthought: I looked up the correct spelling of Game Boy and clicked on a site where the first ad was for a "Bratz" Game Boy game. The world is officially over the top and beyond all hope.

Friday, December 9, 2005

What is a life worth?

Every time you look into the printed photographic eyes of someone who's been killed, are you seeing the trials of pregnancy and the pains of childbirth? The countless feedings plus clothing and diaper changes? The education, whether informal or formal; at home, at school or on the streets?

Beyond an act of love, passion, or lust (or all three), combined with intentional or thoughtlessness, it takes considerable effort to make a human being. And that effort can be destroyed in an instant, just as intentionally or thoughtlessly—an exploded vehicle in Iraq or a blown-up bus in London, a bullet ripping through an organ, a beating that ends in internal bleeding, an accidental blow to the head.

How does each of us determine what a life is worth? For most people, human life seems nearly sacred until our person, our family, or our property is threatened. A mother who never dreamed of killing might do so without thought if her child is endangered. A man might kill if he catches someone in the act of looting his home. Most of us will never face these circumstances, but we do have an idea of our priorities and an instinct for self-preservation.

How do we really feel when a stranger is killed? When soldiers are ambushed in action, it's sad and regrettable, but all too often they're just a face and a name, with perhaps a brief biography and some quotes. We don't have any personal attachment, and while parents may empathize with those of the fallen (and feel gratitude that it wasn't their child), and the same for girlfriends, boyfriends, brothers, sisters, spouses, it's nearly impossible to become emotionally invested beyond the superficial when it comes to most strangers (with well-publicized exceptions). Undoubtedly this is programmed into our psyches; no one could afford the energy it would take to grieve every loss as though it were personally meaningful. So our reaction tends to be, "I feel bad for the parents," "Doesn't he remind you of Steve Flynn over on Sixth Avenue?" or "What a shame."

Then there are those who invest their emotions in dead celebrities, in John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, John Lennon, Princess Diana. Years, decades, after the death, they write of their loss, sadness, and heartbreak as thought it were a deeply personal tragedy. Do such people value life? Or do the value the artificial association they have created with a person or an idea that is bigger than themselves? For such people, was it Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana who died? Or was it the idea that died, not just of beauty, but of fantasies of lives that never existed, of their own youth and memories that began to fade long ago? Is it the lives of these celebrities that they miss and mourn, or their own lives, doomed never to achieve the impossible fantasy that no one's life can?

Soon there will be more deaths in the headlines, and the cycle begins again. Very little changes. We spend billions trying to treat and cure disease because disease will affect us and every one we know; we hope that violence, in whatever form, does not.

Every day, though, the behavior of seemingly ordinary people reveals a combination of egotism and lack of empathy for lives that are not our own. I thought of this when another case of a child in joint custody of her divorced parents was mentioned. The girl supposedly hates her time with her father, who fought bitterly for joint custody, because he ignores her. She senses that she was an object in a power struggle. It is long since over, so she seems to hold no interest for her own father. I find myself wondering how I could look into the face of my child, a face that would surely resemble mine in some ways, and not feel enough love and compassion to show it in everything I do, to feel only cold indifference. Doesn't what he helped to give her—life—have any value to him? How can he not know or not care about the effect of his indifference on his own child?

In another case, the mother has one child with one man and two children with a second man. As a toddler, the first child was not welcome in his mother's home. He has spent most of his childhood living with an uncle and aunt. How can anyone value life so little that they don't want their own child living with them, that they prefer that someone else raise them even when they have the ability and the means? Does he understand why his mother doesn't want him and can foist him off on a relative like he is an unwanted item for which there is no room? What value will he place on life when he is older?

The same boy had a docile, affectionate cat. One day, the boy's half-sister, with an established reputation as a bully, decided to scare the cat while the boy was holding it. Already, she has learned her mother's valuation of her half-brother. Predictably, the startled cat panicked and clawed the boy badly. Rather than punishing the girl for her bullying behavior, the family decided that the life of the victimized cat was forfeit. What value does life have under such circumstances, when victims are victimized twice, when they are victimized permanently?

Children are life, animals are life, trees are life, just as we as stewards of the Earth are life. Those who kill, those who destroy—they are anti-life, like matter and anti-matter. For some, it is a socially accepted hobby or habit—the hunter, the fisherman. Soldiers must kill when ordered to. Butchers slaughter animals every day of their working lives on our behalf. For others, it's an accident, a temporary suspension of judgment, the proverbial crime of passion or anger or fear. Then there are the sociopaths, who kill compulsively, without empathy or compassion. Some value the life of some but not that of others; some value life but must destroy it, however regretfully. The sociopath doesn't understand the value of life, if it is not his own.

For those who die to nourish ours and to protect it, we should never fail to feel gratitude. For those who have lost their lives, we should stir our memories. For those who have lost a life that they created, we should feel the deepest of sorrow. And for those who have taken life for the vilest of reasons, what must we feel? Hate? Contempt? Loathing? Pity? Anguish? Pity and anguish that that person could destroy the only thing of value that has been granted to us, the only thing that has meaning? Life itself, without which there is nothing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Dream: Timespace

A dream in which time does and does not matter . . .

I went to my cousin's for lunch. While we were watching television, there was a commercial for a dentist. I was thinking that the wood paneling during one video clip shown as part of the commercial looked familiar. Then I realized it was a clip of my dad, my brother, and me in the trailer, on the sofa in the living room (it was similar to many photos that I have). The clip, which was dark, blurry, and old, made no sense in the commercial. I was trying to make a point to remember the name and location of the dentist, because I wanted to know how he obtained the clip and because I wanted him to stop using it without my permission, which I would never have given.

Suddenly, I became panicky that I had to get back to work; it was already late in the afternoon, and I had a sense that I was supposed to catch a 5:45 p.m. flight from Chicago to a client's. This was obviously an impossibility as I would need to fly back to Chicago. Then everyone seemed unconsciously to delay me, probably because I didn't really want to go. My cousin's daughter, who is usually standoffish, surprised me with a kiss on the mouth. Clearly I have been reading too much Colette.

Sunday, December 4, 2005

Dream: Speech, speech!

I was going to a reunion; it felt like it should be a high school reunion but could have been a college one. I had been asked to be a speaker. I was confused about the destination, thinking I'd passed it, and felt utterly lost, so I pulled the cord to stop the bus. The driver told me that it was between stops, but he let me off anyway.

At first the area was completely unfamiliar, but as I walked (seemingly upward) it became Promontory Point or an area like it. I wandered around and saw other people speaking, but they were standing in front of a small group informally. I thought I was to speak to the entire group in a more formal setting, and I couldn't find the person who had arranged it. Knowing that I could be asked to speak at any moment, I tried to adjust the belt on my dress. One time, it was the wrong color, while the next time I looked it was dirty underneath. At any rate, it wouldn't fasten properly.

Suddenly, the speaker arranger found me and I went to talk. There was no one sitting or standing to listen. I had not prepared a speech, but I talked to a random group coming and going about how I was in college and how college had changed me. I mentioned that my mother used to mistake me for Hervé Villechaize [laughter]. I discussed the majors I'd rejected, which also provoked laughter and consternation. I talked about the influence of a late professor over me; a few cheered like they knew him, so at this point this seemed to be a college reunion—but it felt like the people were from high school.

My speech and delivery were wonderful, but the crowd became amorphous. I didn't know if I was really supposed to be speaking at that time or in that place.

I found myself sitting next to three women, two of whom were Asian, who were interested at first but who soon drifted off as people do at parties, where no meaningful conversation can take place. Was I supposed to "work the crowd," delivering my speech in snippets here and there to whatever groups I found?

I felt panicky that I'd blown my opportunity (but I don't mean to talk before a gathering). I found myself sitting in another group, where everyone was smoking, including me. I threw the cigarette away in disgust.

A man who was with a group of royalty set up chairs in front of me, facing me. Was I supposed to speak?

Then there was a presentation about linguistics and the relatedness and variety of languages involving hands of different hues in a row, like performance art. Suddenly, I was in the midst of a few of them, observing them trying to find the correct translation of a particular phrase, but nothing we found made sense.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

Nothing personal

Someone commented once that I don't say anything personal or express excitement and other strong emotions in my journal. The latter is a challenge especially because nothing exciting has happened, and I can't think of anything to be emotional about that I'd want to talk about publicly.

I think it must be close to a year since my team and I went through an exercise to determine our individual work styles. Virtually everyone was a (theoretically) organizer extrovert of varying types, while I was an off-the-scale creative introvert. I'm not sure what the exercise proved, as how we interact has not changed. The only thing that changed for me is that my sense of alienation and isolation deepened. I feel a little like the Spock or Data characters on Star Trek who can never know what it is to be human.

Visually, it would have been humorous to an outsider to see a dozen people spread out over one half of a line, with one individual all the way at the other end.

And the funny thing is that I'm better at organizing than all the so-called "organizers."

I think of people who are leaders not only because they are charismatic, but because they have an exciting, appealing vision of something better. Martin Luther King, Jr. was such a leader. I wonder what I am, since I can be neither leader nor follower. Am I T. H. White's one wise man (The Book of Merlyn? Potentially I have a vision, but I don't want to see it because I don't know what to do with it. It's behind a symbolic door, along with a lot of emotions I don't want to experience. As long as I focus on the ordinary and mundane, the door to the room, with its vision, dreams, thoughts, and feelings, may stay safely secured.

I've been sick for almost a week. Just before I got sick, I had a week of dreams odd enough that I hated to wake up. Once I got sick, the dreams stopped, and now I am tired. Tired but alert. Then this morning I had a dream about an annual contest that usually pitted a very large, sleek, streamlined modern train against a much smaller, quaint forebear; they were supposed to be toy trains, but they were also large, nearly life-sized.

Behind the scenes I kept trying to arrange other trains, switches, etc., so they would always thwart the modern bully. One train was set at what was somehow a blind crossroads, with its nose buried in a mountain tunnel, so that the modern monster ended up slamming on its brakes and hitting it, but not doing much damage. The incident allowed the quaint train to escape. I was trying to minimize the damage to all the old trains, as they were unique and irreplaceable. I didn't not want to sacrifice any of them and spent a lot of time agonizing over what to do.

Someone else intervened on the modern train's behalf with what appeared to be a military train and possibly ships in a harbor using missile launchers. Fortunately, the little old train disappeared into the safety of the underground. At about that point, I started to look for a bathroom from which to do my planning, so it was time to wake up.

The old train took my emotions underground with it, where they are safe from me, and, more importantly, I am safe from them.

Friday, December 2, 2005


What makes a community? What keeps it together? What do the members have in common?

In the U.S., old towns and neighborhoods in cities were often settled by immigrants of the same country and/or ethnicity. My hometown of Hamburg, New York was primarily German and Polish. In Chicago, of course, there are Chinatown and Greektown, and entire neighborhoods, like towns, of Indians, Mexicans, Asians, etc. In these cases, the residents for the most part have a common language, history, and culture, and many have the same goals—American citizenship and prosperity.

There are also company towns where nearly everyone works for the same employer. When I was involved in a consulting project for Gateway Computer, nearly everyone I talked to in town either worked at Gateway, had a family member who did, or had a business patronized by Gateway employees. The connections here are somewhat more tenuous; while the success of nearly individual depends on the success of the company, and while there area always a lot of family relationships in any town of limited size and growth, the people themselves may not have that much else in common. The residents might include everyone from cleaning staff and security guards to engineers and executives, with different social values, economic standings, and religious beliefs. The community is built based on the company, not on the people.

Now, many have flocked to suburban and master-planned communities, where the attractions are people of the preferred ethnicity (more important than most people will admit), large houses that are increasing in value, good school and services like police and fire, plus attractions like dining and shopping. There may be some common desires and even values, but this type of community may consist of people who have lived in it their entire lives, people who have moved from the city, people who have moved from other suburbs, and even people who have moved from other parts of the country. They may share a national culture, but the local cultures from which they came may be very different. Maybe the town has always rolled up the sidewalks early in the evening, while new arrivals from urban areas are used to lots of excitement and noise late at night. In one case I know of, the local culture is largely centered on hunting and fishing, and new residents from out of state were surprised to see their neighbors in their backyards cleaning their guns and other equipment.

It seems to me that the concept of community is a natural one, while the construct is often not. People need to live in communities to share in services and goods, to form social connections, and provide one another with the safety (and sometimes risk) of numbers. That said, anyone with the means and the desire can live in a community, but no one needs to participate in it. If most of us don't participate in the community, or know our neighbors, is it a community, or is it just a conglomeration of dwellings?

When the U.S. was a fledgling nation, was there a greater sense of community? At a time when I may have lived miles from my nearest neighbor, with only the horse for distance transportation, would I have relied on him more, to help build my house and barn, plant and harvest my crops, cope with weather and natural disasters like droughts and tornadoes, and fend off enemies? I would have needed my neighbor, and he would have needed me.

Do I need my neighbor, whose house is within feet of mine, in the same way today? I might ask him to watch my house or my pets, plants, and mailbox while I'm away. His children might play with mine, but if they go to different schools they might be more likely to spend their time with their school friends. The only time we might have contact is at community association meetings, where our only exchange might be for one of us to complain about the condition of the other's lawn. There's not much sense of belonging to a greater whole or of real service to it, mainly of asserting one's rights and privileges.

The Wall Street Journal ran a feature about Dallas and the city's attempt to revitalize its business downtown. The story mentioned a national trend of people buying houses and condos downtown in large cities. Certainly this is true in Chicago, where downtown housing is booming (at boom prices). I wonder if some of the people making this move are seeking a sense of community, where they have a doorman or concierge who knows them by name. I wonder if they are people who want to be able to walk to the grocery and drugstore and encounter neighbors on the sidewalk rather than breeze by them in self-contained, climate-controlled SUVs. Are they pioneers of a sort—people willing to give up the known for the unknown and unfamiliar?

It's an interesting experiment, and it's natural to wonder how long it will last. Will these pioneers develop true urban communities, where the people are as important as the trappings? The kind of community Colette writes about in the Claudine novels, where people of disparate backgrounds but similar socioeconomic status pay visits and gather for one another's "at home days"? What will people find to be the downside—the lack of personal, open, and natural space? Isolation from friends who have not made the move? Lack of neighborhood recreational opportunities for children? Lack of convenient schools? Lack of malls and familiar stores?

Is this a reaction to "cocooning," when we rented movies and ordered food in, staying home and avoiding our community?

Is it a fad or a trend?

Are we waking up to the sense of community that we may have lost with the advent of the car and suburbia?

For how long?

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Medieval minds, modern technology

A world in which government officials issue e-mail statements about the hanging of a man is strange and surreal.