In the here and now, time confuses me. It seems to creep by in the here-and-now, while the past flies in my memory.
A trip to Pennsylvania pushed this thought to my mind. There the back roads meander through well cultivated fields while tidy historic homes and moderate suburban housing developments break the monotony of greenery. If I recall, the Pennsylvania landscape, the environment, is the product of only about 300 years of man’s presence.
Then I remember I’m connected to five generations myself. My grandfather was born in 1897, my younger grandson in 2011. That’s more than a century, the equivalent of five sets of generations in this amount of time. So a relatively small number of generations separate me from the beginnings of contemporary civilization in this country. Time doesn’t just fly, it zooms.
The strange juxtaposition in my thoughts comes from thinking how I’ve missed my opportunity to gain information about my family.
I knew my father had lots of stories because he told us some of them. One frequent narration concerned his hanging on to backs of trucks to joy-ride when only three. What I don’t know, because I never asked, were details like: was he with a brother? Did his parents find out? Was he punished?. Most likely. I think perhaps he was very like my second grandson. Always ready to try something risky, always laughing with a full body guffaw. I remember my dad this way in my childhood but not after I grew up. Then he seemed gruff, even angry. After seven children, a divorce, the rebellions of those children, the failure of a business, he surely had enough reasons to be frustrated and angry. But why didn’t I ask more questions when he was still here? Now I never can capture these details or get to know him as a person, not a father. This is my first lesson learned too late in life.
Then I think about our country. Three hundred years ago, pristine waters and air, burgeoning plants and animal life crowded the continent. Of course if we’d halted any development at that stage, I wouldn’t be here. But comparing my idyllic view of the past with the crowded, frantic, even destructive landscape I see now, I shudder for our future.
In one area of Pennsylvania, a pipeline has been proposed to carry high-pressure natural gas. This development would go near lots of residents and businesses. According to a homeowner, there are no methods available to individuals or local government to question the proposal or insist on safeguards. Once the pipeline’s in place, like any other creation, it might be destroyed or explode, endangering locals.
This isn’t a fantasy. In Colorado, just last year a house explosion killed two. This was caused by odorless gas seeping from a cut-off underground pipeline into the house through French drains and a sump pit. The pipeline was too close and not regulated enough to prevent the accident and subsequent needless deaths. New legislation will, I hope, rectify the situation. Too little, too late.
Is this the case in Pennsylvania example, too? I don’t know. All I know is that some opportunities don’t reoccur. Over and over and over we’re told development and growth are “progress.” We’re told we must sacrifice landscape, native flora and fauna, even human safety for improvement. In less than 250 years, since the establishment of the U.S., we have managed to make human presence felt everywhere
Is continuing in this manner wise? Will this become another lesson learned too late in life?
I’ve always wished I possessed extrasensory perception. I was particularly keen to have telepathy or teleportation, to read people’s minds or instantaneously transport myself across miles. Alas, this was not to be, despite hours wasted focusing with all my might, eyes clenched closed, on the feat.
I recently realized, however, that I may have experienced precognitionall unaware. Because the incident happened years ago when I was a child, and fulfillment of its prediction didn’t occur until recently, I failed to recognize the episode for what it was.
When I was about thirteen, I had a particularly vivid dream. In it I was sitting in the driver’s seat of a car next to another person. We weren’t driving, not surprising since at the time I didn’t know how to. We could see through the windshield, however, and the sight amazed and terrified us. While inside the vehicle we couldn’t move, experiencing a paralysis, outside the world continued to function. In fact we were passing through time, years, and the landscape flashed by in fast-motion. We sat frozen as we saw empty prairies become layered with streets, then housing developments, then business buildings, finally skyscrapers reaching up to the heavens. A sense of horror, terror, seized me. More than anything, I wanted to break loose of my immobility to escape.
There was no resolution to the dream. I woke and retained the general impression for years. In fact it inspired in a convoluted way a still-to-be-published novel.
More than that, it laid the groundwork for a continuing nightmare in my mind, one that appears to be taking shape in my hometown and nearly everywhere across the nation. With what appears to be a great deal of pride, the Denver Post reports Denver’s City Council is set to approve planning for huge development smack in the middle of what now is an amusement park and a sports arena. A massive tsunami of thousands of people to live and work there, crowding our streets, putting pressure on urban design which even now resembles solid blocks of ugly, depressing architecture.
I fear in the not-too-distant future, the entire country will resemble the horrendous developments of southern California and the megalopolis of the East Coast. This is no way for humans to live, not if they wish to encourage decent relationships and positive lifestyles for all. Surely no one, not even the perpetrators of the rude, violent, threatening behavior that accompanies modern conditions, would willingly accept this horror. If you’ve ever been on a New York subway in rush hour or in front of the Colorado state capitol where a park has been laid waste by trash, human excrement, foul language and behavior, you know what I mean. In our mad rush to equate constant growth with “progress,” we’re laying waste to ourselves, our culture.
Somehow all those years ago, my unconscious must have received the information about the impending tragedy. So I obtained my goal of achieving precognition, to my sorrow.
I’ve spent years avoiding the suburbs. To me they represented what’s wrong with humanity. urban sprawl, consumerism, tawdry artificiality, conformity. Why then do I find myself at this advanced age living on the outskirts of a major city, struggling to rationalize my choice.
Relax. An advantage of maturity lies in perspective. You come to see the relative unimportance of nearly everything, such as the length of your hair or hemline, the gain or loss of weight, the size of your bank balance. None of these labels for sociological topics, which frequently lead to heated debates and too often to useless legislation, are life and death.
As we mellowed though, we discovered we were tired of mowing lawns, shoveling snow, and cleaning a huge house. So we decided to downsize.
Soon we were forced to face one fact, in addition to the deteriorating condition of our bodies: inner cities lack reasonably priced housing with the full range of architectural options. We wanted a smaller place with no yard and a higher density population. Hence our move to a townhouse. But the styles we favored were unattainable in the city core. We expanded our search to the periphery.
The area we chose isn’t in truth a suburb because it’s located in the city proper. But it feels like a suburb because the housing and businesses all are relatively new, many of the trees are short enough to allow a view of the sky, and most residents must commute elsewhere to their place of work. Used to be suburbs left housewives isolated for all the waking hours, creating their own sub-culture. Our suburb relies heavily on nannies and preschools to handle childcare, creating a different category of people. But that’s a story separate from this one.
I moved willingly, perhaps even eagerly. But not without some qualms. Perhaps I was remembering the song from the 60s, by Malvina Reynolds. “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same. . .And they’re all made out of ticky tacky, And they all look just the same.” Anathema to me in my counter-culture youth.
So I decided to create a pro and con list of traits for our new residence. We all work through a process similar to this whenever we make a change, weighing what we hope will be good versus the negatives.
• Good: Change stimulates you. You open yourself to different experiences and learn from them.
• Bad: Big-box stores abound. These are large retail establishments, part of a chain. I feel they tend to encourage a robotic approach to employment and thought, as well as lack variety in the goods they carry.
• Good: I no longer need to feel guilty for shopping at Wal-Mart since it’s close to me and the wisest environmental choice.
• Bad: Because housing has restrictions, we’re forbidden from leaving useables and recyclables in the alley, a practice that helped homeless and poor as well as residents in our old place.
• Good: I get to undertake a lifestyle exercised by the majority of Americans. As a writer I find every experience, every detail to be valuable in my craft.
• Bad: Nearly every restaurant and major store is part of a chain, franchises which I dislike on principle, that they are solely profit-driven and rob people of their individuality and humanity (yes, I’m biased).
• Good: our town house has ten times the number of light sockets of our historic residence. Life is easier, as is relaxation, work, cleaning, etc.
• Bad: Homogeny is the rule in types of businesses. Because this is an upper-middle class enclave, this means cheap restaurants don’t exist.
• Good: Our house is smaller and newer, making it easier and faster to clean.
• Bad: We’re too far out to get quickly to big institutions I love, like the art museum and central library. I know we’ll be using them less frequently.
• Good: Surprisingly, the air is cleaner and fresher than our central city location.
• Bad: Diversity in range of residents’ income is negligible, resulting in our isolation from low income and poor people, immigrants, and accurate proportions of ethnicities. It’s far easier to ignore points of view and social concerns if you don’t even see people who differ from you.
• Good: We have a much better view of sunrises and sunsets because buildings and trees are lower and don’t block the view.
The worst thing about our new situation, as well as suburbs in general: their existence is predicated on constant growth. Developers, politicians, economists, and the general public equate economic growth with quality of life. Untrue. In my city, as across the country, people scurry to start new businesses, expand housing, launch economic efforts. My hometown is now a clone of Southern California and the East Coast. Structures stretch from sidewalk to sidewalk, with almost no natural or green areas. Autos clog the streets and pollute the air, despite attempts to encourage mass transit.
How much is too much? Will we fail to be content until every square inch of inhabitable land is covered with works of man? Then what?
We must find another method for evaluating what we mean by “improvement,” “quality of life,” and “excellence.” I have no objection to seeking progress. But, please, don’t define that as constant growth.
We need to realize that social phenomena like my new place in the suburbs with green buildings or utopian farming communities on rooftops and in the middle of urban areas are stop-gap measures. All well and good for the meantime. But they’re comparable to recycling plastic shopping bags. Regardless of the pride we take in carefully toting these items to the market to use again, they’re less than the weight of an eyelash compared to the tons of waste storming down on us daily, the hordes of new humans pushed out of wombs annually, the even-more urgent cries of the poor and war-torn to have some safety and security.