Thursday, January 15, 2009
Even How You Choose To Waste Time Matters

A few days after New Year's, I took a semi-illicit trip to Texas. Semi-illicit inasmuch as I had to lie to my employer to take it; having worked clear through the holidays, it was still forbidden to ask for time off to visit our neglected families back home until nearly February. In fact, a friend of mine had been essentially given an ultimatum to either quit her job or give up a five-day trip to see a close relative's newborn visiting from overseas. So, with that scenario in mind, when I got an opportunity to take a quick jaunt to Dallas for a twice-a-decade family reunion, I decided to just not tell my bosses about it at all and call in sick for a couple of days instead. (They don't read this blog, so there's not much danger of being found out here.)

The only point of telling you all that being, you know you've got a shitty job when doing things by the book actually makes it more likely that you'll end up losing your job.

Anyway, this is how I came to find myself in a hotel room in a far-removed suburb north of Dallas for a few days. Although I'd lived in Dallas for a couple of years as an adolescent, I found myself completely lost in what should have been at least vaguely familiar surroundings. Even driving around the neighborhood I used to live in, I couldn't recognize anything. I recognized the exact house we lived in, but if you'd dropped me a block in any direction I'd have been at a total loss. I told my mother, "maybe this is what it feels like to have Alzheimer's... I know I should remember this stuff, but I just don't."

To be fair, Dallas is an especially nondescript city outside of its inner core. Every intersection and neighborhood block looks pretty much like every other. Dallas is brown and scrubby, with few trees and the only variety in its architecture described by terms like "mid-century" and "ranch-style." It's a city built primarily for cars, with its widest vistas shaped by parking lot, and where even standard residential arteries are six lanes wide. So it's a typical latter-20th-century southern American city.

And there I was with no car. My mom had driven from Memphis, and she and my stepfather and I toured the old neighborhood(s) for the one full day we had together. But we were staying near my uncle's house in a newer outer suburban enclave, one of the recently-constructed bedroom communities that have grown up miles and miles outside the actual city. Our hotel was positioned on the edge of a massive outlet mall near the freeway, a ring of stores that had a circumference of a mile and a half or so (based on a lap of its perimeter I walked one day), filled in the middle by an enormous lake of concrete. It was a place constructed for people who weren't likely even going to walk from one store to another if it was more than a few doors away -- customers were clearly expected to drive from store to store within then mall itself. Which, it's worth pointing out, was probably a half mile across -- but the fact that any developer thought it was reasonable to construct a shopping center so wide across that the average consumer would be hard-pressed to walk across it, or at least wouldn't be inclined to bother, is getting to the heart of this post: without cars, most of America would be completely fucked. And I don't mean long-term, generationally fucked -- I mean immediate, instant, what-are-we-supposed-to-do-now? fucked.

Across the "street" from my hotel -- if by "street" you mean twelve-odd lanes of freeway traffic -- was a cluster of restaurants. Nothing spectacular, just the usual corporate chain steakhouses, nothing that would've normally been very interesting. But given that the only other place nearby was a Quizno's, the logistics of getting to them became a little more pertinent than it normally would've been. The problem was that even though these restaurants were no more than a quarter-mile away, walking to them was all but impossible. There were no sidewalks, no crosswalks, and a cluster of high-speed freeway ramps to navigate on foot. A pedestrian would've had to either make the choice to give up and Get Toasty yet again, or set off across a landscape that was ridiculously hostile. There had been apparently zero thought given to the idea that anyone from the hotel might want to walk to these restaurants -- and maybe reasonably enough, since anyone who actually made it to the hotel in the first place would've had to have gotten there in a car. We were miles and miles from anywhere you might've been able to get around on foot; the drive into Dallas proper was easily 25 miles one-way.

And the landscape was nothing but corporate, big box chains for everything. These were places like the "Corner Bakery Cafe" (of which I saw at least four in different places), designed to look like small-town Americana but on a scale big enough to be noticed from a car doing 80 mph on the freeway. The whole of Dallas seemed to be made up of things that wanted desperately to look like other things -- small, quaint, welcoming things -- but were in reality the absolute negation of those things. This was an economic model which assumed that people would be happy to drive forty, fifty, sixty miles in their cars to buy patio furniture or leather recliners or pool table accessories. It was treated as the most natural thing in the world, and it sort of freaked me out.

If the price of gas were to climb to, say, eight dollars a gallon, what would happen to these suburbs? It seems like a remote possibility at the moment, but it's not an unreasonable idea over the course of ten years. What if fuel became so expensive that driving was no longer a tenable day-to-day means of transportation? If you were stuck out in one of those "neighborhoods," how would you get by? Where would you work? Where would you get food? Where would your kids go to school? This isn't even like living in the country -- you're surrounded by infrastructure and consumption, but you can't gain access to any of it. I don't mean to raise the peak-oil issue (although obviously it's built in to all of these questions) -- my "what if" isn't about some Mad Max future where all the cars are gone, but just about what life would be like in a place like this if you didn't have a car. Without wheels and an engine, how could you ever live in outer-suburbia?

I grew up this way, and for much of my life I took it completely for granted. There was definitely a hint of reverse culture shock involved. My life in Portland is lived on foot, on public transportation, and on bicycle wheels -- the idea of traveling more than five or six miles for anything has become ridiculous. And that's exactly why I came here. There are adjustments that have to be made, but the benefits so vastly outweigh the costs that I have a little trouble imagining why so many people settle for far-flung McMansions orbiting real cities. Why create bogus facsimilies of places worth caring about, when the real places are still within reach? I understand the appeal of living in the country, but if you're not prepared to make the trade-offs necessary to do it -- and that means giving up most urban conveniences -- why not just go ahead and live in a city? And if you don't like the cities you live in, move to a new one -- or better yet, work to make the one you've got more the kind of city you'd like to live in.


Anyway... I don't make new year's resolutions, 'cause they're stupid and they strike me as nothing but a way to set yourself up for failure early on. But if there were something that I wanted to, y'know, casually work on during the coming year, I think it would be this:

I really want to improve the average quality of the information I spend my time on.

I don't watch much TV anymore, and I rarely miss it. There are a few things I like and still make some effort to see now and then --the Daily Show, a few select British shows, a few favorite programs. But as long as I have broadband, it's not an issue. The rest of TV's temptations I'm much better off without. What is reality TV but a sucking void for time, enthusiasm, and intellectual energy? And yet I know it's a void into which I can too easily be pulled, and on the day I die I won't really give a shit who got voted off the island or whatever the current pointless variant is. Seriously, this shit kills your soul and makes you stupid in the process.

But that doesn't mean I don't still waste as much time on trivial bullshit as the average American. Between this site and this one, I can dispose of an entire day if I'm not careful, and with absolutely no benefit of any kind to myself. There are occasional worthwhile things to be found on both of them, but the signal-to-pointless bullshit ratio is excrutiatingly high, and even the best material I've found on either isn't worth the time I lose. So that has to stop.

At the same time, I want to replace those sources with new, more beneficial ones. I've got my Arts and Letters Daily, my Harper's Monthly, my Lapham's Quarterly -- stuff that, if I spend an hour reading, I'll come away with some new ideas or at least not having completely wasted my time. Anyone know of anything else I should check out?

(Of course, I say this, but just two nights ago I spent good money to see two grown men dance around a stage in shiny gold bodysuits so tight one could clearly see their nipples, singing about diarrhea for ten straight minutes. But hey, life can't be all Ovid and Proust 24-7, right?)
6:52 PM ::
Amy :: permalink