Friday, July 31, 2009

our stars pause mid sentence

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”
-Audre Lorde

Walking through the grocery store I felt no connection to anyone, many other customers moved around me without a smile or anything. I looked into eyes and saw hurry and impatience. There were people who shared brief pleasentries, just not enough to leave me feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. I hope I dont think about this when I get back home. Oh well...

Its dangerous to realize that a slight at the hands of a stranger could change my behavior for an entire day and perhaps longer. (The bruise spreads from your voice to your ego to your memory.) Once I recognize a larger perspective to take I realize its important to set aside time to understand myself and the context of the embarassing and/or insulting event before it becomes a permanent fixture in my mind. Of course, I cannot ignore the moments of great victory and peace when my world makes sense.

Taking cues from Lorde's quote I imagine the most important thing to me. I think of it in my head. I ask myself questions. What is most important to me encompasses many things including something like what Lorde referred to: speaking to how I feel. So how do I do that? I thread my scattered thoughts using motivation as the lines in my coloring book let the reckless coloring push past the lines and out my mouth. But, as important as verbal self expression is
you can't exclude any other form of self-expression from minute to enormous. From a slight smile showing from the eyes of an old man holding a ripe cantalope fresh from California to a startled old woman forgetting the appropriate response to my exiting 'good night'. Regardless of extent of self-expression, I imagine all of it is equal to the fabled expressions engraved in history. Those big and small shows of humanity are all we collectively have to show for an evolution we have done together. I think sometimes we forget to think that we didn't arrive at this point alone despite our wishes for the contrary. We are forever linked to one another. Genes stretching unimaginable lengths, they weave there way through space and time and arrive at a family trying so hard to envision a majesty as powerful as their own story.
I am not exempt from this same naivete. I perform mundane tasks and don't appreciate the value. And it is not until someone can slow the stretching of time and space for you that we clearly see the value of the gestures of honesty. Regardless of form, honesty's good or bad side proves the paradox of our imbalanced lives: the good and bad existing side-by-side in the mind of our common dreams, our common god.
Such integrity and honesty is and always will be the foundation for any worthwhile exchange between two persons. Like a spark, it lights the world we built in the dark. Inevitably then such a trusting relationship becomes the foundation for converting the angry language of a mob into that of a people. What is the difference? A mob's core values are destructive confusion, whereas a people focus their energies to maintain chaotic peace at the midst of the group's orderly nature. That decisively trusting relationship uniting a mob into a people is truly the only saving grace for a species seemingly determined to break all guiding lights.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

You fear what you dont know. So, get to know me.

"A good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people's determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around. This balance is largely made up of small, sensitively managed details, practiced and accepted so casually that they are normally taken for granted," (Jacobs 59).

I have come back to Florida to live with my parents for only a short while, but during that time I have made a few observations about the city and neighborhood designs and the apparent social consequences. I am writing under the assumption that the social codes I have ignored here in Central Florida are phenomena of documented social theories (so I have intellectual basis). The theory espoused by Jane Jacobs copied above deals with the intricate social system that must balance itself if social harmony is to exist. Unfortunately, without long-term experience in my current environment I cannot appropriately appraise it, but I did get to thinking. Is it possible for a negative or disadvantageous harmony to form in an environment? Could social roles be filled, that while are necessary for the society to continue to function as it has been, do not positively contribute to the members of said society? I think such a set up would be called disfunctional. And I think that what I have been overlooking is the inevitability of harmony. I suppose then that what our communities need are harmonies that enrich and satisfy the members. Harmonies that are self-correcting and based on the true needs and desires of the members. Well, whether you are here in Central Florida or California or Nebraska, such cohesive communities are difficult to plan for and even harder to formally and informally maintain. Not only that but the difficulty to garner a well-rounded city neighborhood can only be outdone by the ease by which an imbalanced neighborhood becomes a reality. After all, a balance will be struck.

Furthermore, Jacobs goes on to address an underlying assumption made about the "ideal" neighborhood "turned inward on itself":
In a town of 5,000 or 10,000 population, if you go to Main street (analogous to the consolidated commercial facilities or community center for a planned neighborhood), you run into people you also know at work, or went to school with, or see at church... Within the limits of a town or village, the connections among its people keep crossing and recrossing and this can make workable and essentially cohesive communities. (115)

The fact that a rational person could become so entangled and confused because of the people influencing them is such a terrifyingly sobering thought. But at the same time those entanglements and endless webs of people can provide the social contact we all crave and rightfully need to disprove popular convictions that the public cannot be trusted, but instead must be feared.
'Togetherness' is a fittingly nauseating name for an old ideal in planning theory. This ideal is that if anything is shared among people, much should be shared... The requirement that much shall be shared drives city people apart.
When an area of a city lacks a sidewalk life, the people of the place must enlarge their private lives if they are to have anything approaching equivalent contact with their neighbors. They must settle for some form of 'togetherness,' in which more is shared with one another than in the life of the sidewalks, or else they must settle for lack of contact. (Jacobs 62)
This passage from The Death and Life of Great American Cities accurately describes the reality that balance must also exist between the members of a society and the systemic nature of the environment. Another phenomena of modern city populations Jacobs points out is one directly related to the creation or bearing of a local culture of

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The stronger the community, the stronger a nation

The importance of the community unit is becoming more and more recognized by all who view our world as the sum of its parts. With our environment facing peril and our economies proving to be unsustainable, we need strong communities to produce strong people because as we now see our survival depends on our ability to adapt, think, and act. But as this unpredictable equation plays itself out we cannot forget people exist as individual variables; parts of a collective variable: the human race.

The evidence of the effects of our race on our planet have mounted. Our advancing technologies create infinite avenues of possibilities no equation can measure, this phenomena might also be our greatest hurdle. An over-reliance on technology to save this planet ignores the fundamental catalyst or change-agent needed to moderate our cultures, politics, economies, and environment: us humans (the only variable we cannot measure). What we need now is the convergence of a culture focused around unity and advocacy, and a practical design of urban and rural settings prioritizing the balance of public and private space. The overwhelmingly public rural space needs more private landscaping work, while the extremely private urban space needs public works to mark informal meeting places.

The issue is founded on the recognition that a strong community is of mutual benefit to both the individual and group. The stronger the individual, the stronger the community and vice versa. Thus, we must work for the strength of our communities thereby strengthening our nation.

How do we calculate the strength of our communities? Or better yet, why should we? Because inevitably the direction of our nation is determined by the direction of the strongest communities. There exists an infrastructure or blueprint for strong and weak communities. What each of us must do is determine our roles in this calculus because after all humans are the variable on which the entire equation depends.

This equation plays itself out everyday and hinges on every mundane or dramatic moment of interaction between community members. Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, describes it as such:
In speaking about city sidewalk safety, I mentioned how necessary it is that there should be, in the brains behind the eyes on the street, an almost unconscious assumption of general street support when the chips are down--when a citizen has to choose, for instance, whether he will take responsibility, or abdicate it, in combating barbarism or protecting strangers. There is a short word for this assumption of support: trust. The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts...
The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level--most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone--is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of of personal or neighborhood need. The absence of this trust is a disaster to a city street. Its cultivation cannot be institutionalized. And above all, it implies no private commitments, (56).
Our communities have reached the point where our peers are anonymous. There rarely exist connections enough to establish communication let alone trust. What we all must understand and embrace is the requirement to develop a trusting relationship is an investment of time and care. The return for all those individuals looking for reciprocity is a community invested in you.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Competing dreams: Make our common dreams the American Dream

Wendell Berry in Fatal Harvest writes of the needs of our industrial economy. He begins, "One of the primary results -- and one of the primary needs -- of industrialism is the separation of people and places and products from their histories. To the extent that we participate in the industrial economy, we do not know the histories of our families or of our habitats or of our meals,"(7). The underlying assumption is that if and when people are reconnected with the culture of their stuff and themselves, they will reject the industrial model in favor of a more culturally relevant one. But this picture is too simple. We must recognize the source of our problems is both systemic and personal.

Our lives have become crowded and convoluted with competing ideologies of what exactly we want from our economies, our governments, our communities, and ourselves. We leave behind tolerance and rationality in favor of convenient results. When was the last time we worked together to make our lives better? When was the last time our leaders in education, government, business, etc. ever worked with the consumers, the lay people, the followers to develop their own opinions of leadership. We cannot deny that our lives are enriched and threatened by our connections to the systems surrounding us. What we must seek is balance.

Americans stand on the streets of chaotic cities. Built on the dreams of our past we are confronted everyday with what the American dream has developed into. What it has become is a city designed not by the imagination of you and your neighbor but by our reclusive leadership. Our streets are lined by tortured trees and shrubs and alien buildings. Our culture has become a pattern of irrational consumption and anonymity from history. And our problems are deeper than bank bailouts or healthcare reform. The inevitable problems and inevitable solutions lie with each one of us. Each and every system making up the American infrastructure is a mere tools for the operation of an agenda: growth and profit. Those same problems and solutions are a result of the inevitable conflict between the American dream of individual wealth and the common dreams of peace and security, and equal opportunity, and meaningful participation in our society. What each individual needs to do is understand our liberation our success our survival lies with the integration of individuals to communities dedicated to a better life not an easier life.

The redesign of our cities will not be easy. We will have to temper our reliance on the industrial perspective of standardization and instead invest in individual expression and culture as assets to the public instead of a threat to the private businesses. It is for each and every political, social, and economic stripe to realize industrialism isn't going anywhere but neither is ecological sustainability, agrarianism, socialism, etc. Fortunately for us though we are going somewhere.

Following our dreams above the dim of the city streets, we will reach our lofty dreams. By the embrace of the leader below you instead of by the death of the follower above you, we will build a new and better American reality. Borne upon the backs of our country's history, our American dream is an American future where we do not turn to fear in the times of crisis but our hearts and minds. What dreams may come.

"The strength we need will not come from the White House, but from every house in America."
-Jimmy Carter, 'Crisis of Confidence'

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Collection of Stories Shared and Treasured

I believe there is no place for irrationality in food: how do we produce a quantity of food enough to feed every hungry person there is, and yet temper our consumption so that we do not sacrifice sustainable production. Because we must not ever forget the stories of our stuff. Whether it be the story of our food or the story of our bodies, the histories of our lives and the lives of our stuff dictate our futures. This issue of blind consumption is bigger than food. Our blindness reaches into every corner of our economies and cultures. Unfortunately within our capitalist system there exists avenues to neglect the public for profiteering in the name of consumption and growth: a cover-up for irrationality. But what we all must ask ourselves is at what price do we seek growth? Is the price of our growth our habitat or our minds? If so, we must change our ways. If so, we must take back what we first sacrificed.

The issue at hand is bigger than food. The issue at hand is the recognition of culture as a critical factor in the evolution of our communities. Culture balances profit because of its ability to unite people around a common thread of remembrance. If you believe communities to be the interaction of a group of organisms within an environment we can say that our communities (whether nationally or locally) are for the most part growing weaker and weaker: we are not interacting as much or as meaningfully as we had in the past. Where I once saw investments of time and energy in other people I now see investments in individualism. The balance is lost and the result is a gluttony for immediate satisfaction. That is a cultural anomaly that can be witnessed whenever someone chooses profit over people. The solution? Human confrontation.

So, as much as food is a vital part of the puzzle of human culture and communities, the real change we need must be found in ourselves. Recognition that a mindless dependence on extreme industrialism and globalization to provide for us is unsustainable. We must change our ways, and the evidence is everywhere you look. Health care costs, war, and economies collapsing are all evidence of weak communities due to unsustainable growth.

The food system is just one other glimpse of the changing social conception of communities. The change back to localized, sustainable, organic farming proves people are dissatisfied with the current system that they are willing to vote with their forks and change the paradigm themselves. The change of diet and priorities in many parts of the country back to a concern for quality instead of quantity shows improvements in other portions of the food infrastructure: access to food alternatives, investment of time and energy in planning and preparing meals, commitment to a different kind of interaction around food, etc. The bottomline is we made sacrifices when we chose the industrial scale of production; we sacrificed culture. The cold rationality of fast-paced, efficient, production has it's negatives as well as positives and now we are feeling the stretch of gluttony. Just in time too.