Visions of abundance and beauty

Fleetingly at first, like gossamer visions, a glimpse of the future has passed before me in the last year or two, come quickly and vanished.  Last fall, one specific event seemed to bring this vision powerfully to life, only to vanish again into the shadows like all the rest.  Since then, the vision has been put away, dismissed or held down as the more pressing and unpleasant present is dealt with.  But then again, one flash has passed again in and out of my frontal cortex, a vision that at once must be recorded so as not to be lost.  It is still immature, this idea, this dream of a future of abundance and beauty, a sort of naive hope perhaps, but like many dreams it could be reality, or one version of reality, if it gets some kind of consideration by more than one person.  Therefore you, the reader, get this vision presented to you for your thoughts as well.

Having traveled overseas, and witnessed street scenes in cities that would be sniffed at as “third world”, or more politely, Non-OECD countries, it is striking the contrast between street scenes back here in America.  Here we have antiseptic, denuded sidewalks with a desultory wisp of pedestrian activity, hurried and introverted people busy with their handhelds rushing from car to aisle 12 to cashier and then back to the car.  Or perhaps we have a few places where sidewalk cafes have customers sitting out, enjoying the outdoors, and we think this is wonderful street life.  But it is nothing, I tell you, nothing compared to the compressed, active street scenes in places like Taipei and Tunis and Bangkok and Tokyo and many other places.  In these cities there are streets that are like the inside of car engines:  tight little spaces, high-pressure and dense traffic of people jostling each other, shops and businesses with merchants in voluble exchange with customers, themselves a step off of a narrow pathway carved in between the tight stalls, themselves squeezed into narrow streets that wind their way through the city.  People almost touch – but they don’t – and services and merchandise are immediate and visible.  The smells of people – the leather, their breath, the smell of their hair, mix with the pungent street food and the drinks and the smokes.  Eyes are up close:  you can see into people’s eyes a little more clearly when closer, except when they do not meet your own gaze.  Which is a choice.

For this slightly deranged lover of cities, this vision seems ripe to be here.  Yes, here in America.  A souk, I beg of you, a market, a street scene.  Someplace with intensity and immediacy of purpose.  I first started thinking of this back in the beginning, when I was starting to formulate my writing project about cities, and this vision was sort of a hopeful thing that I wondered if I might find somewhere in the great state of Florida.  Alas, this is an elusive dream, one that has not become reality, not even on fabled Calle Ocho.

Yet one can approach the edge of this vision there, and even more closely view it as if from through mists in nearby Coconut Grove.  The Grove, however, is too plastic and urbane.  Yes, urbane with an “e”, that killer of urban, that one little letter signifying the self-involved, self-absorbed capitalist consumer who drives and parks, gets out of his late-model car and treads the sidewalk for a brief block or two before settling in at a restaurant and getting served by a servile server.  This, my friends, is a sort of commercial for the real show, but it should not be mistaken, not for a minute, for the real show itself.  It is a hollow rehearsal.

No, the vision is not that of self-satisfied middle class consumers going out and ordering food at restaurant tables, perusing gift shops and parking (not too far away).  Instead, this vision is of a scene where producers and consumers are more equal.  It is a scene where the lines are blurred and relaxed; there is some slack in the system that allows for a real creativity to build and another order of magnitude, an in

When did we fall in love?

As we plunge into the fourteenth year of the new millennium, the fruit-basket-upset of the recession seems to be slowly resolving itself into several clear trajectories.  It is as if America, for all of its confused and contradictory yawping, collectively went through a very difficult time – together, it should be noted – and now sits, a little older and worse for the wear.  The recession might just be a coming-of-age experience for this country, one that has changed it.  In some ways, America is less than before, worn down a little by the harrowing experience, and in other ways, it is more than before – warier, a bit more awakened, perhaps.   Awakened and somehow head-over-heels in love with regulation.

Every recession seems to coincide with an increase in laws and codes.  Back in the 1989-91 recession, the Americans with Disabilities Act dramatically increased our regulatory environment.  At the time, it was considered for the better, because it removed one significantly disadvantaged segment of the population from the list of many.  It was enacted under George Bush – a Republican – and thus regulation can be seen as a deeper phenomenon than mere surface partisanship.

Emerging from an awful recession, we seem to be in a state of awakening.  Things that we overlooked before are getting closer scrutiny.  We have thrown off a lot of excess baggage to lighten our load – we’ve lost newspapers, bookstores, paper maps, and a whole host of other detritus of the twentieth century.  We’ve sworn off retail shopping, for example, preferring online and shipping charges to the dreary mess of traffic faced by going to the mall.  But has something else changed, something deeper, or is all this just a series of surface choices?  There seems to be a collective awareness that something is slightly different.  We live in a much denser population on the face of this country than we did once before, and this population – only incrementally bigger across the last several years – seems to be suddenly a lot more pushy, in-your-face, and everywhere making things more congested and crowded where we want to be.  This perception of a population increase may, in fact, be one of the drivers behind much of the discontent voiced in America today.

Regulation’s fundamental reason is to give people some guardrails, so we can all get along and keep our social structure in check.  We have laws about property and crime, and these haven’t changed all that much.  What has changed, however, is the increasingly tight lacing on the straitjacket around individual freedom.  Think of a plaza which has a few people in it – they can dance, do cartwheels, box each other, do whatever they want, and relatively few people are at risk.  Add a few more, and you may want to ban boxing to keep the emergency room clear.  Add more, and you may want to take cartwheels off the list as well.  Add a few more, and there isn’t much dance floor left.

For those who still want to box, the plaza just isn’t the place.  They may argue that they have a fundamental right to tie on gloves and whack at each other, and the percentage of population who likes this may have stayed the same.  A percentage, say 10% of a few people, may be accomodated in a plaza, but it is a fixed size.  10% of a lot of people is a bigger number, and the plaza hasn’t gotten any bigger.  The absolute number of boxers has risen, and plazagoers are closer together, so more people are going to get hurt.  So boxing gets banned.

The trouble is that regulation is mostly not used in this fashion, to protect people from harm.  Instead, the regulators got a good scare during the recession, because much regulated activity diminshed or stopped.  Regulators with nothing to regulate simply found new things to latch onto.  As a chreod, or fated pathway, it doesn’t really matter what is regulated.  What matters instead is that regulation as an activity lives on.

This has caused us to reach the point of absurdity in many arenas.  Here in Orlando one isolated example illustrates the point.  A building sat empty for many years, deteriorating and causing neighborhood blight.  Finally, the bank that owned it sold it off to a new owner, who wanted to reinhabit the building.  Built in the 1950s, it needed some modernization in order to re-open.

If the building owner had kept its use the same – a church school – then it could have re-opened.  The trouble is, in our highly mobile society, a church school simply doesn’t fit that particular location anymore.   Over the years the neighborhood changed.  Children are less numerous and the street became more retail oriented.  So the building, perhaps inevitably, evolved to go with the flow and become a retail use.

This is when regulation kicked in.  In order to change its use, the building had to be so thoroughly overhauled that the owner could have built 3 new ones for the cost of renovating the old.  One obstacle after the other had to be dealt with because of this use change.  Most owners would have passed on the deal, and let the building’s value dwindle to nothing.  This owner, however, stands out as an interesting case because he chose the harder path.

Regulation, triggered in this case because of a change of use, employed numerous government employees.  Lucky for them that an owner, who is not even a citizen of their city, stuck to it and kept them busy.  Most owners in their city (Orlando) have passed on this promise to help them out, and the city is increasingly riddled with abandoned structures that will ultimately need demolition.

This is a horrendous waste of energy, materials, and people-power.  Regulation, by banning the old and only allowing the new, has crossed into a boundary where the government is now acting as a tool of capitalism.  Used to be, we could choose to live in the old, to shop and to work in the antiquated and unmodern.  We could forego the higher standard of Class A space, we could spend time in places that are not air conditioned, and we could occupy spaces that were built to previous standards.  That era, however, seems to be vanishing in favor of a new world.

C0mparisons to software upgrades are frequently made.  Regulations, of course, have to be continually upgraded, and requirements increased, in a kind of inevitable juggernaut towards the ultimate goal, whatever that is.  Regulations seem to be so deeply entrenched that there are no parts of society that seem untouched.  Banks love them, because they drive up costs and therefore the money that banks lend to people is more.  Insurance companies love them, because they theoretically reduce risk.  Here in Orlando, a growth-oriented economy, the government sector loves them because it gives the government the illusion that quality, property values, and standards of living are preserved.  And the private sector generally loves regulation, because it creates a differentiating factor.  A newer product, manufactured to higher standards, is always easier to sell – and a little more expensive – than someone else’s older product.

When did we fall in love with this?  Is the love being requited?  Are we getting indeed a better life out of all of this regulation?  Or do we, perhaps, feel the existential diminishment of an over-regulated society, and are increasingly suspicious that the wrong things are being regulated, and that our quality of life and our social development is actually degrading, even though more regulation seems to be happening all the time?  Innocent people in this plaza seem to be increasingly laced up tight, or hauled off, while genuinely dangerous people are left to depredate the rest of the population.

It is an interesting problem, and one that won’t go away soon.  For those witnessing this time period, it seems that we live in a very strange world.  The climate is strange, the economy is strange, our politics are strange, and our culture is strange to us.  We can only provide the most basic grounding of truth and love for our children, and hope that they can sort it all out.

Book Review – Replacement Children by Rick Maloy

After the ball dropped I finished “Replacement Children,” Rick Maloy’s second novel. In this story, Charlie Wood, a trailer-park livin’ and barely employed ex-marine, gets hired as a driver for a wealthy widow to take her to her youngest son’s funeral in Key West. At the funeral he gets entangled in her children’s rather vicious sibling rivalry, brings her home, and then unwittingly draws his wife, Desiree, into the lives of the wealthy family. The tension between the affluent and the poor of the South mounts as the children try to extricate them to get at their mother’s money, and Charlie and his wife are increasingly pressured in this strange world of wealth and privilege, snared into the title’s role. The pressure gradually builds until a weak point shows itself in both the wealthy world as well as the working-class world when they collide.

After the ball dropped I finished “Replacement Children,” Rick Maloy’s second novel.  In this story, Charlie Wood, a trailer-park livin’ and barely employed ex-marine, gets hired as a driver for a wealthy widow to take her to her youngest son’s funeral in Key West.  At the funeral he gets entangled in her children’s rather vicious sibling rivalry, brings her home, and then unwittingly draws his wife, Desiree, into the lives of the wealthy family.  The tension between the affluent and the poor of the South mounts as the children try to extricate them to get at their mother’s money, and Charlie and his wife are increasingly pressured in this strange world of wealth and privilege, snared into the title’s role.  The pressure gradually builds until a weak point shows itself in both the wealthy world as well as the working-class world when they collide.

The characters are well developed and it has a good descriptive flow.  Some characters are a little stereotypical, and the working-class world is painted in vivid, but conventional detail, while the privileged world is sketched out, with a few odd motivations and plot twists leaving the reader to think “that’s how the rich live,” Gatsby-style.  The storyline builds with the main character developing tension between being a good person/lack of emotion.  That was what kept it interesting.
A couple of places the story seems a little contrived, but no more so than Carl Hiassen’s stories.  A woman would be unlikely to go into a wild, windmilling fit in a car, and I haven’t seen anyone yet get a karate-chop from a dentist in a hotel lobby.  Except that Maloy’s writing is a little above Hiassen’s in terms of wanting to make a plot come together and resolve itself.  There were a few things I skipped over but not too much.  I find reading novels that there are a lot of pages I just skip over.  Elmore Jame’s famous advice to authors was to “leave out the stuff that readers usually skip over.”  Maloy seems to have taken note.
What made it good, for me anyway, was that it had a level of specificity and intensity that worked.  His care in making a good story is obvious.  About 1/3 the way through, the ending seemed to be foreshadowed a little too strongly, and made me almost put it down.  I kept going though, and am glad that I did.
The character Desiree was what kept me going, not necessarily the main character Charlie.  He seemed almost a Watson to her Sherlock in a way – a vehicle to move her along towards her ending.  but then the ending was very different than expected.  Maloy seemed to leave the actual facts vague and let the reader decide exactly what happened in his trailer.  This is a postmodern sensibility, I think, to give the reader a chance to make his own closure instead of closing it for him, like inserting a report or having Charlie go investigate the trailer himself and find some kind of definitive clue that only he could correctly interpret.  It suits our uncertain times perhaps to have even our fiction be uncertain.
As a rare nonfiction reader, I have read two stories recently – “The Bridge” by Ivo Andric and “Replacement Children.”  Andric’s novel of Bosnia’s small-town life spanning centuries is a contrast in that it is sweeping, almost epic, yet it zooms into very great detail.  Andric uses this to offer some wise and profound insights into humanity, comments that transcend its place and time.   “Replacement Children” is sort of the opposite, in a way – it follows a specific story across a short span of time and is written to suggest there is no way to have any insight into humanity at all, that in fact we are all just self-interested animals, in a way, with no definite trajectory whatsoever.