Monday, February 20, 2017

This City, At This Time

We are down south, but not really in the South.
We are in the big city that is almost another country, but isn’t.
Many, perhaps most, people here speak another language, many languages.

I am high up in a high building.  I can sit and watch the planes come out of the clouds and coast to the airport.
I can watch the boats glide down the bay and wait for the drawbridge to open.
I see the sunset turn the windows blazing red on the tall towers across the bay.

Rows of forty and fifty story steel and glass towers line the water for miles.
All with balconies that almost no one is on, except for me, and a couple of people who sneak out to smoke.
Along the bay these towers are two, three, or four rows deep.
They are building more all over the city; higher ones to peek over the older ones. The noise of construction, the banging, the beeping, the grinding goes on from eight to five, everyday except Sunday.
The money for these buildings comes from all over the world.
The money finds a safe home here. It is safer, at least for now, than it is in Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Egypt, Turkey, Russia or China, or any country with oil.

Four blocks away from the bay the houses are one, two or three stories tall.
There are neighborhoods, some are going through transitions as the poor immigrants are being pushed away. Younger, more hopeful, but not yet prosperous people are moving in. 
These neighborhoods are vibrant, with night life going on late.
Cafes overflowing on the streets full of men, drinking and talking, making deals.
Designing businesses, designing designs, writing, playing music.
Flirting with women.

Women too, are now talking, drinking wine, designing, making deals, building businesses
Smiling as the men flirt with them.
The men and women who have come from the other cultures, live in these neighborhoods.  They dress beautifully, they present themselves to the world with a sense of presence and style.
This is a city.  The people have to have a style, a sense of themselves to be a part of it.
But this is not Brooklyn or Boston.  It is warm here.No big coats, sweaters, or flannel shirts,
Bodies are clearly on display, and they look good. Often very good. Certainly to an old man.

Walk around the corner and you have to step over a man sleeping on the sidewalk with his head resting on his backpack.  You won’t step on him because you can smell him a few feet before you see him.
If you pass a dark alley a young man with vacant eyes may step out and ask you, in a voice that you strain to hear, for a couple of dollars, just so he can survive.
He makes you feel uncomfortable and it’s very awkward, as you realize what it must take to ask like this. Even if he is just hustling he can’t be very good at it because he looks so lost and frail, but he still human.  So I give him a couple of dollars realizing that my wife just spend $15 on a glass of wine at the very good, hip restaurant in this transitional neighborhood, and our Uber will arrive in two more minutes to take us back to the tower that overlooks the bay.

In the building by the bay live hundreds of people from hundreds of places, speaking dozens of languages.  Riding the elevator early in the morning you ride down with people going to work. They are dressed in everything including sharp business suits, short dresses and very high heels, fine jeans and fancy tee-shirts, and hospital scrubs.  Everyone is cheerful, everyone is a little more than polite, they are friendly. Many know each other, and like being together.

Half an hour later the elevator is full of people with their dogs. Mostly women with very small dogs.  Many of the dogs are in their own strollers.  One women had four little white dogs in her stroller, all barking in slightly different tones

Later in the day, the old people are doing laps up and back in the pool, many using styrofoam floatations to help them along in their exercise programs.  Inside, in the elevator, as I got on with my three year-old grandson, a man joined us.  He stood about six-foot-five, with broad shoulders and a trim waist. His skin was the color of a frappuccino. He wore expensive business casual. His dreadlocks flowed down below his shoulders.  He spotted at my grandson, who immediately hid behind my legs. The man smiled and said, “Hey, is that Lightening McQueen on those shoes.”  The kid stepped out from behind my leg and spoke in his barely comprehensible english, “Yes, these shoes go very fast.”

Later, as the sun begins to set, it is Happy Hour all over the city. Since it is warm, or hot here, almost everything happens outside.  Families gather on the decks, in their backyards, or together in the neighborhood. They cook old recipes that have come from many different lands and have been modified by each generation that has been here. In the bars, cafes, restaurants, many that line the water ways, the people begin their evenings, sitting, conversing, and laughing. Many gather in family or ethnic groups, but also many in very diverse groups of people who work together, create together or just play together.  This is what helps the city grow, change, and evolve into whatever it needs to be. The world changes from here.

The TVs on the wall show mostly soccer games from Europe or Brazil. There are basketball games of the local team and local colleges.  There is also the news channel, but not the one they watch in Indiana.
On the news channel is our President, raving that he is treated unfairly. He is telling us he is making us safer, and he is the best that there ever was.
The people here who watch him are nervous.  They fear that he will deport their friends for no reason, to countries they have not been since they were six. He will deport these people to make the people living in Arkansas feel safe.  The people in Arkansas, twelve hundred miles away somehow feel threatened by the people in this neighborhood.  They feel that way because the President told them they were dangerous. None of these people look or act dangerous. Well, some of the women might be dangerous, but not in a way that would threaten Little Rock.

Away from the towers of steel, glass and balconies many of the neighborhoods are crumbling.  Many of the streets are full of potholes and with crumbling houses and littered lots.  They have found a way to distract people from the rubble by painting beautiful murals all over the city.

The schools struggle for funds, and face the huge task of having to educate people who speak so many languages, and have so many needs.  I do not live here so I don’t know the politics, but I’m sure it’s complex, and probably doesn’t work that well.

This is a very American city, but it is not typical, because everyone city is unique. This city will grow unless the sea continues to rise and covers it over.  What it will become is not yet clear.  Like every place around the world, it seems as if those who are already doing well will benefit the most.  Those a step away will strive toward to join in the prosperity, with a few making it. The rest will struggle in the shadows of the towers, living lives of increasing difficulty. This is the way it has been since cities first formed.  The castles were on the top of the hill. The garbage and the sewage flowed down. Why should it be different now?

Perhaps because we don’t need slaves and surfs or peasants any more to support the kings, dukes and earls.  We don’t even need kings, dukes and earls any more, although many people seem to pretend to royalty, certainly in their own mind.

Now we have robots. We have Artificial Intelligence, and sophisticated algorithms that can help run all our lives. We even have democracy, so that everyone can be a part of choosing our future.  
At least we made an attempt at it.  

Like this city, it still needs a lot of adjustments.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Like it or Not, It’s US!

sleepng in the Everglades by DJB

Look at the ‘gators, just sleeping in the sun.  It’s difficult for me to speculate about an alligator’s thoughts, because their ability to think is pretty limited.  But anthropomorphically, they look as if they are just relaxing in the sun, affectionately intertwined.  Their hearts are pure their bellies are full.

These ‘gators, and about a dozen of their colleagues, are laying in a muddy patch near a path through the Everglades National Park.  This is different than the park where the commercial tours run; the ones that also feature a guy who wrestles with alligators. The same tourist attraction they have run since 1955.  Looking over at these lizards it’s pretty clear that they have no interest in wrestling with anyone. They are living out their alligator life, in their protected alligator swamp, seemingly unconcerned about anything more than when to get up and find their next meal.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple any more, not even for them.  Although I doubt those two realize it, they are lucky to be here. In 1955, due in part to people who captured them and put them in shows, but more because people made them into shoes and pocketbooks, and even more  because people drained  the swamps for farms and housing developments, alligators  almost became extinct.  But the government stepped in and protected them and persevered great swaths of their habitat. By 1987, they were no longer endangered.

But now, we may be seeing a government that doesn’t care as much about spending a lot of money to protect swamps and mud holes.  Also, the water that comes into the swamps and mud holes maybe coming in too quickly and getting too deep, and is changing the composition of what kinds of creatures can live there.  In addition the water now contains a lot of strange, man-made chemicals that are toxic to many of the creatures that live in those swamps.

But really, although I do like alligators, as well as great blue herons, ospreys, and piping plovers, and also the southern toads and pig frogs, and every other fish, animal, bird, plant and bug in the Everglades, I care more about my grandchildren, and the kind of world in which they will be living.  I know that if the Everglades, and many of the other estuaries that provide the basic nourishment for the bottom of the food chain become greatly diminished, then everyone’s ability to to grow and find food, all the way up to the top of the chain becomes diminished.

But, really, this isn’t really about climate change.  What these two sleeping reptiles don’t seem to be thinking about is how much the lives of all of us, every creature on earth, have become so much more intertwined over the last hundred years.  What happens in the Everglades affects the lives of people and polar bears in Alaska.  What happens in Washington and Beijing can be a matter of life and death in Syria and Brazil. The way you treat your neighbor affects how I treat mine.  It has become almost impossible to live a life in isolation.  Everyone is connected, whether you want to be or not.

I realize, having walked out on a starry night deep in the desert in Arizona, or up in the mountains of Idaho, that it can feel as if the rest of the world is far away and that I am alone, independent  and self-dependent. But as soon as I want to eat, find water, or to talk to another human being, I will be affected by, and have an affect on, the rest of the world.  Not just the town, the country or the state that I’m in; the world.

This is true because the people of the world are all now in constant communication with each other.   People in Afghanistan were watching the Super Bowl (great game, wasn’t it). People in India were watching Lady GaGa( I didn’t like those shoulder pads). China holds billions of dollars of America’s debt. On my table in Massachusetts is coffee from Africa or Central America, fruit from South America, on dishes made in Portugal. People in those countries are eating bread made from American wheat, and driving American tractors across their farms. Many people are dependent on life-saving drugs made in America, Switzerland, Germany, Israel or India.

People are moving all across the world, some running from terrible conditions, others going to seek better educations and opportunities.  They are inter-marrying, and often their children are moving to new places. This isn’t going to stop, even if one country decides to build a wall.

Ideas are flowing even more quickly across the world. Some people are trying to finding ways we can all benefit from each other’s knowledge, and improve the lives of everyone, all across the globe.  Others a still pretty primitive, and are spreading ideas about how some people are different and should be driven away, or blown up.

To those who say that if everyone would just take care of themselves, and not hurt anyone else, that’s enough, I have to answer, sadly, that is no longer true.  We now still have to take care of ourselves, but also be aware of how we do it, and how it affects everyone else.  You can’t leave your garbage in the woods.  You can’t burn your garbage in the back yard. You can’t leave the water running all day.  You can’t drive a car that doesn’t run clean. You can’t text while driving that car. Burning down the rain forrest in Brazil affects the air quality in Russia.  Insider trading undermines the trust necessary to financial transactions.  Discriminatory housing practices create tensions and anger that can ruin a city. Not paying taxes undermines the fairness of a society. Corruption and unfairness make doing business much more difficult.  Everyone who feels cheated starts to cheat to protect themselves.

The fact that the rest of the world didn’t care that the Israelis and Palestinians never settled their differences for eighty years has affected almost everyone in the world. It has created the chaos and conflict through-out the region that has now affected almost every country in the world.

If people can’t support their families in Mississippi or Wisconsin it affects me here in Massachusetts, even though my kids have good jobs and my wife and I have just stopped working after forty years.  It affects us if kids in Kansas go to terrible schools and won’t be able to understand the world in which they are living, even if my grandchildren do.  Those Kansas kids will struggle and get angry and who knows who they will blame.

I would love to be able to relax and read a good mystery without feeling that something is going terribly wrong and I need to help fix it.  I would love to just post pictures of my grandchildren playing with ducks, or only spend time telling you how amazing Isiah Thomas has been for the Celtics. — which he has been and I do spend time talking about it. 

To all of you who spend part of the day meditating and being mindful.  And to the others who are reading about how to be wildly successful by focusing on your goals, that’s great, and go for it.  But be aware, that you can’t achieve your goal on your own, and also it’s worthless if the world you are living in is falling apart. If you just take care of yourself you may not notice that the freedoms of other people to just take care of themselves is slipping away. They are not sliding down a slippery slope, they are falling off a cliff, and once they go we all soon will follow.

We all have to be aware of what we are doing and how it affects other people, even, and perhaps especially, the ones who don’t know, who we think of as different from us. We are all in this together.  We will all live together in a better world, or we will all live like the poor people of Somalia, with constant conflict and chaos.  Those are our choices. The choices are becoming clearer each day.

So, as they say at the check-out counter: “Have a great day.”