I was on my Town Lake run recently, about 50 feet behind another guy, and as we headed down toward Barton Springs, a trio of twenty-something women decided to cross to the other side of the path just as this guy was passing them. He had to squeeze in between two of them to get by, and he said something to them as he passed. I’m not sure what he said, but as I then passed the trio, one of them muttered something like “He could have just gone around us.”
I bit my tongue, as my impulse was to let them know that they had been rude to block the very obvious path he was following. But it occurred to me that they hadn’t been intentionally rude— in that moment, they simply had no awareness of anyone but themselves. And if I could point to one characteristic of early 21st century American culture that I find most discouraging, it would be this one.
“Rugged individualism”. It’s certainly played a significant role in our history, for better and for worse. Being willing to go out on one’s own and take chances has surely led to many advances and no doubt increases the level of creativity in our culture; at the same time, it has also led to a lack of awareness of our impact on others– I’m sure American Indians could speak passionately to this. However, there are more subtle impacts that result from this lack of awareness of (and often outright disregard for) how others are impacted. Some examples:
Building cheap structures that aren’t designed to last, leaving blight and eyesore behind.
Buying large, gas-guzzling vehicles that pump carbon into the atmosphere without actually needing the specific functionality or capacity offered by these vehicles.
Voting against public services that benefit many, but not oneself (at least not directly). One example would be people without children who don’t want to support public education, despite the obvious benefit of an educated, capable populace to all of us.
Going back to the hiking trail example: walking three or four abreast on the narrow parts of the trail, forcing those passing you into the path of oncoming walkers and runners.
Even something as seemingly innocuous as cruising in the passing lane at a speed that blocks drivers who want to travel faster, disrupting the smooth flow of traffic.
Even though many of us experience frustration when we’re on the receiving end of this kind of disregard, we still continue to engage in these behaviors. What many don’t seem to understand is that the right to “do our thing” should be tempered to the degree to which our actions interfere with our neighbor’s right to do his or her thing.
Clearly there’s no way to legislate or enforce the development of greater awareness of our impact on others. This can only come from self-reflection, and if we happen to be mothers or fathers, making an effort to raise this awareness in our children.
I think a different quote from the same article gets more to the heart of the issue: “They wanted to go direct, which means no sales force. That’s cutting out a lot of people. No way that’s gonna fly.”
No question, this kind of disruption has a negative impact on groups of people who have made their living as facilitators between producer and consumer, but it’s inevitable. Few people think twice these days about buying merchandise online, but lots of people have been losing jobs in warehouses and in retail as this trend has accelerated.
The amount of value a dealer adds to the car purchasing experience has been shrinking; if a given manufacturer wishes to continue with the dealer model, so be it, but there’s no reason a retailer like Tesla shouldn’t be able to sell direct to consumers.
Disruption is a byproduct of any kind of change, and provided there aren’t severe environmental and health impacts, fighting changes that make it easier for people to get goods and services more conveniently and at lower cost is both an abuse of power and futile.
There are similar forces at work in the world of American healthcare. For now, entrenched interests in the insurance industry have ensured that a variety of middlemen continue to take their cut, with little added value; however, with every chart showing how much more Americans pay per capita for healthcare than any other country, people are beginning to question why Americans get so little for their healthcare dollar.
Single payer will come— the writing’s on the wall, and so those who skim off the top are in a race to plunder as much as they can before the inevitable. In the meantime, you and I will continue to give the middlemen our money for nothing, just as we do when we buy a car.
I was standing in line at CVS, when a youngish, tattooed skater burst into the store, declaiming conspiracies as he stalked around. He was clearly in the grip of psychosis, and I caught bits of proclaiming the god-law on top of the Texas capitol and refusing to submit to the demands of various authorities, both earthly and supernatural. I confess I was a bit concerned as he careened about, but was able to make my purchase, and I noticed that he had selected an Odwalla juice of some sort as I walked out the door.
I got back into my car, and as he passed in front of my windshield with his juice on the way to who knows where, my playlist resumed to the declamations of Bob Dylan singing “It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)”, and in that moment, I realized what a paper-thin and probably arbitrary line it is that separates visionaries from madmen.
[“Rambling Lips Dylan” is cribbed from “Rambling Lips X”, the name Jon Handelsman gave to a well-known schizophrenic man who roamed Ann Arbor in the '80s.]
For years, Austin has had the reputation of being a bicycle-friendly town, but for those of us who have lived here for 15-20 years or more, hearing or seeing this in magazines like 'Bicycling' has always been confusing. Yes, there are oodles of mountain bike trails, and yes, Lance Armstrong made his name here; however, if you attempted to bicycle in and around the city on streets and roads, you literally placed your life on the line. Not only were there virtually no bike lanes, but it was legal to park a car in those that did exist. And the newspaper regularly ran articles about drivers who intentionally clipped bicyclists because they felt that they were infringing on the god-given rights of Texans to drive their cars, trucks, and SUVs with no impediment. This is not an exaggeration!
However, in the last 2-3 years, I've begun to see more and more dedicated bike lanes appearing on major streets throughout the city. There are even pedestrian crossing lights on major thoroughfares, including one that allows folks to cross from one side of Zilker Park to the other– no more embarrassing scenes of families gathering at the side of Barton Springs Rd, and then making a mad dash across, with cars zooming by from both directions!
I don't have any concrete evidence that Austin drivers have moderated their hostility toward bicyclists and pedestrians, but I have to believe that over time, this, too, will change. Thanks are due the folks who have pushed for these changes– it appeared to be a Quixotic errand for many years, but the fruits of this quest are finally beginning to appear. As Austin continues to grow like wildfire, the hopes for a livable city rest on this continuing evolution.
I've spent the last 20 years cajoling, promising, telling myself that I would get back into recording my songs and music, and I haven't done jack. Well, not exactly nothing– there have been some recordings… pretty halfhearted. Anyway, point is, I think I finally understand that I need to take some baby steps, so I've decided to just start laying the fuckers down: fragments, shards, snippets, whatever. And I'm gonna call them Very Small Songs.
Earlier this year, I visited my sister-in-law and her family in Cambridge on my way home from Cork, Ireland, and she sent Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists along to my wife. After about 10-15 years of on and off again engagement with several religious traditions (Quakerism and Zen Buddhism primarily), I think I’ve finally come to grips with the fact that I don’t have faith in any kind of external force or intelligence beyond what one might call natural laws; in essence, I’ve decided I’m just not gonna fight it any longer.
I think that what has attracted me to religious programs has been some of the community aspects that de Botton describes (oh, and of course, the promise of some existence beyond our brief corporeal lives). But my involvement has always felt forced and illegitimate, and I’m no longer willing to entertain the contradictions that permeate organized religion. I think I’m done.