Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk

Desire lines. Palm readers ought to study for those, because as far as I can tell, what one wants (and I mean really wants -- yearning, not craving here) defines a life far more than how long that life is.

Fight Club is case-in-point. An unimaginable number of men across the United States go from beating the teeth out of each other in cement bar basements to forming commando terror squads. This is not behavioral progression we see every day in our neighborhoods. How are we, the readers, supposed to believe it, even within the confines of a novel?

I reason that these fight clubbers must have a reason for their actions. That is, they must have a desire line needing stretched taut. The fight clubs -- and the chances to belong and to alter this humdrum world -- are the nibble at the end of the line. The promise of a catch. Fish to fill a needy belly.

Sometimes, an author can forget that EVERYONE wants SOMETHING. And I mean EVERYONE. The dog in your neighbor's yard wants food, or attention, or to protect her master. The odds are, the humans in your life (and in your stories, if you're one of us stricken with writer's disease) have needs and desires not much more complicated than your neighbor's dog. Food. Shelter. Sex. Love. Attention.

This reasoning started to satisfy my puzzling mind. But, I countered myself, what are the odds that untold hundreds, uncounted thousands, of men would have the same need, filled in the same way? How can I believe such nonsense? Implausible, Palahniuk! Not buying it.

Then I looked around. Groupthink, politics, media -- call it what you will, the mass effect of filling a single void is frequent as farts in an unsupervised Boy Scout camp. (Truly frightening is when that void is created in order to be filled.) What is the Tea Party but a set of insecurities and fears being filled? What is Duck Dynasty but... something I cannot even begin to understand, yet something that apparently fills some perceived need in America today?

Fight Club unsettles readers not because its unstoppable cult is plausible, but because that exact kind of control is exerted over regular citizens every damn day. Some people resist inclusion in these groups, and others flock to them. Resisting is difficult work, though; it wears down willpower, each conscious effort sapping some store of decision-making ability. Eventually, our higher wants worn to little nubbins, we resort to our more primal needs. Protection. Attention. Survival. And we allow others to fill those voids for us.

Play out that scenario to its logical conclusion, and in the end every single one of us will wear down. No one has infinite willpower. That means any human society may never circumvent groupthink entirely, no matter how strongly we may desire to.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bicycle Diaries, by David Byrne

Read the book, support the blog!

You could say that I've become a bit of a bicycling advocate. The two-wheeled angle certainly stems from my own recent exposures to narrow shoulders and obdurate drivers, but really, pushing for a cycling-friendly environment has much more to do with sustainability and democracy.

Democracy, because pedestrian areas are by definition available to everyone and anyone in a way that roads and streets are not. Sustainability, because folks interact with their urban environments more intimately on foot and on bike; as I wrote last week for the New Mexico Mercury, that interaction could lead to culturally active neighborhoods across a city like Albuquerque.

Some of the biggest obstacles to a vision of a truly pedestrian-friendly American city are, as Mercury commenter Margaret Randall puts it, "a) that developers care about something beside making money, and b) that zoning laws, investment, etc. be conceived of and implemented with quality of life in mind." Such obstacles are certainly daunting in a sprawled and largely corporatized city like Albuquerque.

However, among his many musings and interesting tidbits, David Byrne offers a glimpse of success. Near the end of Bicycle Diaries, Byrne discusses an urban planner named Jan Gehl.

Gehl, according to Byrne, "has successfully transformed Copenhagen into a pedestrian- and bike-friendly city. At least one-third of Copenhagen's workforce gets to work on bikes now! He says it will approach half soon."

In Albuquerque, most of the folks who would even think about a radical pedestrian conversion would feel that the city government and residents would never go along with it.

Byrne continues, "Gehl reveals that his proposals initially met with exactly that kind of opposition over there: the locals said, 'We Danes will never agree to this -- Danish people won't ride bikes...

"Previously, the area bordering this canal [shown in a photograph in the book] had been used for parking; cars would drive along it looking for parking slots. This lovely spot was, not too long ago, primarily an ugly parking lot and a thoroughfare. Now it's a destination. Cars are still allowed to drive here, but not park. And from that one small change the area exploded as a pleasant gathering place and even as a tourist destination. Expensive 'improvements' by the city weren't even necessary to allow this to happen. The customers and local businesses did the improvements -- putting out chairs and installing awnings -- though many of them initially complained that if people couldn't park in front of their establishments their businesses would suffer. That seems to be how Gehl works, making fairly small incremental changes over many years, here and there, that eventually transform the whole city and make it a more livable place...

"Enrique Peñalosa implemented a similar plan in Bogotá, as well as creating the longest pedestrian (and bike) street in the world -- twenty kilometers. He began by closing select streets on weekends, and then gradually, as businesses realized that this actually increased sales and improved the general mood, he added more days and closed more streets. It transformed the life of the city. Needless to say, it reduced the congestion as well. People came in contact with each other more often, went strolling, and enjoyed their city. Peñalosa had to fight an alternative plan that was already on the table -- a $600 million highway project that would have both destroyed large parts of the city and not solved the problem."

Small changes beget big changes. Neuroscience has revealed that making your bed each morning can build in your brain a sense of accomplishment and success that spills into other activities and your general sense of well-being. Imagine if we tried for small and foundational steps toward pedestrian well-being in every American city! The sorts of changes I propose in my article, and that other (and more knowledgeable) urban leaders  have already implemented in large cities, don't necessarily need the initial approval of profit-driven developers. They simply need a few people willing to take some harebrained baby steps.

UPDATE: The New Mexico Mercury asked to run this blog post under the "Voices" section as a follow-up to "Breaking the Cycle," the article I wrote for the site last week. I'm honored. Please visit the Mercury version here, and then check out the rest of the site while you're at it. These guys give intelligent discourse a classy face.