Thursday, February 26, 2009


On my recent trip to Texas, when I was making the five-hour drive from San Antonio to the Dallas area, I was appalled by how much development there now is along the I-35 corridor, the main connector between these two metropolitan areas. There is very little unadul-terated land to be seen anymore. San Antonio now bleeds into New Braunfels which bleeds into San Marcos which bleeds into Austin which is indiscernible from its bedroom communities of Round Rock and Georgetown to the north. Urban sprawl in spades. There was a tiny stretch around the tiny town of Jarrell where you could see open loping land, with the occasional tree, a scattering of cows, that is the basic landscape of central Texas; but then you hit Belton/Temple/ Waco. There used to be countryside between those three small cities, but not anymore. Land can again be seen around the small town of West, which boasts a large Czech community. As an aside, I stopped there once at the much-touted Czech Stop and Bakery, right off of I-35, to try some of the much-touted koloches, which are firm, chewy pastries with some kind of filling – poppy seed or prune paste, apricot jelly, sausage, cream cheese – in the middle. I had the cream cheese and found it "all right," but not really as satisfying as a good cheese danish.

So small town West, and surrounding farmland, are still the same, but so much else...

I realize this kind of development is everywhere, that land that was once fields/hills/woods has disappeared beneath giant shopping malls/discount outlets/chain motels/fast-food restaurants/cookie-cutter housing "estates," and Auto World (auto sales/gas stations/ parts houses/tire distributors, etc.) I'm not talking something new, something that lots of other people haven't already commented on. But here's my point: this god-awful consumer sprawl represents the very "growth" that they keep telling us we need to return to, from the retrenching of the current economic crisis. We need more of this? I don't think so. It made me think of the 1972 book, "The Limits of Growth," which talked about the exponential growth of five variables: world population, industrial production, food production, pollution, and resource depletion. In 2008 somebody named Graham Turner from Australia published a paper comparing the reality of the past 30+ years with the predictions made in the original book, and found that "changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the book's predictions of economic collapse in the 21st century."*

So here we are, collapsing. We've been churning out too much stuff, too many unnecessary gadgets, too many absurdly large houses to be lived in by a couple with one or maybe two kids (and now they can't pay the mortgage), too many Office Depot/Home Depot/Wal-Mart/Best Buy clones. This growth, which is supposedly essential to our economy, to the world economy – and the rest of the world has recently been jumping on the consumer bandwagon with us – has been eating up the land, and other of the planet's resources, destroying the ozone layer, wiping out species, increasing commute time and aggravation, which increases stress, making everyplace look like everyplace else, and in short, not impressing me one bit. I'm thinking, there's gotta be a better way. We've already tried the drop-out, get-back-to-the-land hippie alternative – and some people are still living that way – but it really doesn't seem like the solution for a whole planet. So what is? Let's hear it from the Wise Men (and Women). I'm not a big fan of my native Texas, but one thing it always had going for it was land. I don't want it all to disappear beneath concrete and Target stores.

*Graham Turner (2008). "A Comparison of `The Limits to Growth` with Thirty Years of Reality". Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

Monday, February 23, 2009


This "rant" may be seen as an extension of my previous one: from unnecessary and unnecessarily expensive computerized keys to all sorts of other unnecessary gadgets.

On my recent trip, whether waiting in terminals for flights or flying through the air, I was always surrounded by people immersed in their own electronic world. They were on their cell phones, or thumbing their BlackBerrys (BlackBerries?), or listening with glazed eyes to whatever was playing on their ipods. There were also plenty of people pecking away at their laptops.

Very few people reading books (I was – the most recent volume in the Forsyte Saga, see Note of January 18), or magazines or, God forbid, newspapers. How many of you out there remember when stewardesses (this was back in the day when they were called stewardesses, rather than flight attendants) would pass down the aisle of the plane with an armload of magazines and newspapers for people to read? Ha!

I felt a real dismay at all these people clicking and pecking and holding conversations with people they'd just left or would see in 10 minutes, and I've been trying to decide why. Because these activities made them seem oblivious to what was happening around them? But when I'm immersed in reading I can also be pretty oblivious. In fact, that's why I tend to put my book away as the time draws nearer for boarding – I don't want to miss hearing my "seating section" called. I mean, God forbid that I shouldn't get on the plane the minute I'm able to – someone might get my seat!

No, I think it has more to do with a feeling that all those people are dependent on these not-inexpensive gadgets (the cheapest ipod I see on is $150, discounted to $134; the cheapest BlackBerry seems to be $170 with a 2-year contract required) to keep them-selves entertained, engaged. Without them they'd be reduced to people-watching, napping, maybe talking to the people next to them, or the aforementioned reading. We really have become a gadget-dependent society.

Of course, it could be claimed that a book is just a simpler, less expensive "gadget." A simpler form of technology – for I suppose it is the technological aspect of the whole thing that I find most objec-tionable. We haven't just become a gadget-dependent society, but a society obsessed with technology, with the newest and latest forms of same. And it all seems just so damned unnecessary. Like the stupid computerized keys.

I will say this: sitting next to someone nodding his head to the music pouring into his ear – but his ear alone – from his ipod is certainly preferable to sitting even on the other side of the waiting area from someone listening to a boom box turned too loud. Have boom boxes gone the way of the dinosaur? What an excellent development if they have...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Computerized keys...bah, humbug

I recently returned from a trip to Texas to visit my mother, my husband's and father's graves, a couple of old friends, and to take care of some business. The trip, alas, proved to be an almost non-stop series of problems, mishaps and out-and-out disasters, beginning with my drive to the airport in Portland (at 3:30 in the morning) in a fog that was so thick I frequently could not see the white lines on the road. The only way I ever managed to go above 40 miles an hour was by following the tail lights of the occasional 18-wheeler that would pass me, the driver going as fast as if he could see. Unfortunately, those guiding lights kept disappearing on me, which I could not understand, since I was doing my darnedest to keep up with them. "Don't disappear!" I would yell, when I would see those two red lights wavering, fading in and out up ahead. And the next moment they would be gone, and I would yell "Where the hell are you disappearing to?!" and would be forced to drop my speed at once, because I absolutely could not see but a few feet ahead.

You have to keep in mind that in most of Maine you don't have a lot of traffic on the highways in the middle of the night, the way you do in many states. No towns, no lights, no traffic, except for the very occasional mad trucker. It was a very tension-producing drive, especially since time was marching on; it was obviously going to take me much longer to get to the airport than it usually did. And that's how my trip began.

But that's not what I want to talk about. I rented a car when I arrived at the airport in San Antonio, visited with my mother that afternoon and evening of my arrival, then drove the next morning to Terrell, the small town 30 miles east of Dallas where my husband is buried, then the 90 miles to Ft. Worth, where I planned to spend that Friday night and the following night with a friend, returning to San Antonio Sunday morning. That was the plan.

But on Saturday tragedy struck. I managed to lose the keys (I had been given two) to my rental car. Keys have always been the bane of my existence. I long ago learned to have duplicate house/office/car keys all over the place, due to my penchant for losing same. If I had been smart, which is to say if I'd thought of it, I would have separated the two keys I was given at the car rental place, and put one into my purse, which I do not lose. But it never occurred to me that I might lose a key.

When I was finally forced to face the fact that I had, indeed, lost both keys – this was after looking every conceivable place in my friend's house at least three times, and paying $55 for a locksmith to come open my locked car, as I thought the keys might be on the back seat under some maps that were lying there (we won't go into why I thought this) – it was about four in the afternoon. I called Thrifty, hoping they would be able to supply me with duplicate keys. They explained that new keys would have to be made; they would call a locksmith for me ("Oh, great, I thought, I just sent one off). But when I talked to them again they said that the two locksmiths they had spoken with had said the keys would have to be made by the dealer, as they would have to be programmed. And getting the car to the dealer would obviously mean a towing fee.

Better and better, huh? And since it was almost five on a Saturday I ended up having to wait until Monday morning to have the work done, losing a day and a night that I had planned to spend back in San Antonio, with my mother.

But here's my question; here's my beef. Why computerized keys!? If my keys had not had to be programmed any locksmith could have made me a key, and I could have been on way Saturday evening. Instead of having to pay $240, plus the towing fee, it would have cost me, what, $5? That's how much it would have cost to replace the key for my '96 Toyota (I called my local Toyota dealer to find out). And here's the thing: presumably people who own these new cars with the computerized keys have to pay the same outrageous charge to have any lost keys reproduced. Why would we put up with that? Why is it necessary to have computerized keys? What was the matter with good old-fashioned, $5 keys? Why on earth does absolutely everything have to be computerized? Just because it can be? I eagerly await an answer.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Knowing when to fold 'em

Some time ago I watched a PBS program called Who Cares if Bangladesh Drowns, that discussed the fact that that country, presumably to a large extent because of global warming, is being reclaimed by the sea. So much of the land lies at sea level, and when the annual monsoon arrives the people are finding themselves more thoroughly inundated than ever, and for longer periods, with great loss of homes, life, safe drinking water. The number one cause of death for children 1-4 years of age is...not malnutrition, as in so many poverty-riddled countries...but drowning. The gentleman who made the film was making a plea for the countries of the world to come together and do something about global warning. Save Bangladesh.

While I certainly agree that doing something about global warming is an important goal, it isn't going to happen quickly, may not happen to a sufficient extent to save much of the coastal land throughout the world that is threatened, including Bangladesh. The only real solution, it seems to me, is for people to stop living in these places! New Orleans is another example. After Katrina/Rita, I was one of those who thought we should just forget about resurrecting what had, indeed, been a unique, fascinating city, but a city built, not on sand, but on even more untrustworthy water. A city whose time has probably passed. I questioned then, and still question, whether it is worth it to try to rebuild what could quite possibly be wiped out again, in the not-that-distant future...after expending great gobs of money and effort. Wouldn't it make more sense -- wouldn't it actually be cheaper -- to help the citizens and institutions relocate?

According to the doom and gloom fellows, many, many places that lie along continental coasts are going to find that their days are numbered. In the case of low-lying Bangladesh, it's a third of a whole country. And yes, yes, there's the question for all of them of what to do with all the displaced people. In the case of Bangladesh, the narrator informed us that neighboring India cannot take a huge influx of people. The majority of Bangladesh citizens share a religion with Pakistan -- indeed, Bangladesh was originally called East Pakistan, after the division of India -- but the topography and culture of arid, mountainous Pakistan is a long way from that of humid, water-oriented Bangladesh. And of course, people don't want to leave what has always been "home." (See my Note of June 9, 2008). But people have emigrated, throughout history and pre-history, when conditions at "home" proved sufficiently intolerable. I think we have to start thinking in those terms as regards factors other than economic. If you're living at the foot of a live volcano, get the hell out of there. If you're living on a major fault line, get the hell out of there. If you're living in a city or, alas, a country, that is fighting a losing battle with the sea, for heaven's sake go someplace else. Maybe with a little help from your friends, i.e., other countries, other cities.

I remember when I lived in Boston, and the occasional hurricane would come through, wreaking the natural havoc, especially to homes built right on the coast. I would always feel irritated with those people who expected government help in restoring their homes. What, I would think, help you rebuild so the same thing can happen in three or four years? Do humans never learn!!

What humans are slow in learning, I think – or perhaps accepting would be a better word – is that the planet is really in charge. We can influence the weather – witness global warming – but we can't control it. We can't control the inner workings of the planet, that express themselves through volcanoes and earthquakes and tsunamis. All we can do is stay out of the way.