Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Rhetorical question

Crom poses a no-brainer:

Now that you have seen Paris, could you really go back to the farm?

Crom, dear, the one place that Pretty Lady will never go back to is the suburb. Farms are A-OK.

Pretty Lady has long known, deep within her, that suburbs are the Root of All Evil. Well, perhaps that is an extreme perspective. Suburbs are well-intentioned creations; they intend to combine the advantages of community living, with the space and healthfulness of Owning One's Own Chunk of Nature. It is a terrible pity that they have turned out the way they have.

Pretty Lady must be fair. One thing she felt, while growing up in a suburb, was Safe. She had an acute sense of safety, blanketing her existence; the dangerous, interesting things were all happening elsewhere. Around her, all was bland and predictable. The floor plan was the same for every house on the block. The streets in their stringent grid all had names that began with W. The nearest accessible public space was fifteen minutes away by bicycle, and that was the 5 and dime. Space, space, space was all around her; empty, muffling, featureless Space. Things rarely happened. The bees and butterflies visited the lugustrum. The ash tree grew. It was almost big enough to climb, by the time she'd outgrown the age of passionately needing to climb trees.

As a little girl, Pretty Lady wished for stairs, going to interesting places like attics and basements. She combed the single-floor ranch house thoroughly, tapping walls, looking for secret passageways. 'There won't be any secret passageways in this house,' said her mother. 'It isn't old enough.'

It seemed to Pretty Little Girl that her life was a mere half-life, thin as paper, suspended from the action, in the interests of safety and prosperity. She had the inchoate sense that much would be demanded of her in restitution, for growing up thus securely insulated from things like war, famine, pestilence, poverty, hurricane, volcano, and earthquake. Tornadoes came sometimes. Those were fun.

Pretty Little Girl vowed to herself that as soon as she was eighteen, she'd go someplace dangerous and interesting. Until then, she read about them in books, and fantasized about bombs, tornadoes, and running away to California with her best friend from kindergarten, who had been hospitalized at fifteen for psychiatric disturbances. It wasn't that Pretty Lady lacked creativity, or initiative, or drive; it's just that suburbs have no physical outlet for such. Drag racing, getting bombed in parking lots, and taking machine guns to one's high school are about the extent of it. And we wonder why.

This may all go partly to explain why Pretty Lady has generally been cheery and cavalier about the hazards and inconveniences of living in ghettos, foreign countries, and big cities. The car alarms may go off at midnight. She may not speak the language fluently. It may be a bad idea to go for a walk after dark. (Not that that ever stopped her.) It may be difficult to park; there may be pipe bombs going off in the intersection, or gangstas doing donuts in stolen cars. She has lost a lot of bicycles, and pieces off her car.

But at least it's not a freakin' suburb.

Pretty Lady has come to realize, in recent years, that she's actually not so much a City Person as she used to think. What she is, simply, is a social creature. Not compulsively extroverted; merely human. And the fundamental problem with suburbs is that they are physically structured so that one never encounters another human in the course of one's whole existence, unless one makes a gargantuan effort to do so.

Oh, there are Jobs, of course, if you choose that sort of thing. Jobs which consist largely of fluorescent lights, boring co-workers, pointless and repetitive tasks. There are grocery stores. There are schools and dance studios. But mainly, life in a suburb consists of house, car, institution, car, house. Television. Vinyl tile, shag carpet, tuna fish and dirty diapers. Toddlers. Toddlers who do not appreciate good sets of blocks, or fairy tales.

(The real reason Pretty Lady has no children, truthfully, stems from all those years being the Responsible Babysitter in high school. The girls that were out having fun in high school have all settled down into good little breeders. Pretty Lady was too vividly forewarned.)

No, gentle readers, the problem with modern development is very simple; the absence of plazas. Plazas with fountains in the center, and caf├ęs around the sides. Plazas where one can casually saunter down and pick up a taco, a latte, and the daily gossip. Plazas where one can reassure oneself that one is not the only conscious human on the face of the planet. That is what the designers of Suburbs forgot, and it was a truly tragic error. (Shopping malls do not count.)

Farms? Farms are fine. The farm in the South of France, where her darling ex-boyfriend's extended family dwelled, was overflowing with Real Life. It had goats, and terraces covered with hundred-year-old wisteria, and lambs, and fig trees, and medieval stone walls, and thousand-year-old olive trees. It had basements, attics, and secret passages out the wazoo. It also had aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, and old family friends, popping in and out at all times. It had a farmer's market in the town square on weekends, and a river to swim in, and Roman ruins to explore.

Rural Maine was similar. As was rural Mexico. In fact, the only places that Pretty Lady has ever known which did not have an innate sense of vibrant community are North American Suburbs.

Which is why she can be happy in Paris, or dans l'Midi, or in New York, or Maine, or Mexico. East Austin has its possibilities, even. Whatever some of Pretty Lady's detractors may think, she's not some sort of psychotic, self-defeating masochist; she has merely observed, empirically, that human beings are not meant to be isolated in little cookie-cutter houses. They must rub up against one another. They require annoyance and inconvenience. They need to struggle a bit. Otherwise, they might just as well lie down and play dead.


jan@theviewfromher said...

You have quite hit the nail on the head: we are plaza-less. The communal spot to see and be seen, stay connected, belong to something greater. The few lonely tables outside the local Starbucks in the fumes of a busy parking lot don't quite make it...that or facing a 6-lane street (as they do here in California).

Anonymous said...

Our little corner of suburbia may be an anomoly, but aside from not being attached to a commercial strip, zone, or plaza, we have a lovely community. First off, there are any number of nationalities; someone must have sent out a memo b/c we are the most bi-racial suberb I've ever seen. Thank God. And there are all ages of people, from retirees to young swinging singles, and everything in between. And we know each other. By name. There's even some nights when a neighbor, or two, will saunter on-over with a 6 pack, or two, and sit on a driveway talking about life. It's safe, but it's also sane and very nice. It would be different if we had nasty neighbors or boring neighbors. But we don't.

As for children, I was/am the oldest of 5 and a veteran of the baby-sitting wars. I never played with or liked dolls and had no desire to coo over or chuck the chin of babies. But when I turned 25, I suddenly was struck with baby fever. It only happened once, but it was meant to be. And now I can say that having your own child is (thank GOD) very different then taking care of some bratty kids belonging to another person. I can't explain it, but it turned me into ubbermommy. My favorite job and joy, bar none, was raising my son. If you get the right gene pool (not even the right mate) to produce such an off-spring, you will see. Mark my word.

Pretty Lady said...

Thank you dears, for the encouraging words regarding motherhood. It has, in fact, occurred to me that if geneticists are to be believed, it is unlikely that Pretty Lady's very own children would turn out to be shallow little monsters, deeply indifferent to books, blocks, or drawing intricate and involved things for hours at a time. I have not yet entirely ruled out the experiment, pending, of course, a genetically and temperamentally compatible mate.

And indeed, it wasn't even the company of appallingly stupid children, throwing their blocks at her head, that so spooked Pretty Lady, as an impressionable adolescent. Children are fun and splendid; it is the prospect of total isolation with children, 24/7, that Gives One Pause.

Anonymous said...

You are never too old to climb a tree. can be, but you know what I mean.


Anonymous said...

Re suburbs, yes, PL's description is right on the nose! How lovely to think that you are one of "my people" as I think of suburban children who have fled.

PL, have you read "A Pattern Language"? -you may love it, as I do.

re children, my suburban babysitting years served as a contraceptive (not literally)for about 20 years. I am now finally old enough and far enough away from the suburb to enjoy my little eight week old son. The timing is perfect, and I was lucky to be able to have him. And if I could not have had him, at least I wouldn't be in the suburbs.