Thursday, February 28, 2008
There must have been a way for companies to take advantage of lower income people and let them work their blue-collar jobs in factories without bringing the factories into the cities where the upper classes and the government would not want them to be. For it is well documented that factories were death traps in most cases, or were put out of the way of the general public so that sub-standard practices would not be discovered. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle comes to mind. So in this post-Industrial, pre-values America (or other countries), factories were placed in rural areas, such as the factories that were built in Guin, Alabama or the mining operations in Gordon, Georgia, and the companies that ran them came up with a very intriguing way of placing cheap labor close to the workplace and taking advantage of their labor. They simply bought up the whole town, or created a town around the factory.
The plan was simple. Buy large amounts of land out in the country, and make houses, factories, stores, schools, everything that the employees would need to live all in one place. The company was the landlord, the general store owner, the payer of the teachers and all the workers in the town. So all the money that went into the general store went back into the pockets of the company. The houses were meager, and it is obvious that no one enjoyed the luxuries of the upper class doing this, but there were some advantages.
The welfare of the people was taken care of by the factory itself. Now, it is normal to assume that some companies took advantage of the monopoly they had over people's lives, but ideally, this type of living arrangement would be effective and even environmental, if you were willing to live within walking distance of the factory. No cars were needed, people walked everywhere, which lessened the couch potato effect (which was non-existent because TV didn't exist.) This looks like an instance of socialism, but not with governmental control, but rather with the private sector controlling the lives of it's employees/customers. It would be like if I worked at Borders, and they owned the apartment building I lived in (or better yet, built the apartments above the store), owned the grocery store, provided for the local school, donated to the church. In some cases , this would be ideal living, because everything would be taken care of for you. The only disadvantage to this solution is that because of human nature, you would never be able to afford many luxuries at all. You would live comfortably, maybe, but that would be about it. Only in an ideal society where the pay would be allowed to leave the confines of the company-owned business would this actually work.
So, the socialist/capitalist solution that was tried in America during the early 1900's works, but not enough to allow people luxuries. What of the other people that lived during that time, and then see what the current situation of living is now.
People living in the rural areas lived in the same fashion as company controlled areas, for towns were constructed in such a way where everyone was within walking distance (meaning within a few miles, people walked more those days) of the church, the school, the store, the work place. And then there were the apartments in the city, where the stores were positioned on the corners of the apartment buildings, much like you see in New York City today. The only downside of this was that you didn't just move to another town and expect to see your friends or relatives regularly, or ever again, in some cases. The farther you live away from each other, the less social interaction occurs, unless some technology fixed that problem.
What made the flight from the cities possible was the invention and mass production of the automobile. Especially after World War II, when gas prices were relatively cheap (thanks to oil deposits in Oklahoma, Texas, and nearby states), the distance between home and work was of little consequence. So towns such as Conyers (in Atlanta) and other rural towns that were 30 miles any side of a major urban area (and connected by the Interstates developed by Eisenhower's administration) started growing exponentially. Of course, there were racial issues involved in these flights away from the city, but that's for another time.
So let's look at the current state of urban planning. People that have moved away from the urban centers of America live up to 50 miles away from that center. Therefore they must travel, with current traffic, sometimes up to 2 hours back and forth to work every day. This is an exorbitant amount of money in gas, car repair, time spent back and forth, psychological stress in dealing with traffic, two hours of sedentary non-movement that could be better spent exercising, the list goes on and on. If you look at the town structures of many of the suburban centers, you'll see that the commercial centers are quite a distance from the residential ones, and those are quite far from any industrial centers. The towns are sprawled out along major highways, with oasises of neighborhoods nestled in trees (or not, since they've taken to cutting them all down), with houses nestled closely together (although it seems that we never know our neighbors). And the purpose for all this is what? To use their homes as islands of escape away from the rest of their lives.
It makes no sense economically and environmentally. Why should it take 15 minutes for me to get to the nearest grocery store when, as the crow flies, it's only 7 minutes away? It's a waste of time and gas to have to go south, east, only to have to go all the way back north again. And forget walking, since the only way for it to not take an hour or more to get to that same store would involve crossing a rickety bridge and sneaking over the golf course across the creek. And current neighborhood planning makes it worse, for neighborhoods are now connected to main roads by a quarter mile of useless roads. They try to make it seem you're entering a whole new world from the busy world outside. And while that might sell houses (probably not), the distances you run away from the outside world tend not to make any difference with telephones, internet, and the TV connecting us all to the world around us.
So to fix all these problems, we should create an environment where people could live closely together, with themselves, with their work and with the commercial, recreational, and educational facilities within walking distance. It would save time, money, space, the environment, the benefits are huge. And actually, there was an architect that proposed this very thing, in Paris, around the turn of last century. His plans would have created a Utopian style living environment in the center of the City of Love. For the next post, I'll take a look at that plan, and show why it never got off the ground.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
In Orson Scott Card's writings, he has repeatedly placed humans living in the future in a culture that relies on underground habitations, above ground apartment style living, and peaceful coexistence with nature. Specifically, I reference the African cities in Pastwatch and instances in Songmaster where people have resorted to living in tight communities and let nature take over much of the land that today would be covered in low-income housing (such as in Africa or the slums of Rio). Looking at people through the imaginative eyes of authors would make it easy to believe that people could in fact live in the manner described by Gene Roddenberry or OSC. However, in the real world, where apartments are targets for robberies, murders, drug deals, fires that leave many homeless, and poverty, it seems to be an impossible task to take people who are used to living in isolationism in suburban houses and put them together in an apartment style habitat (no matter how luxurious) and expect them to get along.
So the first task is to determine why people live in the places that they do, and how human nature dictates that answer. To do that, we must first make several assumptions about human nature. I cannot answer for all the people in the world, but I can observe those around me, as well as myself, and make some conclusions. First, people as a rule would rather not be around each other. This is a rather large generalization, made mainly because I am an introvert and would rather not be around large amounts of people. Frankly, I'd rather drink Lysol. Also, we must account for basic needs of people (think Maslow's heirarchy of basic needs), and realize that people's needs are more aptly met when a group is able to work together.
Back in days prior to the Agricultural Revolution, nomads needed to move from place to place traveling with the herds of animals. Housing was made from whatever caves or shelter were available. People had to be together for shelter, for food (it took many hunters to bring down a mammoth), for safety, and for procreation. An individual would not last long against a Saber-tooth, but large groups with weapons would be more formidable.
As we became more advanced, more able to specialize and diversify, our need to be around other human beings became less. Well, except for the procreation part, and for that we developed social gatherings and events. One might even argue that the large gatherings made for religious ceremonies and the like were on some subconscious level created for people to actually have social interactions with each other. The main need to live near to each other for safety came not from animals at this point, but from other tribes and the possibility of war.
(I wonder, at this point, about the need for socialization, based on my last post about the coffee shops. It seems that we have an urge to socialize with other people. Whether it be because of biological needs, or the desire to be ourselves needed or loved. In this case, a paradox is created, where people want to be around each other, but only so long as it provides entertainment or escape. Only so long as it is pleasurable to do so. To live with another person, or around people in an apartment, is grating and makes one long for isolation.)
The idea of war and safety made the idea of a city, or polis, a much desirable situation. Athens, for instance, with the hill where the Acropolis is, with the ports below, or Rome, with its seven hills that were easily defensible. Even London had walls around the main area that still existed even in Shakespeare's time, although the city had far outgrown those walls. But when you look at the disastrous consequences that trapping an entire city within it's own walls, the idea of living together for safety becomes questionable. Take the events of the fall of Troy, or the outbreak of the plague that finally brought Athens' rule to an end during its war with Sparta. When people live closely together, the chance that an outbreak of disease, or fire, or entrapment by enemies, increases. But if you live scattered out in the country, the chances of being murdered or ransacked by your enemy becomes much greater. At least, in this time period.
We have to take a look at Shakespeare's London. A good general description of what London was like at the time comes from Bill Bryson's biography on Shakespeare (informative and funny at the same time). It's actually an excellent example of the problems associated with living together, and also how people from affluent families attempted to solve those problems. Disease swept through the city from time to time, especially the plague (which could have been any number of diseases, including the bubonic one), and killed scores of citizens. It effected Shakespeare the most in that, if the death toll for any one given period rose above 40, all social gatherings except for church were canceled. That included plays, so there were times when Shakespeare was forced to take his troop on the road to smaller towns to perform plays, often for less than what it took to travel. Then there was the London fire of 1666, which destroyed the city, the play houses, some of the most precious records of the past centuries, including most of the plays not written by Shakespeare from that period. Public quarrels were often settled in duels, often resulting in the death of one or both of the brawlers. Living in apartments at the time, if inside the walls, was dangerous business, and outside the walls, there was the butcher shops and leather shops to deal with (as in, the stench of dead animals.) In response to this, most affluent families built houses outside of the city, in the nearby towns, such as Stratford or Oxford (which today is a part of the London Metro area). Shakespeare had three houses in his home town, and most nobility had houses that they retreated to when sicknesses ravaged London.
1600's London shows the dangers and luxuries of living in a big city, close to other people. In London there was many attractions, trading in exotic and foreign goods, plays and sports (often deadly ones, like animal fights. Animals found in Africa, Asia, and the newly discovered Americas were very entertaining to watch). There were bars and parties for social gatherings, and undoubtedly, prostitutes and other distractions after the social gatherings were over. Of course, all this also made it risky as well, for crime and diseases were always present. Interestingly enough, this could describe Atlanta, or New York City, or any other urban areas today. Also the idea of affluent citizens going to houses in rural (or suburban) areas to escape the maladies of living in a city can be used for the 1600's or for today's world. Even here in Rockdale County, there are houses built in secluded areas worth millions of dollars where rich moguls escape from their busy urban lives.
In my next post, I'll look at a possible solution to the problems of urban flight that actually happened back in the early 20th century, as well as the ideas of an architect who dreamed of a Utopian city in the middle of Paris, and why it never got off the ground.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
This is going to be a jump from the ideas I was considering, but there's a relationship between the escape that is people's homes, and the profiting of businesses such as Borders and especially Starbucks coffee.
I stopped into the QT shop after dropping my mom off at work (she can't drive cause she broke her foot), and I noticed as I was in there, trying to figure out which energy drink didn't taste like gasoline, that there were a lot of employees there, for such a small store, and that they all seemed happy and enjoyed talking to the customers that came in. The customers acted as if they had been coming there every day for years, and that's just something that they did. I felt that if I closed my eyes, I would have been in Cheers bar in Boston, with Rhea Perlman and Ted Dekker and Norm.
(And while I'm on the subject, that's exactly why the sitcoms of that era worked as well as they did. Those shows were "home" for us for thirty minutes each night. We got to know the bar Cheers, or the courtroom in Night Court or the Huxtable household. If it feels like home, it will be successful, even if it's nothing like home. And that's definitely another blog post, cause there's so many things to think about why one television show is more successful than another.)
So if it's a given that people go to their houses to escape from the real world, then there's a need that has to be filled. People are unsatisfied with the atmosphere that they work in. They need someplace to go. And home, while an answer, never seems to leave those people happy. So the answer is to go from work to home to someplace else where people can feel at home. Someplace they can socialize with other people that share the same feelings and interests that they do. Thus the need for coffee houses, bars, and clubs, where you can spend your money and exist in a place that feels like "home," wherever that may be.
Thus Starbucks saw this and created an atmosphere where someone can go and hang out and talk with friends while buying coffee for the cost of a half a tank of gas. And people do it!! To have a place where you go even once a week, and feel like you've walked into a place where you are welcome, and loved, much like a family (insert deterioration of the American family idea here), people would spend any amount of money to achieve that. And Starbucks knew it, and they've made a gazillion dollars because of it.
But it's not just coffee houses that can achieve this. I went to Crystals in Covington, after a doctors appointment early in the morning (I had to fast), and saw there a whole Last Supper full of old men sitting there talking about politics and their health problems and being prejudiced and all the things that the old men used to do at any number of places in small towns. Sort of like the Cornbread Cafe in Milledgeville or Evans Pharmacy in Conyers. This means that any business can achieve this home feeling if the products are enticing, if the customers are welcome, and if it feels like home.
And this is what I would recommend to any business, such as Borders, that sells so called luxury items that are also comfort products. It would be ideal for a bookstore to have a couch and a fireplace and the sound of rain beating on a tin roof, so that you could curl up with a good book underneath a blank with a $5 cup of hot chocolate and read. Or a place where a group of people could meet every week (as our store does) and discuss books, or life, or whatever. It's what makes a business successful, to make the customers need to be there. Without that feeling, it would be hopeless to survive in an economy such as this, where anything that isn't absolutely necessary be tossed out in favor of gas and grocery. I sound like I'm talking about getting people to buy cigarettes or something, and in some cases that's an appropriate analogy. People get addicted to books, just like anything else. But it's more than that. People want to come to a bookstore or a coffee shop to be comforted into a feeling of being at home, while escaping everything else in their lives. I always want to go to Borders, where I work, because it feels like home to me. I want my customers to feel the same way.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
The issues that I want to look at stem from a blog entry I did in 2007 (April 27th, May 8th) based on a blog entry that Orson Scott Card did that is linked from mine. Here, in outline form, is what I want to deal with:
1. People today live too far away from work and recreation, and rely on technology to bridge that gap.
2. People use their houses as an escape from the outside world, which doesn't always work.
3. The desire for that escape results in major environmental, sociological, and economical damage to our society.
4. That while solutions are certainly possible, it is vital to keep in mind human nature when constructing utopias for people to live in.
5. There are interested parties that strive to keep the current situation just as it is, and profit from what clearly is a deteriorating situation.
Additionally, I want to look at how Architecture affects me personally, from Literature, to actual buildings I've been in. I bring this up because of a book I've been reading, The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. Also, I want to look at the idea of "Home," and what that actually means.
The book itself actually sat on my shelf for quite a while, since it is something that I normally don't read. I picked it up off the new book table actually around the time that I posted that other blog, but it took me months to realize that I actually wanted to buy it. It sounds, at first mention, like a ultra-boring book. But actually the language of the book, mirroring the speech of the buildings he talks about, is magnificent. It is what philosophers and scientists could only hope to accomplish when writing books about such complex subjects. Botton's gift is his ability to observe the world around him and take from it an emotional response - from the buildings to the parks to even the moss on the sidewalk. If you like reading books such as Walden by Thoreau, then this book must be read. It only makes me want to visit some of these places, for I fear that my knowledge of buildings and the emotions that their architectural makeup actually speak is limited to basic US buildings and the amazing work done in Milledgeville at the beginning of the 1900's. I'll be talking about that, if nothing else.
But, for all the appreciation we give to the buildings around us, we must realize that, like the kingdom of Ozymandias, it is doomed to decay and to pass into dust. What works of magnificence will survive our civilization? Will the Golden Gate stand, like pillars overlooking the Pacific, long after we are gone, or will people stand and marvel at the works of Wright and wonder what it was used for? Or even our own houses? What was home, and should it remain standing for all time, to show what our lives were like, or in nature's way, will it crumble, to turn our world into mystery?
Monday, February 11, 2008
Take, then, the typical retail establishment, with it's heirarchy of workers, mid-managers, managers...etc... Every employee should, according to Libertarians, be able to self-regulate their behavior at the workplace based on what is right and wrong. A typical worker, then, would not need a supervisor constantly over them. They would be aware of their surroundings and then be able to adapt to it. He or she should be self-starting, self-motivating, and always being able to keep the goals of the store in mind. On the other hand, the ethical beliefs of that worker should also require him or her to always make sure that the business that their company does is also ethical, and self-regulating.
This is clearly an idealistic view, and few employees could ever reach that level of self-regulation. But it's the struggle that counts. And that's also why supervisors and managers are needed, just as the need for government to exist because not every citizen can be depended upon to do that as well.
The twist, though, is that those same supervisors should expect their employees to reach a sufficient level of self-regulation. They should support workers to be self-motivated, and not have to tell them what to do at every single step. Supervisors need to have authority, not be authoritative. When an employee is self-motivated, but is still told what to do, it becomes a detriment to that worker to be reminded of things that is already clear needs to be done.
Maslow created a pyramid of basic needs, in which the bottom consists of shelter, food, warmth, and the top being self-actualization. And while I consider myself able to reach the top of that pyramid often enough (or else I couldn't think like I do), there are times that life kicks you in the rear and, like playing a game of Chutes and Ladders, sends you to the bottom to start all over again. Funny how one day I could be reading a book on Architecture and it's effects on the emotional state, and the next day, laying helpless on my bed suffering from diarrhea and vomiting. But such is the nature of the Stomach Virus, or Intestinal Flu, that nature takes you back to the very beginning, and reminds you of how such a physical being you are. It has been 20 years since I've had an episode that bad, and around 5 since I've had to call out from work because of being sick.
And finally, and briefly, I went to Wallgreens to get my mom's prescriptions (I gave that Virus to her and to my grandmother), and spotted cans of Pringles Extreme Cheddar. Amazing, especially in the car at night when you need to stay awake. You must get some!
Sunday, February 3, 2008
Dreams can be a wonderful, terrible, amazing experience, and the ones you remember can seem as real as anything reality can bring you. I just had one, and it was one of those fleeting dreams that, if only I could grab on, hold the melody, capture the words, I could produce a masterpiece of such beauty. And it's all up there, in my brain, far out of reach of normal conscious thought.
I was adrift in some computer animated soundscape, with acoustic guitars and some lyrics, but the song itself was cacophonous, multifaceted, and breathtaking. And I know it's something that's in my head, and not influenced from outside sounds. You know, you'll be dreaming of a song on the radio, only to wake up and hear that same song on the radio that's playing in your bedroom. Or I've even been dreaming and had CNN on TV and suddenly the world I'm in gets bombed with missiles, which have undoubtedly come from the news reports from the Middle East. But as I woke up, I noticed no TV on, no music, only the irritating grind of my computer fans. So whatever melody and counterpoint and whatever was playing in my head was being created by my own mind.
They say we only use like, 10% of our brain, but what if we can tap into the rest while we are asleep, and our subconscious takes over? What marvelous works of literature or music could be given to the world if only we could remember them. I can remember dreams where I was writing poetry, but I wake up, and the words disappear into the rising sun. With that one, I've always wanted to capture that onto paper, because writing is something I can do. The acoustic guitar masterpiece I just heard I can't capture because I have no skills on that instrument. Amazing stuff. The muse so often stays hidden, and those who can capture those moments can go down in history as masters. What if they were just lucky enough to capture those few moments and hold on, and bring it through to the sunlight? If only we all had the ability to express those works of beauty that are hidden within.
Saturday, February 2, 2008
Theatre Review: Lesson Before Dying
I'll get to the play in a minute, but first I have two other smaller items to take care of. This trip was quite illuminating for me, as I had the chance to view the literary access that Decatur residents have in their community. My first stop was Eagle Eye Bookstore, which sells a mixture of new, used, Remainder, and collectible books. I had forgotten how wonderful independent bookstores like this could be, and how essential they actually are, even coming from a large chain of bookstores as I do. I cannot even say that Eagle Eye is in competition with us, because they sell things that are totally different from us. It is a wonderful tool for those looking for books for school projects, especially on other countries and for collages where cutting up the books is necessary. They also have a wide variety of collectible books, especially focusing on southern literature. And I miss the Booksense program, with all their advanced readers and whatnot. However, working at a large chain such as Borders definitely has its advantages as well.
I say that Eagle Eye is essential because my next stop was the Decatur Library, where I discovered how woefully pitiful the Dekalb County Library system truly is. Consider this... I looked up The Great Gatsby on the library's computer. It showed they had 28 copies for all the libraries in Dekalb County. Now, children have been reading this classic for years now in school, and Borders has sold hundreds to students who need them. I did not understand how terrible the library system actually was until I went to the Decatur Library. They are totally unable to meet the needs of their customers. Half of those 28 copies were lost or missing. A simple solution is to be found in the same areas that we get our remainders at work. Simply contact Simon and Schuster, buy from them 100 copies of the Great Gatsby at the price that we got them in the Bargain sale. The books are paperback, cheap, and very useful for the students to take to school with them. Afterward, if those books are lost, you can charge them the full price of the book as new, and save up to buy more. There is no reason why the library system of Dekalb County should not have multiple class sets of every book read in the school systems. It is obvious that the two services do not communicate and that the citizens see little use in going to a library system that has so little to offer. I was frankly dismayed by what I found.
So afterward, I went to the theatre, and, finding it locked, went to Big Lots next door to look around. There I found Lip Balm of the most interesting varieties. Many is the time that I have wanted to walk around wearing Reese's Peanut Butter Cup lip balm. There's nothing like the smell of Chocolate and Peanut Butter to be left on your sweetheart's cheek after a kiss.
Onstage Atlanta's performance of Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying was just as marvelous as their last play, A Turn of the Screw. The actors filled their character parts with personality and vivaciousness that made what could have been stereotypical roles from a cheap Lifetime movie into a truly remarkable performance. For the play, adapted from Ernest Gaines' work, is based on the relationships between the characters. Grant, played by Nathaniel Ryan, is an unsuccessful school teacher who has returned from the glory's of academia to his rural Louisiana home to repay his guardians by teaching the children of the community. A job which he clearly does not enjoy, for he'd rather be imparting his knowledge to students who would rather learn (as would we all.) His relationship with each character is developed very well with sparse dialogue and specific actions and motions. For instance, the relationship between Grant and Rev. Ambrose, played by Nat Martin, delves into the attitudes of the religious upon the learned. And perhaps rightly so, since one of Grant's main tragic flaws is his pride for being an educated man, who is brought down by the seemingly unwillingness for anyone else to learn.
I can identify with this character personally, since I came from the marble halls of academia and tried to teach English to students who could care less. And, granted, I was not a very good teacher, and my need to impart knowledge was squelched by a culture that cared little for learning and less about discipline. But I will save the state of our education system for another time. The one interesting point here is that for these teachers, underpaid, underfunded, and unprovided for, they are not much different than the teachers that teach today's children. But now instead of just a minority group of segregated children, it is now expanded to all children.
In some cases, this play is simply the origin for all "teacher going into run down schools and overcoming all odds" movies, but in this case, it is not only the students who learn. The conflict between Grant and his need to escape into the world of academia (which I yearn to do often), is settled by Jefferson's reversal of lessons shortly before his execution. In this case, A Lesson Before Dying has two meanings. Not only does Grant teach his doomed student to be brave and die with dignity, but Jefferson teaches his mentor to live with dignity. There is a parallel of heroism here.
It impressed me in the way that Antjuan Taylor, who played Jefferson, was able to play the 14 year old student so easily, and with an accent that worked wonderfully, with bluntness and simplicity, but with a growing sense of wisdom as his ideas were focused by pen and paper. It provided humor in times when laughter was needed, and gave an otherwise simple plot line depth and richness. You feel as if something is to be gained from him, that the Catharsis is not simply faked, for a few tears and commercials every 5 minutes as on cable, but there is a genuine message here.
Probably the part with the most inner conflict was that of Paul, played by James Lentini. But unlike his fellow characters, his conflict was shown by movements, usually off the stage, or between set changes. The indecision of interrupting that first meeting between Grant and Jefferson, the gradual change of escorting Jefferson out of the door from violent criminal to helpless boy, the change of heart that seems to occur when he's just sitting there listening. He has learned as much as Jefferson just for being in the room. And we come to respect him for that, even though he says little until the last few minutes of the play.
Finally, a personal note, because their are children I have known that have been punished needlessly by the systems that regulate their care. When I walked out of the theatre, my mind went to my family in Milledgeville, whose son is now in some Alternative program for juvenile criminals solely because they have no where else to put him. All for the injustices that the people around him have caused him. And yet, as far as I know, he still remains strong. I have told Lee many times to hang on, to battle against the wrongs done to him, and that he will win, eventually. Life is so unfair, and I've never known anyone stronger or braver than he is. This is a book, or in this case, a play, that should be shown not only as a reminder of the many battles African Americans have faced in their struggle against society, but also to those who have been beaten down by life, by family, by DFCS, by anyone who would do an injustice to an innocent child. It would build their self-esteem, show them that even when the darkest hour comes, they still have a chance to shine.