Quote of The Week

“The urge to save humanity is almost always a false face for the urge to rule it.”



Back to Basics

Is it, I wonder, politically incorrect to regret the decline of luxury? We’ve lost the last chance of luxury air travel with the disappearance of the Concord and the appearance of universal security paranoia. The stylish old luxury ocean liners are being phased out and replaced by floating resort hotels full of slot machines and all-you-can-eat buffets. The luxurious mansions of Newport or Palm Beach seem more and more like relics from a bygone age.

Luxury, like the Golden Age, always seems to exist in the past. The luxuries of yesterday, like the private automobile for example, have become the commonplaces of today. The luxuries of today seem rather tacky. First-class air travel is advertised as a luxury, and we were lucky enough to be upgraded on a recent flight. Was it luxurious? No. Did we get a four-poster bed and a private bathroom? No. Were our fellow-passengers stylish and fashionable members of the power elite? Absolutely not – they were exactly like the proletarian crowd back in economy class. This may be a democratic phenomenon – wealthy people don’t like to flaunt their money the way they used to. Or it may be simply a kind of conformity – nobody wants to stand out.

As Thoreau remarked, we have to live up to our pretensions, and very few people want to make the effort. Luxury is not just a passive condition – it’s a lifestyle and an activity, and it can be hard work. On the old ocean liners everyone had to change for the formal dinner, and the ladies might change their outfits four or five times during the day. It’s easier just to wear a tracksuit.

Luxury also carries a whiff of decadence, which is why the word is so heavily used in advertising. The Oxford English Dictionary defines luxury as: “Excessive, self-indulgent, voluptuous.” Well, that sounds good! But it also sounds potentially embarrassing in our world of PC and thinly veiled Puritanism.

So luxury has been displaced by mere comfort. If luxury is hard work, and perhaps morally suspect too, comfort is the opposite. Comfort is an absence, a negative.

Comfort is not about being warm: comfort is not feeling the cold. A comfortable chair has no bumps or sharp edges. A comfortable hotel is one without character or surprises. Not even the most rigorous moralist can object to comfort. Comfort can’t get you into any trouble. Luxury, on the other hand, is an intense experience that activates all the senses and can very easily get you into trouble, if you’re lucky.

The result of all this confusion is that we scarcely recognize real luxury when we see it. Hotels like to boast of their “luxuries” which means that they provide and charge for a whole lot of unwanted services – intrusive air-conditioning, multiple phones, excessive toileteries, enough towels to wrap a mummy, and nasty video games.

There are two ways to experience luxury, one expensive and one cheap. The expensive way is to seek out unique products or rare experiences. That’s why true luxury must always stay one step ahead of the crowd. When every suburbanite can wear Calvin Klein or drive a BMW real luxury must move up out of reach. How about an exclusive seven thousand dollar dress from Zoran Ladicorbic, or a hand-built McLaren sports car for around a million dollars? Never heard of them? That’s the point. When everyone can go on package cruises to the Caribbean, luxury is hundred foot ocean-going motor cruiser to take you to your personal island.

But another kind of luxury is to be found in small pleasures that are equally exclusive but that come cheap or free. For example, one Christmas we stayed at an old-fashioned English hotel. The bathroom room boasted a full-length bath – a small luxury in itself. But it also had brass faucets set low above the tub, the kind remembered from childhood. Unlike our slippery modern hi-tech faucets, these were of the antique but practical design that you can turn on and off with your toes without moving out of the water, thus prolonging a hot bath more or less indefinitely.
That’s luxury.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Flashing Lights

Out here on the suburban highways of Long Island and Connecticut, we see a lot of flashing lights. Sometimes they are serious: a fire truck or an ambulance is on the way to an emergency, or a police car has caught us running a stop sign.

But there seems to be a proliferation of flashing lights whose message is more ambiguous. A blue light in the window of a private car may be just a teenage ego-accessory, or it may identify a volunteer firefighter on call. A green light may indicate an Emergency Medical Technician, but it might just as well be an emergency landscaping service.

The police complain that people don’t pull over for vehicles with flashing lights the way they used to. But that’s because there are so many of them. If we pulled over for every flashing light, we might as well take up residence in the breakdown lane.

Tow trucks and construction vehicles are flashing all over the place, tree trimmers, telephone company and cable TV vehicles are flashing around every corner, as if drivers can’t be trusted to see a whopping great white truck with a cherry picker on top. School buses flash at us, of course, and we see hundreds of stationary flashing lights at intersections, road works, and railroad crossings, plus blinking advertising messages trying to catch our attention and, from November to March, Holiday decorations too. We’ve become desensitized to flashing lights, moving or stationary.

I can’t believe that all this conspicuous flashing is necessary. I suspect that these lights are often used just because men like to use them, and they give a sense of glamour to everyday activities. Sometimes, they are positively misused. An old friend of mine who was the fire chief in an English town would use his flashing lights and even his siren ruthlessly, when he was in danger of missing closing time at the pub. As we went barreling down main street, with me hanging on for dear life in the passenger seat, people would look at their watches and say: “Ah, ten minutes to closing time – there goes the fire chief.”

Some users seem to believe that flashing lights have magic properties, like a cross held up to a vampire. Emergency vehicles go barreling through intersections as if their lights and sirens create an instant no-go zone for other traffic. But so many drivers around here are half-deaf or half asleep that the results are sometimes disastrous.

Flashing lights are never good news especially when, in the dark watches of the night, they pull up in your street, and the light shines through the drapes. What now? Is it one of our neighbors, or have they come for me at last?

On the highway, flashing lights create an uneasy mix of emotions: doubt, anxiety, insecurity, annoyance and envy. They are moving ahead, and we are not.

Yet we all need and deserve the right of way. It must be in the Bill of Rights somewhere. We all have urgent business which requires us to be somewhere else immediately, if not sooner. So, as long as the flashing lights are proliferating so fast, let’s all have one. They could be color-coded. Emergency vehicles could keep red and blue. But, for example, a pink flashing light would warn us to make way for someone late for for a hair appointment, or a sale, buttercup yellow for legal emergencies, red white and blue for patriotic missions – you get the idea. That’s the democratic solution. Other drivers could choose to give way or not: but of course they would all have their own flashing lights, so the decision-making process would be complex and delicate.

The view from the space station would be magnificent – the whole nation indeed the whole planet rushing and flashing. It might even attract the proverbial aliens to come and have a look, out of sheer curiosity. Just think of it: millions of aliens converging on our light show from all over the galaxy, in millions of flying saucers, every one with a little flashing light on top.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Waiting for the Golden Years

“Are you retired?” asked the nice young lady at the doctor’s office as she filled in a form. I hesitated over my answer. It is, after all, a tricky, almost metaphysical question. I hesitated for so long that she probably thought I was a sad, confused old man who couldn’t remember whether he was retired or not. So she entered “Retired” on the form. It was a reasonable guess, but I’m not sure that she was right.

I certainly qualify for retirement. I started working as an apprentice journalist when I was sixteen, and have worked steadily for sixty-five years – not counting ten days of unemployment in 1962. The Social Security people told me that I should have retired years ago, but they gave no advice on how to do it.

There must be millions like me who have drifted out of the mainstream job market into various kinds of freelance or creative work. We can’t just clear our desks, enjoy the farewell party, and collect our pensions. We can’t hand over our job to somebody else and walk away – it’s too personal, and too interesting. I know a number of writers in just this situation. We all agree that we can’t retire. We must wait until we expire – and I’m not quite ready for that yet.

People with real jobs react cynically to my retirement dilemma. “Retire from what? they ask, rhetorically. Just because I don’t get up at dawn to take the train into the city they assume that I’m not “working” at all, but just amusing myself. I know they’re thinking: “Why don’t you get a proper job?” Sometimes they say it out loud.

But I do have a job, even if it’s not a proper one. It keeps me busy and out of trouble all day, and I have about as much work as I can handle. I could stop, of course. But then what would I do? If we were rich there would be no question about it. The happiest retired people I know are those who are also very wealthy, and spend their time traveling to lovely places. But the rest of us are stuck with less attractive prospects, like doing little jobs around the house, or playing golf. I could take up collecting, but I prefer throwing things away. I might enjoy just vegetating in front of TV, if only there was anything worth watching on TV.

A Chinese family lives on our street and, in summer, grandfather sits on the front porch all day in summer. This seemed like an attractive retirement strategy, and I tried sitting on my own porch. But everyone (including the Chinese family) gave me very strange looks, so I stopped. Sitting is a favorite hobby of retired men, although it’s not good for the prostate. Many male hobbies, like fishing or gambling, are mostly just excuses to sit down for long periods of time. More and more seniors seem to “retire” into the Internet where they can sit all day and surf the electronic universe, going nowhere.

What I’m secretly hoping for – what all of us reluctant retirees are hoping for, and waiting for – is the belated arrival of wisdom. The philosopher Hegel wrote: “The owl of Minerva flies only with the gathering of the dusk.” The owl represents wisdom in Greek mythology, and Hegel’s gnomic utterance is taken to mean that we reach understanding only at the end of an historical era – or at the end of a life. I keep a carved stone Owl of Minerva on my desk. I bought her in Greece many years ago, and I still hope she will bring me wisdom if I stick at the keyboard long enough. Nothing yet.

The retirement paradises that many people yearn for, like Florida, don’t appeal to me. But then no place seems ideal for doing nothing. Europe is probably better, because it is full of cafés and pubs where retired people (or at least men) can find a comfortable and sociable place to pass their time. I can imagine retiring to somewhere in southern Europe, sitting in cafés all day, and reading in the evenings. But it’s not going to happen any time soon.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Ground Hog Day

Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting “Ground Hog Day” shows a plain kitchen table in an old farmhouse. On the table are a knife, a plate, a cup and a saucer. Low sun slants in through the window and outside we can see a wire fence and some split logs. It looks like February.

The nostalgic simplicity of this painting is all the more poignant when Ground Hog Day actually comes around. It’s one of those picturesque American traditions that have been hijacked by the media circus. Groundhog Day harks back to an old European superstition that the weather on Candlemas, February 2nd, would predict the weather for the rest of the winter.

If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter has another flight
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain
Winter will not come again.

Well, it’s almost Candlemas Day, and you can look out the window and make your own forecast. A groundhog is not necessary. In fact a giraffe would be better, because it would throw a bigger shadow for the TV cameras.

Somehow one particular groundhog got saddled with the thankless job of weather forecasting. He was recruited in Punxsutawney Pennsylvania on February 2, 1886. Now thousands of people come to see the event, it’s on national television (and radio), and a movie was even set in Punxsutawney in 1994.

The Delaware Indians considered groundhogs to be honorable ancestors, which I’m sure they are. The groundhog, also known as the woodchuck or marmot, is a charming creature. He is vegetarian, non-violent, and he loves to sleep.

Now, here’s the thing: Punxsutawney Phil is not getting enough sleep. If everything went according to schedule this morning he was hauled out of his burrow at a place called Cobbler’s Knob at 7.25 a.m. Why so early? Left to his own devices Phil would probably sleep all day, and not worry about the weather. Me too.

This is a particular example of a general cultural problem in America: insomnia. People just don’t get enough sleep – that’s a medical fact. Mostly we are short of sleep because we get up far too early, and for no good reason. On the rare occasions when I need to be on the road before dawn – and believe me it has to be an emergency -I’m always astonished to see thousands of people rushing about in what is essentially the middle of the night. It’s not necessary, except for a very few workers in twenty-four-hour industries. It’s not healthy. Early flights are uncivilized. Breakfast meetings are barbaric. Some kids have to catch school buses at dawn, so they are half asleep all morning and spend the afternoons on the loose, getting into trouble. A reasonable bus schedule would improve student performance more than any number of standardized tests, and this early torture sets a pattern of morning insomnia that may last a lifetime.

There’s no virtue in getting up at crack of dawn, although early risers like to pretend that there is so they can feel superior the rest of us. The old proverb says: “The early bird catches the worm.” But surely this greedy obsession with worms isn’t healthy? Everything worth doing can be done between 9 and 5, or between 10 and 4 in winter. The rest is mere neurosis.

Whatever Punxsutawney Phil predicts on February 2 you can safely ignore it. For one thing he will be only half-awake, and for another my research reveals that the clever little rodent doesn’t live under a tree on a cold hillside at all. He lives in the nice, warm local library, getting fat on a diet of dog food and ice cream. He’s only put in his famous burrow a few minutes before the media event. He lives in a library! What does he know about the weather?

Copyright: David Bouchier

This is a Test

Nobody likes to be tested, yet tests and examinations seem to be an inescapable part of the human condition. The Chinese had an elaborate system of academic examinations more than two thousand years ago. The most ancient universities in Europe have been around for over a thousand years, teaching and testing, and it’s still going on. At the end of every semester students are faced with examinations. Enough knowledge has been imparted, so the professors hope, that the students can be quizzed and assigned to their proper places in the academic hierarchy.

Tests seem curiously redundant in this so-called information age. Never has so much knowledge been available so easily to so many with so little effort, regardless of education. By the magic of the algorithm, whatever it is, search engines like Google and databases like Wikipedia have become a vast electronic crib sheet that can answer all our questions in less time than in takes to say “duh.” Why waste valuable brain cells remembering anything? The only problem is that if your brain is empty to begin with you don’t know what questions to ask the oracle, or what use to make of the answers.

I’ve taken a lot of tests and exams in my lifetime, and I bet you have too. But they tend to get less frequent and more voluntary as one gets older. The last formal test of knowledge I can remember taking was thirty years ago. This is a rather alarming thought. I could be ignorant of virtually everything, and not know it. I’m sure I would get an F on my understanding of computers, baseball, particle physics, or celebrities. But maybe I don’t even know the things I think I know, because it is so long since I’ve been required to prove it. Nobody has asked me recently to explain the key ideas of Montesquieu’s great book The Spirit of the Laws, or to conjugate a Latin verb.

Of course we are informally tested all the time. Everyday life poses numerous questions that require an answer: Is it garbage collection day today? What kind of sauce goes best with halibut? Who is attorney general this week? and so on. But nobody is keeping score and, frankly, we get lazy. A question about solid geometry, which would be a gift to any student prepared for the test, can catch a senior citizen unprepared as he browses the shelves of the pharmacy. When conversation in the sports bar turns to Beethoven’s last quartets we may not be able to contribute anything useful.

I tested myself, using some SAT old exam papers from the web. I did well enough on sentence completion and comprehension, and I knew when Jamestown was settled and what the War of 1812 was about. But when it came to questions on science and calculus I flunked out completely. My final score was so embarrassingly bad that I don’t even want to talk about it.

It has often been said that the knowledge of one’s own ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. I think Socrates said it first, but maybe I’m wrong about that too. And perhaps that’s why we test so much, not to reveal ignorance to the examiner but to the student. Also, as every teacher knows, it’s a guilty pleasure to give a test and not have to answer it yourself.

But to reduce the complacent superiority often felt by adults perhaps we should all be tested from time to time, without the help of Mr. Google. It wouldn’t do us any harm to be reminded of all the important things have forgotten, or that we never knew.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Pandora Principle

There are very few certainties in human affairs. Since the last century, social scientists have tried to discover laws of human behavior that, like the laws of physics or mathematics, would allow us to predict the future. But the sum of all their efforts has been pitifully small.

The first truly universal law in human affairs was recognized hundreds of thousands of years before social science even existed. We know nothing about the discoverer except his name: Murphy. Back there in the Celtic twilight age, Murphy probably dropped a piece of meat in the fire for the umpteenth time, and then burned his fingers getting it out. From this and hundreds of similar experiences, this prehistoric genius was able to figure out that all human activities are subject to the same universal rule which (without false modesty) he named Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” It is simple, elegant, and invariably true.

It wasn’t until 1959 that the mind of man conceived another such absolute law of human life. In that year, an English eccentric called C. Northcote Parkinson stunned the world by revealing Parkinson’s Law which, in its basic form, states: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” This explained just about everything that wasn’t already explained by Murphy’s Law: why we’re always in a hurry; why we have bureaucracy; why we have gardening. We fill up empty time by inventing activities, declaring them essential, and then creating a timetable for these activities, that must be followed at all costs, so we are permanently running late: Parkinson’s Law.

That’s all we know for sure about the laws of human behavior. There are plenty of other so-called “laws” out there, of course. A new one is invented every day. But none of them has the rock-solid qualities of Murphy’s Law and Parkinson’s Law, which meet what scientists call the criterion of falsifiability. No test or experiment can prove Murphy or Parkinson wrong. They have achieved absolute truth.

I hesitate to unveil my own contribution to this tiny treasury of tribal wisdom. Being a shy and modest person, unlike the noble Parkinson or the prehistoric Mr. Murphy, I won’t name it after myself, but after the mythical figure whose actions perfectly most illustrate my discovery. I’ll call it The Pandora Principle.

Ms Pandora (we don’t know her first name) was the ancient Greek ancestress of the Biblical Eve. According to the Greek legend, Pandora was the first women on earth, and was destined to bring about the ruin of mankind. She arrived with a box that she was forbidden to open. But, of course, she did, and all the evils of the world flew out, and could never be put back in the box again.

Pandora, like Eve, was a victim of curiosity. It’s a very human trait. We’ve inherited a positive mania for opening boxes of all kinds without thinking what might be inside. From the Garden of Eden to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to Frankenstein’s Monster, it’s one of our most durable legends – the inquisitive enthusiast who just can’t resist trying out new things, and so causes endless trouble.

The Pandora Principle states: “Any new activity will cause more trouble than you can possibly imagine.” It applies equally to starting a pregnancy, a war, a new hobby, a career, or to any kind of new technology, philosophy, ideology or religion that the perverse mind of man can invent.

The twentieth century was a great age for trying new things without ever thinking about the consequences. We tried world war (twice), genocide, technological revolution, sexual revolution, population explosion, suburbs, strip malls, junk food, junk TV and junk education. They’re all out of the box, and there’s no way to put them back. All new technologies have a way of taking their revenge on us. Computers are a perfect illustration of The Pandora Principle. A hundred years from now, if anyone is still capable of thinking at all, they will be wondering: how did we ever get into this?

Socrates, who is generally celebrated for his wisdom, claimed to have a Divine Spirit that always visited him when he was about to take an impulsive action, and said, “Don’t do it.” We need a divine spirit like that, but we don’t have one unless we embrace The Pandora Principle.

In the eighteenth century, a turbulent age when people had good reason to be wary of bright new ideas, guests at dinner would drink a toast: “Let no new thing arise.” This is a bit literary for he modern taste, but we could do worse that to take as our motto for this unstable century, The Pandora Principle in its brief imperative form: “Just Don’t Start!”

Copyright: David Bouchier

It’s Cold

Despite the promise of global warming we still have to suffer through winter every year. There’s something quite scary about a long spell of cold weather. It’s a harsh reminder that we are living on a slightly warm ball of rock in the middle of an infinite space where the temperature is around minus two hundred and fifty degrees centigrade, just a few clicks of the thermostat above absolute zero. It felt close to absolute zero here the other day, when I was outside scraping ice off the car. The cold began to seep into me and I thought: a person could die in this, and of course people do.

Some years ago we were living in a small house on Long Island during just such a freezing spell when the heating failed completely. We called the repairman, but so had everyone else. The house just got colder, and colder, and colder. There was no fireplace, and we had no electric heaters. We huddled under blankets with the cat, suddenly as vulnerable as homeless people – except that we had a car outside, and could go somewhere safe if things got really bad. How fragile our comfortable lives can be! One faulty machine, one over-stressed system and nature reclaims her territory, and her temperature.

Human civilization began in warm, welcoming places. What madness brought us to this unpredictable latitude, where just dealing with the weather takes up so much time and money? We spend months in summer trying to stay cool at enormous expense, and waste months in winter dealing with and paying for snow and ice. Even now I can hear the furnace down in the basement, slurping oil like an elephant at a water hole. Hundreds of thousands of other furnaces on Long Island and in Connecticut and all over the northern part of the country are gulping oil just as greedily. Perhaps invading Iraq wasn’t such a bad move after all. We need every drop of oil under the surface of the planet, just to keep warm and keep driving.

The Pilgrim Fathers understood their mistake soon as they landed at Plymouth Rock. Half of them died during their first winter in New England. But they stubbornly refused to make the obvious decision and head back to the temperate climate of Old England. Surely any amount of religious persecution would have been better than this annual meteorological persecution? Just because we can live somewhere doesn’t mean that we should, any more that “All you can eat” equates with “All you should eat.” Somewhere between the possibility and the decision, common sense should intervene. It’s significant that, when people grow old and acquire wisdom, they immediately move to Florida.

Those of us who remain in the northeast are the true inheritors of the stubborn Puritan tradition that allowed these bleak latitudes to be populated in the first place. Humans are fond of inhabiting places unfit for habitation. Las Vegas, for example, is about as sustainable in the long run as a base camp on Mars. It’s one of the strongest arguments I know against human rationality. Would rational creatures live in Maine or Alaska or the Scottish Hebrides? They would not. A truly rational race of creatures would confine its activities between latitudes 30 North and 30 South, and leave the rest of the earth to animals with lots of fur, cross-country skiers, and heating oil salesmen.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Left Behind

Every New Year we have to make a decision whether to look forward or back. Which will it be: nostalgia, or paranoia? The media cater to both tastes. They offer a variety of retrospectives on the year just gone (the year in sports, the year in literature, the year in political scandals), and previews of the future as imagined by their editorial writers. The past holds no surprises. But the future is a deepening mystery.

The most irritating thing about the future for my generation is the feeling that we have been left behind by science and technology. After a lifetime of learning and becoming (as we hoped) more knowledgeable every year, in the past decade we have been pushed back the other way, into the dark recesses of Plato’s cave. Every fresh edition of the magazine called WIRED, for example, makes me feel more stupid. The end-of-year edition had what they called a ‘Geekipedia,’ to allow us technological slackers to catch up. We can learn what a Facebook is and why everyone needs a Seventh Generation Game Console with Bluetooth (whatever that is) in order to play a game called Resistance (whatever that is). There were also pages of “cool gift ideas,” but I was unable to guess what any of them actually were.

The purpose of all these gadgets and gizmos seem to be twofold. About half of them are designed to keep us in communication with everyone and everything, everywhere and all the time, which is a nightmare in itself. The other half, the games, are designed to DISconnect us from any kind of reality. It’s a disturbing combination in itself, but the crucial point is that it is all achieved through the black box.

This mind-numbing dictionary of techno-speak doesn’t address what seems to me to be the real issue, namely that our lives are being swallowed up and processed by unintelligible black boxes. A ‘black box’ is any device, gadget or system where we can observe the input and the output, but have no idea what goes on in between. The human brain is a good example, the federal government is another. Every one of these consumer electronic gadgets is a black box to virtually everyone who will buy and use it.

How does it come about that my life is perfectly happy, organized and productive without any of it? Without Blueteeth or Blackberries, or so much as a Radius Hornet Pro G2 or a Wamcom XC8. I am content. Obviously I must be missing something, perhaps even the true path to happiness in the twenty-first century (batteries not included). On the other hand I may be a spectator at the greatest con trick in human history.

No wonder people worry about an incomprehensible future. The electronic revolution is not yet fifty years old, and who knows what comes next? It struck me that this uncertainty might explain of the phenomenal success of the series of novels by Tim La Haye and Jerry B. Jenkins known as the “Left Behind” books. This is an apocalyptic saga in which those who worship right and vote right are carried up to heaven while the rest of us are left behind in a world which, without the guidance of right-thinking people, can and does fall into chaos.

These novels are the ultimate cure for future paranoia. They represent the end of all futures. After the bad people like me have been severely dealt with history will end, and the elect will live on together forever in perfect bliss, if they can stand each other, and I bet they won’t subscribe to WIRED magazine either.

The Left Behind books hit the bestseller lists in the late ‘90s – everyone assumed because of fears about the millennium. But they are still hugely popular, even though the twenty-first century has turned out to be such fun, and I blame it on the technology blues. We are entering a new age of ignorance, surrounded by things we know how to switch on and off but that are otherwise as mysterious as magic stones out of a Harry Potter book. From being Lords of Creation we have become ignorant peasants, and helpless consumers of other people’s mysteries. Our only hope of enlightenment is the twenty-four hour customer help care line, which nobody ever answers.

So nostalgia is the order of the day. Never mind the future, let’s celebrate the long-lost, intelligible past. The farther back we go, the more we will understand.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Thomas Hobbes and the Spirit of Christmas

Driving a car into Manhattan during the Christmas season is a really dumb thing to do. But I do it every year, taking a new route each time. The result is always the same. Last year, on December 20, I was heading in from Long Island, listening to gridlock alert warnings on the radio, and getting the expected news that the Midtown Tunnel was backed up halfway to Montauk Point. So I headed through Queens towards the 59th Street Bridge, hoping for better luck.

A new traffic pattern had been established at the 59th Street Bridge. This fact was announced on large green signs at the approaches, although the signs did not suggest what drivers should do about it. It would be more helpful if the signs had said: “New Traffic Pattern Ahead: Turn Around and Go Straight Home.”

I later looked up “pattern” in my dictionary, and I think they chose the wrong word. A “pattern” is a design, or an orderly arrangement of things. What I found at the 59th Street Bridge was not a traffic pattern, but a traffic catastrophe.

The essential problem seemed to be an absence of the proper Christmas spirit. Several very busy highways converge at the bridge, and the junctions are “controlled” (for want of a better word) by traffic signals. When all the roads are full, simple commonsense suggests that we should refrain from driving into a junction if we can’t drive out of it, or we will block traffic coming from the other direction. Not only did virtually every driver refuse to acknowledge this simple fact, but most of them aggressively did everything they could to make the gridlock worse.
The noise of horns was shattering, although no amount of honking could shift this solid mass. Everybody was angry, everybody was frustrated, and the traffic scarcely moved. No police or traffic officer was anywhere in sight. I guess they’ve learned to stay away from this area. But absence of police wasn’t really the problem. Even the whimsically-named “New Traffic Pattern” wasn’t the problem. Human beings were the problem. The whole mess could have been cleared up in five minutes by the use of simple courtesy and a minimal amount of goodwill towards men, and indeed towards women.

I was reminded, as I often am, of Thomas Hobbes – a seventeenth century English philosopher who had a bleak view of human nature. Human beings, he said, are driven by fear and greed and the desire to get ahead. They will always do the selfish thing rather than the sensible thing. Hobbes would have regarded the anarchy at the 59th street Bridge as just one more proof of his thesis. The only way we could have a civilized society, according to Hobbes, would be to submit to a single all-powerful ruler, a kind of totalitarian Father Christmas, who would sort out all our arguments and traffic tangles, and force us to act like decent human beings, whether we want to or not. This seems unlikely to work, at least in New York.

I made it into Manhattan eventually, and left my car in a parking garage at a special low holiday rate of only about forty dollars a minute. Midtown Manhattan at this time of year reminds me of all the things I like about Christmas – the decorations, the food, the music, the once-a-year orgy of sociability, and the real spirit of charity. Perhaps it would be better, though, if charity was spread more evenly through the year. It must be disconcerting for the poor and homeless to be adorned with paper hats and stuffed to bursting with turkey one minute, and dumped back into the subways the next.

I walked into a big toy store. It was packed. The faces of the shoppers were grim and anxious, no happier than the traffic victims at the 59th Street Bridge. But the stuffed animals seemed uniformly happy. I stood in the middle of the toy store, reflecting on stuffed animals, Thomas Hobbes, the 59th Street Bridge, and the Christmas spirit. And it dawned on me that these benign bears, rapturous reindeer, elated elves and sunny Santa Clauses – not to mention the eternally grinning entertainers on TV – are like medieval court jesters who clowned around while the serious business of the court went ahead. They are performing the spirit of Christmas, so we don’t have to. Our job is to get on with the shopping.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Thanksgiving Day

This is a strange day, here in the suburbs of Long Island. Everything seems to have stopped. The roads are almost empty, many houses are left dark and silent as families make the compulsory pilgrimage to grandmother’s house, and even the obsessive leaf-blowing husbands have put away their dreadful machines for the day. It’s almost spooky, like the set for a disaster movie, and I like it. We could use more quiet days like this, more days with no shopping, and no mail.

We won’t get them, of course. It is un-American to be quiet and relaxed, and almost unpatriotic to stop shopping. The friendly salutation “Take it easy” is wonderfully inappropriate. Nobody takes it easy except when a special holiday makes it compulsory.

I’m not forgetting that Thanksgiving is very hard work for whoever gets stuck with preparing the big dinner – usually mother or grandma. But I’m in charge of Thanksgiving food in this house, and I have my pre-prepared turkey product with cranberry stuffing ready to go. Once it is in the oven I will follow my own advice, and take it easy.