Quote of The Week

“Philosophy teaches us to bear with equanimity the misfortunes of our neighbors.”

Oscar Wilde

Archives

Home of the gods

I’ve been to Washington DC many times over the years, but I never feel comfortable there. The architecture is too monumental, too reminiscent of the Roman Empire at its unsteady peak. Nothing is human scale. Even cultural institutions, like the superb National Gallery of Art, force us to climb a giant marble staircase to the entrance. We are made to feel like peasants approaching a medieval cathedral, where we will be privileged to worship the really important gods.

It doesn’t really surprise me that so many Americans find the Federal government alien and remote. When people work in big, fancy office buildings – especially ones as overpowering as these – they suffer from what I call “Edifice Complex.” The offices look so monumental, so important that the people in them must be important. Those of us who work in modest offices or spare bedrooms or converted garages don’t necessarily share this view. Folks who don’t work in offices at all, but do real things with their hands, may be even more skeptical. Indeed, you only have to drive a few blocks from Pennsylvania Avenue to see slum building covered in subversive and even revolutionary graffiti. The further outside the Beltway you travel, the more disconnected Washington seems. The IRS and the Department of Justice routinely deal with cases of people who would prefer to opt out of the whole federal thing. They fervently believe that Montana or Idaho, or even California, have nothing at all to do with Washington DC. I have it on good authority that these claims do not usually result in the refund of federal taxes; so don’t bother to try it.

From the point of view of location and climate, Washington DC is a terrible place for the capital. It made political sense in the 1790s to put it on the boundary between north and south, but not now. The south is already another country, and the nation is so vast that any government in any single place will be far away from most of its citizens, and therefore an object of suspicion.

This set me thinking about the European monarchies of the late middle ages and the renaissance. Those kings and queens didn’t rule such huge territories but transportation was so slow that their problem was essentially the same as Washington’s. The far-flung territories were hard to govern. Monarchs solved the problem by moving around. Queen Elizabeth I of England or Henry IV of France, for example, would go walkabout with their entire court, and inflict themselves on citizens who lived far away from the official capital. They might stay for months, eating the locals out of house and home, and governing from there. This “Progress” from place to place established the monarch’s authority all over the realm, and reminded his more distant subjects who was in charge.

This is surely an idea whose time has come again – a mobile government that would be at the same time closer to the people, less expensive to run, and more secure from the threat of terrorism. The modern federal bureaucracy, with its almost three million employees, would be frankly impossible to move. So they would have to be slimmed down to a nice, tight, manageable team that could work and be accommodated in small towns all over the country. In Thomas Jefferson’s time the government employed about sixty people. That should still be enough, now that they have computers to do the work.

Just to start things off, I would like to see the federal government come to Long Island. Our local professional building in Stony Brook has several vacant offices. A few weeks crammed in there might give them a different perspective on things. Then they could move on, perhaps to Topeka, Kansas. It would be a liberal education for the Washington elite. Of course they would soon want to stop and settle somewhere out of sheer exhaustion, just as the royal courts did in the seventeenth century. Probably, they would settle in Texas, or in Florida, close to Orlando. But that’s fine. At least they would be out of downtown Washington DC, and all those imposing buildings would be empty, and would fade slowly into the grass and weeds like the ruins of ancient Rome.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Time Out of Mind

A whole hour of sleep has been snatched away from us by the arbitrary imposition of so-called “daylight saving time.” Not only do we suffer this annual act of daylight robbery, but we waste half of Sunday trying and failing to reset all our digital timepieces, although in this age of atomic clocks they should surely reset themselves.

Daylight saving time is unsettling because it is so pointless. We can’t save daylight, any more than we can save time. We might as well claim to make people live longer by starting newborn babies at ten years of age. Benjamin Franklin may have said that time is money, but even he didn’t believe in daylight saving time. In fact he composed a satire about it in 1784. His satire was revived and written into law during the First World War, to save fuel by reducing the use of artificial light. Nobody seems to have suggested that simply going to bed earlier would have had the same effect. The time change was extended by a month in 2007, for no good reason that I can see.

Daylight saving time, which is humorously called “Summer Time” in England, is a source of enormous international confusion. Some obstinate foreign countries, as well as states like Arizona, ignore it entirely. Most of Western Europe changes its clocks two weeks later, and some nations indulge in double daylight saving, putting their clocks forward two hours. You can imagine the trouble this causes for the people who write airline timetables, and for the unlucky travelers who try to make sense of them. Does anybody really know what time it is? Only cats know. They follow an absolute timetable, demanding their meals at the same hour each day no matter what the clocks might say.

Time is such a slippery thing, and even more so after the latest confirmation of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Time can twist, wobble and turn back on itself, and it does! I could have told Einstein that. Only two weeks ago we had a whole day added to the year on February 29. Where did that come from?

We are already a nation of insomniacs, consuming billions of sleeping pills each year, and this neurotic fiddling with the clocks doesn’t help. On average, we sleep two hours less each night than our grandparents did. The vast majority of Americans get only six or seven hours of sleep, instead of the recommended eight or nine, which adds up to a whole night lost every week. Lack of sleep is blamed for everything from dismal job performance to rotten sex lives. A government report estimated that tired drivers cause a third of all fatal accidents, or ten thousand deaths a year. Researchers in Canada have proved what we all knew already: lack of sleep makes us more stupid. Every lost hour wipes one point off our IQ score. Two weeks of short nights can bring our IQ down to 85, which is borderline retarded. If things go on like this we won’t even have the intelligence to go to bed before the Late Show.

If the scientists are right, evolution is being thrown into reverse by this vast, cumulative sleep debt. Daylight saving time itself is a very good example of how insidiously our intelligence is beginning to fail. Any well-rested person can see that we don’t need to save daylight. There’s far too much daylight as it is. Longer nights would allow us all to enjoy a little more sleep without guilt, and wake up smarter. What we need is darkness saving time.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Too Much Advice

Nothing is more annoying than advice. It’s not so bad when it comes from an unreliable source like one of your relatives, because you can dismiss it out of hand. Just to take one example: all through my childhood I was told by my mother and my numerous aunts that, if I got wet, I would catch a cold. Well, I got wet almost every day on my way to school, and I had a cold for years. It seemed like an open and shut case of cause and effect. Years later I read that research had proved conclusively that nobody can catch a cold just by getting wet. My colds came from school, where we had so many viruses on the loose that it was virtually a biological warfare establishment. My mother refused all her life to believe this, and always tried to prevent me from getting wet.

Everybody likes to give advice but nobody wants to take it, including me. Whenever I am given a piece of good advice I immediately pass it on to somebody else who will benefit from it more, and I suggest that you do the same. Giving advice is satisfying to the giver, and there have been thousands of advice books published since ancient times. George Washington himself wrote one on etiquette. But we seem to be living in an age when nothing can be done without first seeking advice, and it has gone way beyond books. It comes at us day and night like a horizontal hailstorm, driven by search engines, websites and You Tube Videos that claim to tell us everything we don’t need to know about money, health, cooking, childcare, cat care, car maintenance, gardening, Tai Chi, extreme knitting, rock climbing, how to turn your rifle into a machine gun, what to eat, what to wear, what to think. There seems to be nothing we can do without advice, nothing we must decide for ourselves, nothing we need to think about.

The impulse to give advice might be a heartwarming example of human generosity and unselfishness, except that the advice often leads, directly or indirectly, to buying some product or embracing some idea. Disinterested advice is hard to find

What troubles me is the question of who is giving all this advice, and why. The purveyors of public information are generically referred to as “they,” as in “They say that sunflower seeds will help you to live longer”, so we all rush out to the local bird food store to buy sunflower seeds. But a next week a different pundit will undoubtedly claim that sunflower seeds are deadly, and will be just as sure about it.

We’ve all wondered about this anonymous “they,” the invisible advice-givers who seem to know everything. We know nothing about them. If they were certified and qualified experts they would tell us, but they don’t. They are free to generate any quantity of bad and sometimes dangerous advice, fake news, fantastical theories…it’s a democracy of ignorance). If we accept everyone who offers free advice as an “expert” we are in deep trouble, and in danger of believing anything. Our dependence on irresponsible, unreliable sources will be complete. Insidious reliance on self-proclaimed experts.

The danger of this is that, in the swirling fog of contradictory advice there’s no chance to worry about nuances of meaning, let alone evidence. This falls straight into the trap of human nature. We can just choose the information we like best, which I suspect is what everyone else on the planet, including me, does. If “they” say that spinach is good for me I dismiss it on the grounds that the research is inadequate, and probably funded by the Spinach Growers’ Council. If “they” say that red wine is good for me, I assume, without further investigation, that the research is one hundred percent reliable.

One of the many things that annoys me about all this advice is that nobody ever asks me for mine. I have plenty to give, on almost every subject including those I know nothing about. But on the rare occasions when I suggest a beneficial lifestyle change to someone I know my proposals are greeted with incredulity, or amusement, or both. It seems that anonymous characters on You Tube are more to be trusted than a real, non-electronic person standing right in front of you. My advice, for what it’s worth, is to beware of advice and, if you think you have any advice to give, keep it to yourself.

ccopyright: David Bouchier

Winter

Winter has started gently this year. On the East Coast the temperature has sometimes hit the 50s since the winter solstice. But it won’t last. As my other always said: “We’ll pay for this later.”

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.

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 instantly 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

Love on the Radio

Music has been around forever, since long before writing, and perhaps even before articulate speech. If you listen to some of the latest songs, you conclude think that articulate speech hasn’t been invented yet.

Plato said that music is the most primitive, passionate expression of the soul, and that’s why most music is about love. It always has been. When the phonograph was invented back in the 1880s, it was an instant popular success because you could buy records of romantic songs like “Silver Threads Among the Gold” or “Shine on Harvest Moon,” or “Ida Sweet as Apple Cider,” and play them over and over again.

Then suddenly, in the 1920s, you could pluck music out of the ether with that magical invention, the radio. The air was filled with invisible music, crackly and full of static, but recognizably music. My grandmother refused to have radio in the house, because she didn’t want those radio waves coming through her walls. If she had taken the risk, she would certainly have disapproved, because it was nothing but love songs. “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “Where’d You Get Those Eyes,” “If you were the Only Girl in the World,” Good Night Sweetheart.”

Right from the start, commercial radio sold itself as a romantic medium. There were even love songs about the radio, with awful lyrics: “If you want to reach your hearts desire/You don’t have to send her word by wire/Use an amplifier.” Ouch! The radio DJ became a romantic figure, because he – it was almost always he – had the seductive power to deliver love’s message. You can’t beat a lover who’s always there, always faithful, always finds the right words and, if he gets boring, can always be switched off.

Three quarters of a century later, you can tune into love songs no matter where you are, or what you’re doing. Drivers drive with love songs; students dream peacfully through lectures with love songs pumping out of their tiny headphones; joggers jog to love songs; housewives (if there are any housewives left) do their housework to the accompaniment of love songs. Above all, lovers love to love songs. Because nothing much has changed on the airwaves: love still seems to be all we need.

Love desired, love lost, love gained, love rejected. It’s as if feminism never happened; heavy metal and death metal and punk and rap never happened. Most of the lyrics are as romantic now as they ever were. There’s a lot of love on the radio, and sometimes I worry, like my grandmother, about all that stuff coming through the walls of our house. What is it doing to our brains? Right now, there are invisible waves going through my head, and yours, silent frequency modulated love messages tickling our neurons and stimulating who knows what fantastic desires.

There’s so much love on the radio, that a cynic might wonder if there’s love anywhere else. The popular songs hint at a yearning for something just out of reach, something that many people want, but that’s too embarrassing to say. The songs speak for us, offering love purified of ambiguity and carnality and transience and doubt: Ideal Love. Plato would have approved.

In love songs, men promise absolute commitment and eternal faithfulness; which is something you don’t hear very often from men who are speaking prose. And when women sing love songs, they put such passion into it, more than you usually find out here in the suburbs.

There should be enough romance on the radio to satisfy anyone. But there are always people ready to be seduced by the latest thing, and I see that a local television station is promoting video Valentines. This is a huge mistake. Television is an unromantic, unforgiving medium. When it comes to love, you don’t want to see too clearly. A word is worth a thousand pictures. And a good song is worth a million words.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Chaos Theory

Messy people drive me crazy. People who are obsessive and paranoid about tidiness
claim that I drive them crazy, which is hard to understand. My system for
dealing with the chaos of life is perfectly balanced. Everything that matters is in
perfect order, and everything that doesn’t matter is left to arrange itself as nature
intended. The disagreements, when they occur, are about what matters.

It seems perfectly straightforward to me. Spaces in which I need to work, such
as an office or a kitchen, must always be perfectly neat or nothing gets done.
Spaces in which I want to relax, such as a living room or a bedroom, are much
more comfortable when they are a bit untidy. If the place looks like something
looted by the Mongol Hordes that’s fine by me, as long as I don’t have to work in
it.

Some people just can’t seem to grasp this simple distinction. They choose to
live in a state of complete chaos or a state of complete order, both of which are
uncomfortable and unnecessary. Logical argument is a waste of time with people
like these. They have no sense of balance.

Psychologists tell us that habits like messiness and tidiness start very early in
life, and may even be hard wired. On the whole, tidy people have the easiest time
because nobody ever tries to change them, and they can spend their whole lives
feeling superior to their less tidy spouses and children.

Messy people, on the other hand, come under a lot of pressure. Somehow, in
our neurotic culture, tidiness has become equated with cleanliness, and therefore
with virtue. Everything conspires against those of us who are sometimes just a little
bit messy.

I have suffered from the virtuous criticism of ultra-tidy people all my life. For
years I attended a high school where neatness was an obsession. Then I was
drafted into the army where neatness rose to the level of a major psychological
disorder. Young men who had never made a bed in their lives were forced to create
impossibly geometric arrangements of sheets and blankets, set out all their
possessions with military precision, and even smarten up themselves. For most of
us it was a kind of torture.

It’s often said that messy people are more creative and, in my experience that’s
true. Creativity happens when the mind is open to the unexpected. Tidy people
want everything arranged and predicted in advance so nothing unexpected can
happen. Chaos is creative. According to Milton, God created the heavens and the
earth out of chaos. You can’t have a better recommendation than that.

It may also be true that messy people have superior brains. How else could
they ever do anything, or find anything? They seem to have a kind of depth perception,
like sonar, that allows them to plunge into heaps of clutter and filth and
emerge with exactly the item they wanted. Who needs a filing system when you
have extra-sensory perception?

Tidy people, on the other hand, claim to be more efficient, which they
undoubtedly are. But efficiency isn’t always a virtue. The past century produced
some stellar examples of highly efficient bureaucracies that got a tremendous
amount done, all of it very bad. There’s no freedom without a certain amount of
chaos.

Messiness versus neatness is one of those irreconcilable personality conflicts,
like early risers versus late sleepers, introverts versus extroverts, optimists versus
pessimists, cat people versus dog people, and so on. The only solution is the one
we have actually evolved through thousands of years of cultural experience. We
call it “the attraction of opposites.” The contrary personalities must always marry
one another, thus becoming one reasonably well-balanced person.

It works for us.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Democratic Weather

Mark Twain complained that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. And indeed we are perpetually fascinated by the weather precisely because we can do absolutely nothing about it. We can’t predict it, and we can’t change it short of moving to a different climate zone, which is a form of cheating. The weather is like illness: we can run, and we can hide, but in the end we have to face it.

The arbitrariness of the weather led our ancestors to assume that it was sent by capricious gods to annoy or punish mere mortals, or perhaps just for celestial entertainment. This theory has persisted for thousands of years, and I’m inclined to believe it. Weather forecasting, in spite of satellites and computers and sophisticated modeling techniques, remains almost as fallible as stock market forecasting. The weather will do what it will do, sending us from sub-zero to springtime warmth in a day or two, and from drought to inundation in a matter of hours.

Winter here in the northeast is full of surprises, mostly nasty ones. It keeps us off balance. The only good thing I can find to say said about our erratic weather is that it protects us against political enthusiasms. If you don’t believe me, watch the television news every night for a week (Public Television of course). You will see a lot of political action all around the world. Most of this action consists of young men rioting, setting fire to things, waving machetes, looting stores firing guns in the air, and generally behaving badly. The scene is so familiar that we tend to glaze over. Where is this particular riot happening? Who can tell? All we can say for sure is that the participants are never wearing overcoats or fur hats or snow boots, never. They are very casually dressed, as if for the beach, and this is because they are warm. They are in the tropic zone, somewhere between latitudes twenty north and twenty south. Riots are no fun in a cold climate unless you can arrange to have them indoors.

Even in more moderate latitudes a period of warm weather can spell trouble. The Paris police, for example, will not go into certain suburban areas on very hot days. But the warmth doesn’t last long, that’s the important thing. Nineteenth century social philosophers took it for granted that climate affected behavior. Because they knew nothing about political correctness they referred to the “Warm blooded races” of the tropics. Now we understand that blood and race have nothing to do with it. It’s warm weather that causes the trouble. Hot weather cultures are different from cold weather cultures, politically speaking, and it seems obvious why. Nobody can sustain political faith, let alone enthusiasm, through a northern winter. These chilly latitudes were settled by dour Germans and Scots and Norwegians who had been miserably uncomfortable at home, and crossed the ocean and the continent to find somewhere even worse. The weather reminded them every day of uncertainty, fate, misery, and death, which is how they liked it. This gives northerners a cranky, negative disposition, a disinclination to believe anything, especially political manifestos, and weather forecasts. The cold, and the anticipation of it, cools our passions all the way down to freezing point. Steady warmth, by contrast, is inflammatory. It promotes outdoor activities like mass protests, and riots, and it releases an enormous amount of energy that we ice people have to waste on scraping windscreens, shoveling snow, and simply avoiding hypothermia.

Even within this nation there is a political thermometer. South of Mason Dixon politics tends to become more extreme, and dirtier (think Florida in 2000 and 2004, not to mention Texas and Louisiana). Between latitudes 30 North and 30 South people don’t seem to have much use for terms like liberal, progressive, tolerant, or broadminded. They are drawn to authoritarianism and rigidity. It is more than unfortunate that the federal capital is in Washington DC and not where it started in Philadelphia. Those long hot summers in DC overheat the blood even of politicians from Maine and North Dakota. They lose perspective. They forget about the uncertainty principle, and they begin to think in terms of absolute truths. Since there is no such thing as an absolute truth this leads to silliness, and finally to madness. We are only saved by the fact that winter eventually descends on Washington and restores politicians to a normal condition of confusion, depression, and helplessness.

If my theory is correct – that moderate temperatures promote moderate politics and vice versa – we have many things to be thankful for – not least that the southern tip of Florida falls just short of the tropic line, although only just.* Goodness knows what they might get up to down there if they had another couple of degrees of southern latitude. We should also consider the possibility, if my theory is correct, that the effort to plant liberal democracy in the blazingly hot Middle East has less chance than a snowball planted in a similar place.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Too Cold

Winter started gently this year. On the East Coast the temperatures were in the high 50s on December 21st, the winter solstice. But it won’t last. As my other always said: “We’ll pay for this later.”

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.

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 instantly 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

A Postmodern Christmas

At this time of year many of us travel thousands of miles to be, however briefly, with our families. My mother’s generation did Christmas the old fashioned way – the way Charles Dickens made famous, a kind of all-in wrestling with food. Everyone had to be there. No excuses for absence were tolerated.

En route to one such extravaganza we stayed at The Penta Hotel at Heathrow airport: a comfortable cosmopolitan limbo between one life and the next. The airport hotel is a reminder of how many people in the world care nothing for our parochial little festivities. The hotel is full of Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and atheists, and probably Confucians and practitioners of voodoo and witchcraft into the bargain. They stroll through the lobby and glance at the decorations with mild amazement, and pass on to other airports and other cultures where Santa Claus would not dare to tread.

That’s not surprising, although it does put Christmas hysteria in proper perspective. The hotel brochure was surprising. It announced “The Festive Season at Heathrow,” not for travelling witches but for British people, Londoners, who felt the need to celebrate Christmas in the middle of the world’s busiest airport.

The airport hotel program included festive disco parties, festive lunches and dinners and a grand all-day Christmas celebration with lunch and dinner and entertainments. Just in case you are tempted, like Bob Crachitt, to go back to your miserable home, the hotel has rooms at a special low price for Christmas Eve and Christmas night.

I was curious enough, or rude enough, to ask the hotel marketing manager why on earth any sane person would come deliberately to Heathrow airport of all places to celebrate this religious and family festival. She was naturally puzzled by my question.

“It never struck me until you said it,” she responded, doubtfully. It’s not an obvious place to choose for your Christmas Day, is it? But we’ve got brilliant views of the runways; so if you’re interested in plane watching, this is the place to be.”

Yes, they do have brilliant views of the runways, and perhaps this is our clue. An airport is a symbol of escape. It’s a space on the edge of the world, like a beach. Just being there suggests the possibility of being somewhere else completely different. The planes take off outside the window, one every minute, and you can watch them break contact with the earth and fly free. The airport is the ultimate non-sacred place: religion itself can’t make any claims on you here. You are safe from time and place and connections – everything.

While we’re at the airport we inhabit the ideal version of the postmodern world. Postmodern: it’s a nasty word, but somebody has to say it, especially now when we’re all trying to sink back into the traditional past for a few days. There are hundreds of books with as many definitions of postmodernism: don’t waste your time. I can tell you what postmodernism means: chaos. We are rushing ahead to a new world which is not traditional or modern, where everything is like an airport with people and ideas and values constantly in transit and nobody really belonging anywhere.

But “We’re all connected,” so the telephone company sings. And what a comfort it is to reach out and touch those buttons this festive season. We’re all connected with fiber optic lines and satellites and e-mail and smart phones – we can all communicate. But communication and connection, perhaps, are two different things. Sigmund Freud once lamented that every new invention, such as the steam train and the telephone, gave his family an excuse to live further away: and he should know about families.

So here’s my Christmas thought from the Heathrow airport Hotel. In spite of all our communications technologies and our busy chatter over the FM bands, and the great planes that fly us magically from place to place – in spite of all these and maybe because of them – whatever the telephone company may have told you, in this hyper-mobile postmodern world, we’re all dis-connected.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Contracted Out

I was trying and failing to cross a suburban street when I had an epiphany of sorts. If I’d been in my car I would have missed it. But when you walk around here you see the world in a whole new light.

The junction where I was standing was at a point where streets leading out of two expensive suburban areas came together, funneling traffic towards the main highway. It was the middle of the day, and I couldn’t get across because of the stream of contractors’ vehicles, mostly white vans and black trucks, that came roaring out one behind the other, heading (I presume) for the delis and fast food emporiums a mile or two away. An occasional SUV was sandwiched in the truck convoy, but essentially the road belonged to the contractors at that moment.

After a while it became obvious that nobody was going to slow down for a mere pedestrian, and I amused myself by identifying the various trades and services represented in this high-speed procession. These guys could rebuild Iraq in a week. Electricians, plumbers, builders, and lawn services accounted for about half the traffic. The other half covered the whole range of domestic needs and desires: satellite and cable TV companies, carpet professionals, window and glass repair, heating and air conditioning, landscaping, roofing, pool services, tree services, and nameless trucks to perform nameless services. Perhaps these last belong to those semi-mythical “handymen” who can fix anything, and who therefore need to keep their identities secret. The convoy seemed never-ending. These were well-established suburbs, not new developments, but they obviously need a lot of work.

What a lot of maintenance we suburban dwellers seem to need, and how helpless we have become in practical matters. We’re a long way from colonial self-sufficiency. My father, and probably yours too, could handle most domestic repairs and maintenance while holding a full-time job. Now it seems that we can’t do anything, or perhaps simply that we don’t want to. Wealthy Victorians might employ a dozen servants to maintain a family of four. Modern families are smaller but houses are much bigger, and we need an army of contractors to keep them running.

I’m not claiming the moral high ground here. I’ve learned to be as incompetent as the next househusband. When the electrical system crashes I instantly call Andrew the electrician, which is all too easy because he lives just across the street. Joe the plumber has been with us so long he’s almost one of the family. But this learned helplessness is getting out of hand. When we bought some new curtains – or “window treatments” as they insisted on calling them – the store tried to sell us an incredibly expensive “installation service.” Hanging curtains is job that even I can accomplish with the help of a small drill, a yardstick, and some bad language. We haven’t quite got around to installation services for light bulbs, but it will happen.

Back in the paranoid 1950s Levittown became the first real Long Island suburb and its founder, William Levitt, said: “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist; he has too much to do.” Half a century later, it seems that a lot of men have all but abandoned their domestic maintenance duties. What are they doing instead? The National Security Agency should look into this.

Copyright: David Bouchier