Thursday, January 31, 2013

Wasteland -or- Why Cumberland County Isn't Tuscany

Coming into consciousness this morning feeling seasick -- that hellish symphony is being played again.  It's the chainsaws first, followed by the whirr-chunk-slurp of the brutally efficient Vermeer wood chopper attached, I know, to a dump truck.  It's just on the other side of the houses to the east, but I can visualize the destruction all too clearly.  The big maples are not just being trimmed to half-dead hulks; they're being cut like sausages and removed.

Our HOA Landscape Committee does not even lie low for a while anymore.  One expensive, landraping project follows another in quick succession.  Thousands and thousands of dollars were spent over several years removing all the bark mulch and replacing it with shredded tire bits painted red.  Even the landscaping contractor told them it was a bad, bad idea.  Then at additional expense it was all removed, without a word being said in the occasional newsletter.  You would think that fiasco would have sobered the Committee up, but no.  They tore through the recently completely replanted traffic islands, leaving a desert dotted with the sad remains: more expense in pursuit of ugliness.  All the pink spirea shrubs in the community were cut down to the ground -- we'll see how many are frozen to the roots this winter and die.  In the past two years, 21 trees have been removed.  As I watched the deaths today, a neighbor I barely recognized drove by and stopped.  She said that she'd heard the Committee is going to remove all the large trees, not just these two.  Without telling us, as usual.  I felt sick.

In 1559, Cosimo the First, Medici family ruler of Tuscany, promulgated a law forbidding the cutting of trees in the Appenine mountains, enforced with severe penalties.  He saw the population growing quickly, with deforestation and farmland erosion inevitably following (he probably knew what had happened in ancient Greece).   A concept foreign to us, and sure to raise screams of protest from the ruling right wing around here -- that resources must be managed wisely for use while being preserved for the future.  Meanwhile, a proposed WalMart and a Sam's Club nearby will surely get approved.  While the Club will be built where an abandoned big box store now sits (trading nothin' for nothin'), the WalMart will sit on a low, marshy area crossed by unnamed creeks and the only treed area anywhere nearby that actually seems to have some life (but do the birds, deer and turtles make money for anybody?) -- a loss/loss situation.

What I call Redneck Landscaping spreads like an alien fungus in all directions in the eastern part of the county:  litter in amounts I can't even keep up with anymore (I put the fast food and convenience store crap right back in their trash cans), and endless slashing of trees and any pleasant flowering shrub (other than choking vines and weeds, of course) everywhere.  What's left of the Bradford pears along both sides of the boulevard were recently cut even worse than in the first picture above; some look like maimed corpses -- trunks with a few stubs.  Toward the Poplar Avenue intersection, the apartment development owners removed all the original trees along the sidewalk, so in the summer it's the Western Desert of Egypt without the sand (yet).  The old shopping center about a 15-minute drive away where our gym is (low rent = low fees) recently trashed all their trees to the extent it looks like those parts of western Tennessee we saw flattened by tornadoes a few years ago.  As I look around, I see hundreds of maintenance items they've neglected for a decade, and that's what they spend their time and money on?

On the monument to Duke Cosimo I in Florence there's a bronze plaque depicting bees gathered in symmetry.  His philosophy regarding man and nature is thus symbolized: we must work together constructively, always with an eye toward the next generations.  All around me, I see the exact opposite.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Round and Round

"We do not recognize that as a valid date," snapped the automated voice on the other end of the line (wherever that is, a location you will never discover).  OK, I had heard and understood that the format was XX-XX-XXXX, and entered it again in case my finger had slipped.  Nope, still "not a valid date."  Oh, and the social security number was "not valid" also.  And no way to discuss the matter, of course.  The nationwide company seems to have no discernible location or address.  And you already know the drill:  call the 800 or 888 number, wait anywhere from five to 120 minutes, then respond to a numbered menu of choices which so often do not describe the simple problem you're trying to resolve.  The old movies' Robbie the Robot was always competently helpful and discreet -- but the electronics-based future arrived not in that amenable form, but as a labyrinth with a Sphinx at the end, ready to devour you when you can't answer its riddle.

Welcome to the brave new world of boiling frustration we're going to be living with  as more and more everyday actions and interactions take place between you and some digital monster that manages quite well to hide itself.  All we were trying to in this case was update an address.  And there lies the difference between a real person  doing his/her job by solving small daily difficulties and a corporate personhood:     the debit card the company inexplicably sent to a very old address was delivered to us by the local mailcarrier who recognized the name and delivered it here.  The more automation that creeps into every little aspect of our lives, the less this sort of simple human correction will take place.

Automated telephone "answering" (that's the last thing you'll find!)  has an equally dysfunctional brother.  As you know, some websites work, some work about half right, and some, like all those of our state agencies, really don't work at all.  You could blame the sun-starved necktie-strangled 8:30 - 4:00 minions in the Jurassic bureaucracy, but for the heavy lifting the state employs hundreds of very expensive consultants from DeLoitte and the other premier services at fees you would choke to see in print.  So one would expect something so simple for 2013 as web sites that actually work.  Nope.  Soon enough you're right back on the home page, not where you were going, and soon after that frozen out with an error message.  I'm not making this up.

I tried to make an online submission to a state agency recently, was stopped dead numerous times by such a message, and directed to call the regional center.  After of hours on hold, I gave up.  The next week I had to drive to a satellite agency, use their phone to contact the regional one, and thus found a real breathing person who was willing to push a few buttons and solve the problem.  That is, after signing up to use said germy phone and waiting over 30 minutes in line.  Probably no one, not even one of their gold-plated consultants or $160,000/year managers, has yet noticed that their main website has a major problem.  They probably welcome the decreased incoming workload and chalk it up to an improving economy or something.

The PA Turnpike and others are moving to all-electronic toll collection; Social Security will be issuing very few paper checks soon, and other governmental programs which affect millions of people of very differing abilities and resources are rushing toward a paperless future.  Other than gutting the Postal Service (forcing it to automate beyond what's reasonable, becoming ever more expensive and less responsive), the supposed savings has to be weighed against the clear fact that these electronic systems are rife with problems and dead ends that won't be fixed.  People, especially those who can't understand these systems or afford to maintain their phone and internet services (i.e., those who don't count), are going to give up.  It's like riding the Carousel of the Damned.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Boy Meets Project

As time, so much time, plods along, I've forgotten all but a few moments of the school days (up to December l969; not counting all the classes, seminars and training sessions after that), and each of those are about a memorable or pleasurable feeling.  Sort of Wordsworth's definition of poetry, right?

And of those moments, only two occurred in the classroom, which should tell one something (seems like real life is outside the drawn lines; most everything inside them is suffocated).  I will never forget the day in Renaissance history class in the old, dark first-floor theater of the Shafer Court art building when Professor Blake held forth on the medieval German minstrels, pronouncing, in detail, the name Walther von der Vogelweide.  I was in awe of his theatricality, perfect in that environment, and his passion for the weird and wonderful human story.  The other brings us to today's topic:  in another arena-like setting in the new Pollock building, the beloved art history professor let us free-range on a project to be delivered in any media or by any method our creative, anarchic little minds could come up with.

I was drawn in immediately.  A chance to do your best in front of a group of smart, engaged people who were interested in exactly what you were interested in?  If you've ever given a presentation to people who could care less (that's most of the time, isn't it?), well, even at that young age I saw a rare opportunity to floor it like Thelma and Louise.  I picked African art as subject (intense visuals) punched up with a soundtrack crafted to each part.  Old bud Bob Antonelli happened to be working in the audio-visual department at that time, so after I recorded music and natural sounds on my own reel tape machine, I borrowed from RPI's stock some P.A. and slide projecting equipment with his expert help (zoom lenses -- yes!).

All set up on the due date, the lights were dimmed and I proceeded to scare (and maybe inspire) my fellow art fans with images of contorted masks, elegant animals, and gleaming bronzes to the sound of menacing drums.  Dr. Bonds really liked it, too; that meant a lot from someone we all respected.  But I had to understand the import of that moment, feeling that it was a rarity.  I did learn a life lesson right then, though, as psychologist Abraham Maslow has described:

Even if all our other needs are satisfied, we may still often expect that a new discontent and restlessness will develop, unless the individual is doing what he or she is fitted for.

As a hungry student, all my needs were certainly not yet satisfied, but I saw that a goal of becoming king of the hill (success) would only lead to an emptiness, because enough is never enough.  A sense of well-being and satisfaction comes from doing what you are -- but first, you have to find, seize or make the opportunity to do so when you can.  "The more we believe ourselves to be in control, the happier we are," says psychologist Gary Marcus, and I think the best way to be in control is not as CEO, but as -- strange as it sounds -- a project manager.

I found, in many subsequent situations in life and work, that process -- idea/breakdown into parts/working in a circle/construction/final product, under one's own control  made most any sort of school or work situation yield satisfaction and meaning.  An oral-history project for a graduate education class was realized using then-new portable videotaping equipment; an experience as exhilirating as making your own first documentary film -- but at no cost.  As a challenge or due to necessity, or both, I found  many times that even a daunting project could be done inexpensively and efficiently through creative scrounging, digging out the talent around you and learning new techniques (and it was amusing to see some people's surprise).  It was also a blast, even when the content itself wasn't inspiring (like building 18 server rooms in a new downtown building, solo).

Things I haven't done are holding planning or status meetings or use computer power; even after Excel and project tracking software were available, I made up Gantt charts on my $1 surplus sale whiteboard, and in the past two years planned our home renovations on 1/4" x 1/4"-squares blue graph paper.  In defense of such Old School methods, if when they built the new admission/gift shop area of the museum when we expanded years ago, they had used the computer-generated plans instead of my handmade paper one, there would have been an 18" gap right in the middle. Due to project planning, we moved everything from one floor to three while reconstructing and lighting large exhibits with not one bit of waste, damage or mismeasurement.  No committees, no management from the Board; just diagnostics, attention to detail, one legal pad and one tape measure.  I think my method's validity was confirmed when the Marriott Residence Inn hotel I worked for 1994-1999 was renovated by imported contractors under the direction of the absentee owners in Florida.  I had more fires to put out than Detroit's finest.

Don't have any big projects these days; just small restorations (like the 60-year-old Sunbeam Mixmaster now as good as new, and my 1985 cheapo Harmony guitar brought back to glory, both done by others who are much more knowledgeable and skilled).  I am working on one that's solely mental, learning about music, which most people did when about 50 years younger.  But I've been busy.



Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Kami

The Sleeping Goddess at Heligan
Tropical gunnera plants in southwest U.K.
Any day now, amateur bloggers and paid journalists are going to start talking about that dull cloud that has enveloped us, colloquially known as "cabin fever."  It's not going to be above freezing here for about ten days and as much as you want to go somewhere and do something, you just fish the SmartWool socks out of the bottom of the drawer and wrap up like a big croissant in that afghan that really should have been washed last Spring.  There are a few diversions:  the snow vigorously reflecting sunlight hasn't worn out its welcome just yet, the birds are enjoying the new seed block outside, and you can spend more idle time finding amusing pictures on the Internet.  But the other day, while doing just that, I found one at the top of Jason Heppenstall's fine blog that warmed up my deep-frozen brain.

It was the Sleeping Goddess earth sculpture (above) which is one of several that surprise visitors to the Lost Gardens of Heligan near Pentewan on the south coast of Cornwall, U.K.  Jason, you see, after living quite a life in southern Spain and then in Copenhagen, is moving back home to the Isles, having purchased six acres of isolated fairy-land wood near the Gardens to pursue a permaculture life for his family.  Very ambitious (unlike the rest of us in January!), but lighthearted, too.

So I took a mental trip along with Jason and found that the gardens were indeed "lost" for most of the 20th century, after the original shelterbelt trees were cut down for use in World War I.  The manor house was given over to institutional use, then cut up into rooms, and the grounds were used as a U.S. Army base in World War II.  Another half-century of neglect followed, but in 1992 dedicated groups began replanting and it all came back to life.

That original stand of trees had been planted in 1766 to shield the already old estate from strong southwesterly winds.  Succeeding owners established formal and Japanese gardens; the efforts of the army of Victorian English botanical collectors provided tropical and exotic species which have flourished in the relatively mild climate.  Additionally, the Japanese garden enjoys a microclimate in a sheltered valley five degrees warmer than the rest of the property.  It's hard to believe, until you see the photos, that pineapples, camellias, palms, bananas, bamboo, gunnera and cycads (leftovers from the Jurassic Period), thrive at the same latitude as central Quebec.
It's quiet -- no machines are used in the Garden and all work is done by hand.  You get a feeling that there's more to it than a well-done botanical garden.  Maybe an ancient, dormant Druidism has emerged tentatively from deep underground, just as the Mud Maid, Giant and Grey Lady earth sculptures seem to be rising and stirring slowly back to life.  The Japanese, in their animistic Shinto religion/philosophy, seem like the druids in their appreciation of the spirits dwelling in trees, waterfalls, rocks and half-dark places. Known as kami, they are not located beyond this world and have no abstract moral qualities.  They seem present when they invoke feelings of fear and awe and can be, as nature is, either assertive or gentle.  Shrines have been built on such grounds in Japan to keep the kami separate from a busy and noisy world.  In Shinto the goal of life is to develop a pure and sincere heart; they say to do this, people should respect and venerate the spirits inherent in the animate and the inanimate.

Maybe these still winter days have a message for us.