September 11, 2006

Essay on Distance

After college, many of my friends settled in Brooklyn, the only place in America I have no interest in living. I went away to one boarding school for four years & one college for four years (including one year abroad in England). Relationships are, of course, measured in both time & space. During my eight years of education, I developed many close friendships, all of which were displaced every spring. Few people, when they are deciding where to go after school, would take into much consideration where their friends will be moving. Ambitions, art scenes, employment opportunities, desire for travel, love – these preside over keeping “the gang” together. Drinking companions are best found around the corner, anyway, & are easily replaced. Still, some friendships are more mystical, inspiring, collaborative.

Look what happens to the average “long-distance relationship.” Either the couple is together, then moves to separate locations, & there is a gradual idealization & growing apart, resulting in catastrophe; or, they move apart, & then move back together after a time, & the gradual idealization & growing apart results in an awkward period of disillusionment. This is an extremely generalized over-simplification: some long-distance relationships have ended in the happiest marriages. What about friendships in the age of e-mail, cellphones, & MySpace? Perhaps, because there is no pressure for ceaseless love & daily communication, one can make these connections in college, for instance, & continue to receive the mystical collaborative elements thru e-mail, whilst receiving his drinking-companion needs around the corner (if around the corner offers no conversations about Bartók or Thomas de Quincey.)

My high school & college friends have settled in a startling plethora of locals – New York, London, Liverpool, India, Hainan, Alabama, Massachusetts, L.A., Brazil, & even Texas. I was saddened that few of my close friends visited me when I was living in Tahoe, a place I wanted to show off, but who can blame them with travel so inefficient & expensive. I've moved to the bay area to increase the feeling of community, & already surprising people have visited & plan to visit. I'm not having much luck establishing regular drinking companions, tho, but that comes with patience & employment.

The book I am reading is by William McDonough & Michael Braungart, a chemist & an architect who propose redesigning how things are made. Valuable technical materials & chemicals are regularly mixed with natural materials, & disposed in land fills where both are useless. They suggest that everything can be made to be infinitely recyclable or immediately biodegradable, separating the biosphere from the “technosphere”. Newspapers, for instance, are made from recycling things things that were not meant to be recycled, & are printed on with toxic inks, & bleached with more chemicals, & are useless after one or two cycles – everything is always “downcycled.” This book, Cradle to Cradle, is not made out of a tree, but of high quality plastics & safe inks. It is extremely durable & waterproof; but when it is thrown “away”, it can be washed & melted to create another equally high quality book. They suggest that current methods of recycling are merely “less bad”, & often placate the liberal masses with righteousness; however, it is possible to a create a system that is “good.” Slowing down the current destructive industrial system could actually be worse in the long run; & preaching “efficiency” & being conservative with resources just pisses off capitalists obsessed with growth. It pits environmentalists against industry. In nature however, growth is good. (Their example is of a cherry tree, whose excess blossoms & fruit are not “waste” but nourishing & beautiful.)

I just got to a part where they suggest that all sustainability is local. Diversity, adaptability, culture, dialect: these are successful reactions to location for both nature & human society. And this Earth offers an almost infinite variety of locations, all of which life has adapted to inhabit. Sustainable local systems nourish your community, & add up to a fully nourished macrocosm. Liberals often point out that Super-Walmarts in sprawled suburban areas hurt every aspect of society: “Main Street” culture, the local economy, the quality of your neighbor's jobs, lack of support for local agriculture, the quality & ethics of distant agriculture, the amount of fossil fuels burned to transport the products, all the unnecessary packaging waste, and the list goes on. I would never imply that long distance friendships are the Walmarts of Modern America. But, your average white post-college American liberal tends to be semi-nomadic, befriending people everywhere, & settling in a baffling array of places. I would like to see a statistic for how many settled where they grew up. Conservative Midwesterners, as a stereotype, are much more family & hometown oriented.

Plato often evokes love for God by discussing love between humans, & mystics use the language of the natural world to describe the subtle heavens. Human connections – a web of nourishment, waste, & sustainability – can perhaps be understood with a model of community, agriculture, energy flows, and Walmarts. Or, more likely, they are a synecdoche (an inclusive metaphor, a metaphor which is included in what it stands for.) Friendship & love are as much a part of a balanced, healthy society as the politics, food cycles, architecture, & everything else. Indeed, this spiritual interconnection can be seen as the soul to a town's body. The Electoral College in a huge county deprives local communities of an actual democracy (in California, for instance, I know we'll get the democratic presidential vote, so there's no reason to campaign or canvass or even argue with my neighbor.) Could the combination of cheap travel, easy relocation, the Internet, and sprawl add up to a modern civilization where friendships are like the disposable diapers that fill up our landfills?

No comments: