Missing History

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As Americans we fail to understand the rest of the world because of two faulty mistakes in thinking. The first is that we make judgements based on our own contexts. We also feel that our present context today is applicable to all times and all places.

If pressed, we would admit this is wrong and that our thoughts are likely not logical. Knowing this and acting on it however are two very different things.

As I’ve listened – both to people talking and to the national rhetoric lately, this has become painfully obvious: we have an internalized rhetoric that we adhere to and the idea that this rhetoric is wrong or faulty is a very difficult idea for us to grapple with.

I say this mainly in regard to our ideas of poverty. We have very little idea of how it is caused, what the history might be, how it came about nor the systems that we contribute to that keep it in place. We cannot wrap our minds around it in our own country and we are especially bad about making judgements on other countries. “If they would just do it this way, like we did, then they too could be _________.” This also means that we blame the people in poverty and the countries that are not as wealthy as our own for their own problems.

The truth is much more nuanced and complex. Most of this know this in our heads, but it doesn’t stop us from pronouncing judgments on others.

I have heard many people belittle and shrug their shoulders when it comes to problems such as China’s pollution and environmental devastation. Why should we care? They brought it on themselves with their greed after all. Many good Americans have laid the blame for these evils squarely on China’s shoulders.

But is such blame justified? No. Certainly China has not helped itself in it’s race to the future, and the environmental devastation has intensified over the years.

Before the US points it’s fingers at China however, we should consider where we would be if we had recently (as the seventies) lived through a century of warfare followed by two decades of severe famine.

Could we honestly believe then as some claim, that China’s problems could all be solved if only they would do “thus and so…..” (insert western solution)?

I don’t think we could. Yet we truly don’t understand this background.

On Waste

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The wastefulness in the US is still an adjustment. I try not to judge too harshly, knowing this is how Americans have been brought up to be – we honestly know no other way to be – and yet it does get to me sometimes. And fellow Christians – I’m sorry, we are failing this “stewardship” thing.

Take plastic bags for an example. I bring my own bags because its a carryover habit from living in China, and in general I find them stronger (no breaking and spilling!) with larger capacity. In some countries in Asia you can’t even buy plastic bags (in China and Japan you could buy them, but I’m cheapskate).

But what really got me was in Bali, when while surfing pieces of bags kept sticking to my arms and legs and the surf board. It’s disgusting. And it’s unbelievable how many of those are in the oceans.

Free plastic bags aren’t actually free either. They end up as an added cost in overhead that fluctuates with the oil prices. The energy to make the bags and the bags themselves are made from petroleum. So the bags go up and down (as does plastic) with oil prices. I would rather, like in China, pay for the bag upfront, so it is a felt cost rather than having the delusion that it is free. When something hits our wallets, we tend to take it more seriously.

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It is slightly troubling to hear people talk about the waste as if it’s an entitlement. Because we have space and money, we might as well waste. After all why not?

Something about this troubles me. Because while that might be true, don’t we have any obligations to other people in this? If our plastic bags are harming common waters – in Japan, in Mexico etc. then shouldn’t we address the issue? Instead, because we can afford to clean up our own shores, we seem to just ignore it, or worse, pretend it doesn’t exist.

So I’m a bit confused. I hear this rhetoric from Pastors, from friends, from coworkers here in the US. Mostly from those who claim to be “conservatives” which I think is odd – isn’t the root of “conservatism” “conserve?” I would think conservatives would be interested in conserving energy, minimizing waste etc. But they have been the ones arguing the hardest against it. Weird.

At what point do our rights end when they infringe on someone else’s? Does money just always rule?

I’m beginning to think that really is the only thing anyone really cares about. I suppose that’s a cynical take on US government, but I wonder honestly – are we about anything else besides money?

Walking: Speed, Detail and Architecture

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On the average a person walks at three to five miles an hour.

Many people complain about the US and it’s recent lack of significant architecture. Cookie cutter houses fill the suburbs, businesses look are distinguished from there signs far away, but up close the big box stores designs are very similar. As such, when I am searching for something to draw, finding architecture in the US can be difficult.

Buildings are designed to be attractive at the speed and distance at which someone is traveling and sees them. Suburbia is all the same because at thirty miles an hour it doesn’t matter and individualized designs cost the builder more money. I’ve read in a few architectural articles that this is factored into design in suburban neighborhoods.

But if a building is in a place that people walk and cycle past it needs more character to draw them inside. As result, those homes look different as well. They have to have more detail.

Both are mostly a matter of preference I suppose; it’s just interesting to note that most of the beautiful structures are placed in pedestrian areas – or areas that used to be pedestrian anyway.

It was an interesting discovery in my research into America’s missing walking paths. People often complain about the loss of detail and architecture – but rarely have I heard many explanations as to why they are missing.

Could it be that we have done it to ourselves?

Missing Walking

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Growing up, I remember walking to school and walking home. Sometimes I rode my bike. We lived near the school in most places, so the walks were never more than a few blocks.

I have been a bit disappointed looking around neighborhoods in the US today – I wonder if this will ever be possible for my kids when they go to school someday. The streets have a lot of traffic and the drivers go fast and don’t pay attention.

It’s sad because I honestly enjoyed walking or when I went to middle school and it was a bit further away – biking to school.

Living in China and Japan it was easy to go weeks without needing a car. In China I took cabs occasionally, rented bikes but walked most places. When I first moved to Changsha, the school I taught at was under construction and there was no way to get to my apartment except to walk. Theft was high and other teachers had regularly had their bikes stolen, so I didn’t bother. I rented a bike a few times, but mostly walked the two kilometers to the nearest bus stop. About six months after moving there, the road was finished and there was a bus stop about half a kilometer away.

Even after this bus stop was put in, I found myself often walking down the long way to the other stop. The walk simply gave me more time to think.

I would take the bus through the long neighborhoods for about fifteen minutes, but often get off and walk along the river to wherever it was I was going. I fell in love with it again.

In Japan, I would regularly walk 10-12 miles on a given day, once again on the river, just enjoying the journey.

When we moved back to the US, I felt like my freedom had been curtailed. There were very few places to just walk. Which was why I was excited to discover all the expansions being made on the Riverwalk in San Antonio. I might have to drive to it, but finally, once again, here was a place to just unwind, think and walk. San Antonio has gradually been expanding it’s walking trails and now there is a long ring of trails that will eventually ring around the center of the city, following the creeks and rivers throughout the city.

The picture above is from one of those trails. Maybe Americans can do walking well after all.

Walkability

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One of the biggest reasons we chose to live on the base is for the walkability that it provides.

The US is extremely dependent on cars. We need cars to get everywhere. In most neighborhoods in the US you even have to drive to go to the gym in order to exercise.

But when I moved to China, I walked everywhere for four years. Sometimes I took the bus, but often, I found that if I planned ahead (about an hour) I could walk downtown. This was a great thing to discover because I studied Mandarin twice a week downtown, and sometimes those classes were during the infamous 4:30-6:30 rush hour. I found that by walking instead of taking the bus I usually got home around the same time as I would if I had taken the bus. Occasionally I rented a bike, but for the most part I walked everywhere I went the whole time I lived there.

When we moved to Japan, I had the option of driving, and did sometimes, but often would walk to the train stop or the bus stop and would take public transit. I had a bike at this point, and often rode my bike, but still ended up walking much more than I did in the US.

On base, with a toddler, I actually find it much easier to walk or bike on the base than to put my son in a car seat, get him out put him back in and struggle with him in a parking lot. To be honest, walking is just easier.

Growing up, I always walked or rode my bike to school unless it rained. I hope someday in the future we’ll be able to still walk or bike with our kids to their schools.

HBO Streaming

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HBO just announced that it will offer streaming next year: no cable connection required.

This is a possible game-changer in TV connection in the US. Cable has long dominated the television industry, offering more and more stations with less and less actual useful content. For years now, it has seemed that the more stations you had, the less likely there would be that anything interesting would actually be on those stations.

We got rid of cable and haven’t missed it. Between Netflix, Hulu and iTunes, there really hasn’t been anything we have missed. But I have wondered how long it would be until the TV stations realized they were in trouble.

A la carte stations and shows make it easier to tailor your TV habits. Even better would be (as iTunes has though rather expensive) subscriptions to just the particular shows you want to watch, tailoring everything to individual needs.

It’s a shift in the industry, yes. But a shift in a good direction. Hopefully other TV stations and TV shows will follow suit.

Urban Digital Libraries

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When I was a kid I used to love the idea of a house filled with books. There would be bookshelf upon bookshelf in the house much like Belle’s library in Beauty and the Beast.

I’m now trying to get rid of more of the paper books we do have and taper down more, getting rid of bookshelves. It’s not that I don’t love the books – it’s that space is a premium.

It’s a modern conundrum – you can have a larger house and more space or you can have a walkable neighborhood. But rarely both. So we opted for the smaller “house” (one side of a duplex).

So a library with shelves of books – not going to happen, as nice as that would be to look at. I have completely abandoned two and a half entire paper libraries in three countries already, much to my frustration, due to weight and space.

It was amazing to me to be able to take a good sized library with me when I taught in Mongolia for two months. That trip and the two months I spent in Nagasaki right after, teaching as well, revolutionized my opinion on digital books. In Nagasaki in particular, I lived in an apartment that was about 100 square feet. There was no space for any extra books.

The truth is, whether or not it ends up that paper or digital is a person’s preference, the convenience of digital is slowly (and quickly) changing the face of the literary industry as a whole.