Friday, August 10, 2018

An Unsteady Surface

The challenge is not to let mourning begin too soon. Not to let it begin when the slide begins. You can never be sure anyway, that your suspicions are correct. Not until you are far past the beginning.
When your husband is a full generation ahead of you in chronological age, you may begin to doubt everything you knew about lifespans. You may think that you will follow him into longevity. You may think longevity lasts forever.
You let down your guard.
After all, you’ve been waiting for one kind of problem, one kind of blow.
But it will catch up with him, and you.
Age focuses a new lens upon the constancy of change.
Fayette County seemed fairly settled when I came here in the 1970’s. My initial visit, however, was concurrent with the first few droplets of the deluge that would follow. That rain of newcomers, many from Houston, just kept on coming.
Bringing a torrent of change.
Houstonians see nothing peculiar about this. They’re accustomed. That’s because Houston has minimal identity beyond its openness to transformation.
Massive disruption of the languorous, leafy, semi-Southern city of the early fifties was simply gulped down and digested over decades, excreting concrete freeways by the mile. And bands of residential boxes that march across the prairie and former rice fields. Once home to geese and coyotes, they now boast swing sets and standing water.
The older parts of the city have largely vanished into parking lots, multi-use districts, shopping meccas and apartment buildings.
We returned recently to Houston after a long period away over the past year and a half, and we’ve noticed a different feeling underlying all the new construction.
A frantic quality.
Every commercial thoroughfare inside the Loop is ruptured by road work. At one time, a person could search out routes that bypassed closed lanes and orange barrels. No longer.
The sewer needs of large new complexes now couple with alarm over inadequate storm drainage, as the hurricane season begins.
Hurricane Harvey has done what countless PR campaigns couldn’t. Confirmed a fresh and less mutable identity for Houston: The City that Floods.
The day we drove in, a downpour we consider ordinary, now—two to four inches in an hour—ground miles of traffic to a dangerous, sloshy halt in rising water, imperiling engines and people along freeways and residential streets.
This is the price Houston pays for unfiltered, unconsidered, unrestricted change that flows only where the money goes, ignoring the realities of the landscape and hydrology and human lives. The city has discovered what it means to have constructed itself on the unsteady surface of change. Developer-directed change.
Over the past few years, Round Top, too, has been enjoying the results of developer-directed change. Yet its core institutions—the Rifle Hall, Fourth of July Parade, Brass Band, DYD Club, Town Hall, Historical Society—survive.
Can these institutions endure, however, as music venues multiply and tourists convert streets to sidewalks? As the noise of revelers spreads from weekends to weekday evenings? As ugliness sprawls across the fields up and down Highway 237, outside city limits?
Prosperity comes to pretty towns and rural landscapes because many people desire to escape the stress and visual clutter of cities, along with traffic and other people, crowded together. A different kind of flooding.
Someone needs to be thinking about whether the current explosion of change, locally, might hit a point of diminishing returns. What are visitors looking for when they come to Round Top? Is it a certain charm, a distinct personality, a slower rhythm?
Are they still finding it?

Fleeing Facebook?

One of my politically active friends recently decided to suspend her Facebook account. She did it to protest misuse of account information for political purposes, specifically false news aimed at susceptible individuals.
As a gesture of disapproval, it will have no impact, of course, given the worldwide scope of FB. Remember the Arab Spring of a few years ago, when social media was used to oppose autocracy?
The problem isn’t social media, though. It’s us, the gullible recipients of targeted pap. More specifically, it’s our laziness in civic matters outside the most narrow of local definitions. We’re the ones who share shocking news about a politician we’ve known for years without confirmation. We’re the ones who jump on a bandwagon without thought if it agrees with our prejudices.
We’re the electoral sloths. Only thirteen percent of eligible voters in Texas turned out for the recent primary election. Come on, folks.   
My vote won’t matter anyway. How many times have we heard that? How many times have we said it? Why bother?
Because people with an axe to grind will bother, for one thing. They’ll take over your party, and before long your life.
Representative government requires people to represent. If you don’t vote, who is your member of Congress representing? Who is your state rep representing?
Not you.
The causes of apathy go deeper, though. My physician recently commented that she has seen a huge surge in anxiety among her patients. I am one of them. For the first time in my life, I can’t seem to tune out the orchestrated agonies of politics long enough to breathe.
Most people can’t tolerate an atmosphere of conflict for long. The heightened emotions of the past eighteen months have taken a toll on daily life. Friends tiptoe around friends; husbands are at odds with wives. The woes of the body politic walk into your kitchen, your bedroom. It becomes overwhelming.
Every headline. Nuclear war with North Korea? Shrinking ice caps? Ten children killed at school in Texas! Fifteen killed at school in Florida! Sounds like the heads you see in line at the supermarket on tabloid rags you never buy.
If you rely on FOX, you will learn that “experts” doubt everything from vaccines and public education to the effect of human activities on climate change. Nothing you rely on seems safe any more, not even lettuce.  
In our emotional overload, we no longer have the energy to check out the “alternative facts” we hear and read about. We hear the term “fake news” so often, we begin to hear “fake” whenever the word “news” is mentioned.
Apathy is the effort of our nervous system to protect itself and our health. Eminently reasonable.
And ultimately wrong.
Because apathy is the desired objective of large scale enterprises that do not have our true interests at heart. They do not know what is better for us than we do. They act only in their own narrow self-interest.
And they’re more skilled at manipulation than any entity has been for most of a century.
That’s why freedom of the press is under attack. Because information--verifiable, transparent, scrutinized by many skeptical eyes--is the one sure defense against tyranny.
I mention “a skeptical eye.” It’s the genetic equipment, honed in training, possessed by newspaper reporters. Even in conversation among friends they can’t let an unfounded assertion slip by. I’ll say something bland or generalized, and they’ll ask, “How do you know that?” It may make for awkward social interchange at times, but it’s the gold standard of our democracy.
Tyranny is a big word, until recently seen mostly in history books. We thought we had checks and balances to protect us from it. But all we really had was the Fourth Estate.
Journalists. Newspapers, like this one. Independent news divisions of broadcast media. Print media. And now social media. Twitter.
If our children, and their children, are to enjoy what we think of as freedom, we need to summon what’s left of our energy and work to perceive reality amid all the hoo-rah, and skilled hullabaloo.
In a flood of snake oil, there must be one or two snakes.