Moving on

Flowers between the cobblestones, Gloucester MA 2010

With everything which has taken place this year, from the initial accident, trying to diagnose the myriad of problems which arise from fracturing the various bones of my head and elbow, and having an exceptionally difficult tenant, I have been blessed.

Despite osteoporosis, my bones heal rapidly. Despite the traumatic brain injury, I’ve remained calm and dignified. Despite a constant spinning of my world, wonderful things keep happening. Despite a horrible display of human cruelty, I have seen compassion in unexpected places.

I have been forced from my home, in what can only be described as an insane sequence of events. I do not possess the capacity to understand why this is happening, and have no desire to demonize the parties responsible. I am disabled, a month from a major surgery on my cranium, penniless after a year unemployed, and people I thought were friends have tossed me to the curb; in some ways I am thankful. This crisis has revealed the kindness of others.

My ex-wife was kind enough to take some furniture I would be unable to move. Other friends, including people I only know on line have helped. One woman, who I had never met in person and who has differing political views (she attended the Women’s March in Washington) provided her mini-van for a morning, and not only provided transportation, she helped move things. I learned a good deal about her during this time, and am quite pleased to call her my friend. It took a bit to process what had happened, and I found myself shaking.

Liz is a Democrat, who distinguishes herself with her recognition of “limousine liberals.” She doesn’t talk about people in need as she drives by, she stops and helps. This Vassar educated mother of three (two on the autism spectrum) spent her morning helping a conservative punker. Okay, neither of us fit the expectations of those descriptions, which is in many ways the point. Labels are irrelevant, souls are what matters.

We spoke about our experiences, she has children in the Princeton Charter School, which the Princeton Public Schools have declared the competition; and in what I have come to believe is a typical Princeton response the Public School Board is more interested in destroying the Charter school than improving their own students. I saw this trait expressed in a variety of issues in Princeton, ad hominem attacks rather than displays of any measure of superiority. Liz continues to attempt to bridge the divide, hosting meetings of both sides, opening her home (and sledding run) to everyone. We mourned the death of civil discourse, and although we differ in our beliefs of the cause, we share the loss of meaningful debates, recognizing the next step is authoritarianism.

Liz is what I had expected Princetonians to to be when I arrived (shortly after the picture up top was taken). Intelligent, well spoken, and civil. It took six years to find a person fitting that description, and I met her on my way out of town. My experience of Princeton was elitists, posers, and hypocrites. It is very reassuring to know people such as Liz exist in the wasteland of Princeton, reviving my faith in humanity; in a world as torn as ours is, there are still flowers growing between the cobblestones.

This month I have seen some of the best in people, and some of the worst. Life is always about balance. There is something important in there, as I configure what is left of my brain and work through increasing vestibular issues. The rose coloured glasses present an illusion, however the world is not filled with assholes clinging to hatred. There are people like Liz and I, not many, but perhaps enough to turn the tide. Perhaps, although I will never know the outcome. We accept the future is not predestined, rather it is malleable, to be improved with actions rather than curses. The core of meaningful conversations is mutual respect, the absence of respect begets rage, which I believe we can all agree is our present position. The world needs meaningful conversations, which should lead to people who will take actions rather than consider themselves virtuous because they are aware of the issue and have appropriately rebuked those who are not wearing the right colour ribbon. Hope lies in lifting each other up, not in putting each other down. Humans need hope.

There will always be the trolls, and it is altogether possible they will be the majority of the population. I may have thrown away my rose coloured glasses, but I will always believe that love outweighs hate, that one good person is more significant than one hundred bad people. They can destroy a person, but ideas live forever.

Save

The Gods of spin

You may never have seen a person who had contracted meningitis. It’s curable, but the symptoms in humans are similar to rabies. It’s a scary disease, with a mortality rate of about 11%, with about 20% of survivors suffering long term damage, from hearing loss to brain damage.

About 1500 people in America contract meningitis every year. That’s about one out of every two hundred and eight thousand people. When five students at Princeton University (student population 7,912) contracted meningitis last Spring, the University responded by handing out party cups with measuring markers on them, emblazoned “Mine, not Yours”. The idea was to prevent the spread of meningitis through shared cups, but no where in the design was a place to personalize the cups. The issue that the rate of meningitis at Princeton University was one hundred thirty times the national average wasn’t mentioned.

It is, unfortunately, common for schools to hide health and safety issues. It is not unusual for colleges and universities to investigate crimes internally so levels of violence do not make it into the papers. Bad for enrollment you know. In this way Princeton is not terribly different than other schools. With a campus safely away from metropolitan centers, it can hide a great deal of what happens. With a local presence that overwhelms small time politicians, Princeton University’s control of local politics and media is probably quite normal.

The University showed its ability to spin a few years back when they built a parking garage with no entrance. No problem, tear out the train tracks. Oh, some people like to take the train. So they called the project to reduce public transportation the “Arts and Transit center”. Without transit. Or Arts. But there will be a restaurant. Without a liquor license. Until they can find a way around that.

Some things cannot be hidden, like deadly communicable diseases. After seven confirmed cases of meningitis (bringing the University’s rate of infection to 1:1750, or almost 200 times the national rate) the New Jersey Board of Health declared an outbreak.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, essentially “the National Board of Health”, took the extraordinary measure of obtaining permission from the Food and Drug Administration to import a vaccine not presently available in America.

Princeton University agreed to discuss the issue. Wouldn’t want to be hasty, you know. There are still freshmen choosing schools.

So despite a precedent setting move by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the students of Princeton University and everyone in close proximity to them may remain in danger of contracting a lethal disease.

Last minute update, the Gods of spin have spoken. “Princeton University will make a vaccine available”. In the local news story, one interviewed student was unaware of the meningitis outbreak, but was thankful to the university for “looking out for the students”. Another story carried the headline “Princeton University takes the extraordinary step of making an unapproved vaccine available”.

Well played Princeton.

Home

“Home” tends not to be a place on a map, as much as a place in the heart. The desire for a safe haven, a return to the womb. It is important to note that while the desire to return to the womb is universal, it is also the basis for many mental illnesses.

If I had a place I considered “home”, it would be Texas. There is a certain sensation, the feel of the air, that is comfortable from the time I step off the plane. When I use the word “home” in conversation though, I am referring to my current residence. As John Worfin said in Buckaroo Banzai, “Home is where you wear your hat”. I enjoy visiting Texas, but I do not long to return. I long for the comfort of the life I have made. I have changed location enough to know that places I leave do not remain static, they change, I change, and the moment we shared is lost but to memory.

I think of Disneyland, and the portion inside the entrance, “Main Street USA“. A street that never existed anywhere outside the memories of Walt Disney’s childhood. An idyllic turn of the (19th to 20th) century town in middle America. I wonder how it looks today, are they able to replicate something that their grandparents dreamed of? Today, living in Princeton NJ, there are residents who want to maintain the small town feel of the borough, which I greatly appreciate. I lived in South Philadelphia immediately prior, and my neighborhood had largely maintained its small town feel. I didn’t own a car, I could walk or take public transportation anywhere. There was a baker, a butcher (I used to eat meat), a produce store, and other small shops on my street. I knew everyone’s name, and they knew mine. Princeton, home to Albert Einstein, John Nash, and Princeton University, with its tree lined streets and appreciation of roots, seemed perfect.

Oh, the failed analogies. On arrival I became involved in a grass roots movement to save the “Dinky“, a small rail line which connected the borough to the commuter lines. What a wonderful introduction to small town politics. As I hadn’t bothered driving in some time, I still relied on public transportation, as do many Princetonians who commute daily to Manhattan. The University President didn’t want a “railroad running through my University”, despite the number of students it carried. She had just built a new parking garage and to reach it, the train had to go. Despite an overwhelming public disapproval, the University got its way. The station has been slated for “renovation”, a new terminus will be built off University property, no longer within walking distance.

kiosk

Being a “college town”, the public kiosks are ablaze with notices. To me, even though I haven’t lost or found a cat, nor am I looking for used furniture or a garage sale, the kiosks represented a vibrant social network. To see one covered with notices means people are reaching out to each other. To the Chamber of Commerce, they represented an advertising opportunity being wasted on the public. The Chamber of Commerce put forward a plan to lease the kiosks, for $1 a year, and to replace them with glass enclosed advertising space. It really doesn’t matter what colour they’re painted, they will still look sterile. The public hated the idea, but the chamber of commerce, with seventy percent of its members actually located outside of Princeton, was able to convince the Town Council that the new kiosks would maintain the small town feel and provide advertising for local businesses (local remains undefined), while removing the “eyesore” of the “messy” old kiosks. The idea of a “Free Speech Zone” is redefined as “Advertising Space”. The “Disneyfication” of a beautiful old town continues.

Some of the silliness is simply based on appearances. Princeton is literally in the woods. Yet every wind storm, and there have been many in the last few years, knocks down trees all over the area. I was wondering how any trees remain. Apparently, the trees in neighborhoods are weakened when property owners place large mounds of mulch at their base. But it’s the look people want (the mounds), so yesterday coming home I noticed that one neighbor had placed nice neat mountains of mulch at the base of every tree, and also at the base of their mailbox. Another neighbor, who lost several large trees and his fence during Hurricane Sandy, has finally gotten a service to come out and remove the debris. Several large trucks have been there all week, cutting up the trunks and running them through a chipper. This morning, I noticed a couple of dozen bags of mulch in his drive. He’s discarding the chips from his own trees, and purchasing chips of a mulch company’s trees. They must have a more desirable colour.

The desire to maintain the old world while living in the new world is of course doomed. Nassau Street is rapidly becoming an open air shopping mall, the trendy chain stores replacing old, useful, businesses. We bring the world home with us. I am reminded of living in a suburban town in Pennsylvania, and hearing complaints about wildlife. If you didn’t want deer and fox and raccoons in your yard, why didn’t you stay in the city? My father exemplified the “Ugly American”, expecting the same amenities in a cantina on the beach of Mexico as in a restaurant in the States. People always want to bring their world with them, what was the point in traveling again? I’ve seen countless examples of people trying to bring “home” with them. The best story, crossing several lines, is of a Scottish band in Japan, looking for McDonalds.

You can’t go back, and you can’t escape. Something like “Hotel California”, or as Buckaroo Banzai (you really shouldn’t see this film) would say, “Wherever you go, there you are“.