Finding Our Way

Finding Our Way

            The dream always begins in a crowd. Susie and I become separated. She cannot find her way and I cannot find her. I wake up. She died thirteen years ago. The crowd may be in a theatre, department store, airport concourse, or a traffic jam. People rush by on either side of us, looking for seats, bargains, flights, or a way around us. Sometimes our cars are separated in a parking lot or on an interstate highway, where missing an exit is a moment of terror. In these dreams, I relive the terror of knowing that she was lost in a crowd or car and unable to help herself as Alzheimer’s disease was shutting all the doors and windows of her mind.

            This dream is also about anyone helpless to find a way through our unforgiving infrastructure. Some of the lost are people with early-onset Alzheimer’s, like Susie, terrified by the flashing lights in the concourse and unable to use cell phones or to make sense of the internet, if it is available. Others do not speak English or are too young or old to find their way. Some may have lived in an area for generations but no longer recognize the highway-sliced community and fragmented habitat. Some rely on wheelchairs or special devices blocked by curbs, steps, narrow passages, or electronic interference. Others are simply visitors to a strange city’s heaped towers, road-mazes, off-and-on-ramps, warning-signs, flashing lights, dead-ends, one-ways, and relentless pushing from all sides.

            In a village during the late Neolithic or Medieval periods—or even, in most places, during the nineteenth century—a confused person with dementia would probably have been able to find her way around. Multiple support systems were available to help her—that is, all the other villagers. We like to believe that we are better off than those villagers—who were victims of drought, pestilence, invasions, and famine—but when we dug irrigation ditches, rolled out highways, and strung telegraph wires, we made some compromises.

            What dreams do planners have? Do they imagine structures and transportation systems for the confused, blind, nonnative speakers, walkers, native animals, the deaf, the native plants, bikers, children, brightly reflective surfaces, homeless wanderers, legless veterans in wheelchairs and elderly with walkers, absorptive blacktops? Do they imagine the invisible structures of waterways, sewers and storm water conduits, electric and communication cables, cell towers and wireless transmissions, gas lines, and  routes and communication needed for emergency services?

            Multiple grids overlie our cities and landscape. They do not fit together neatly. Federal, state, and municipal boundaries, jurisdictions, waterways, easements, property rights, zoning restrictions, mitigation areas, farm and pasture land, energy sectors, historic and environmental reserves—all intersect in conflicts and speculative competition.  The many grids are not accounted for in the geographic information systems programmed to manage them. In fact, some of the most powerful grids are even more invisible than the streams and rivers re-routed under city streets: grids of racism, commercial speculation, and of the legal structures needed to maintain them.

            Whose dreams shall we honor to help each other find our ways through the world?

Three Species of Aggression, Mostly Male

And a review of Agnès Vardas’s “Vagabonde” (1985)



And a review of Agnès Vardas’s “Vagabonde” (1985)

The French film title could also be translated, “Mona—no roof, no law.” The young vagabond, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, refers to herself as a “camper” in her encounters with farmers, goatherds, academics, housekeepers, nurses, and young men on the make. Her corpse is discovered in the first scene; the remainder of the film traces her story to that discovery. It is an unpleasant story about a rather unpleasant character. Certainly, she shows no gratitude to anyone who helps her. Most people ignore her or give just enough to send her away. She is raped several times, almost dies in a fire, and is nearly forced to work as a prostitute. Vardas clearly wanted her to visit all sectors of society—the sympathetic biologist who feels guilty for not doing more, the philosopher-turned-goat-keeper who, with questionable bona fides, chides her for allowing the trash she has read to create a world-view that holds her hostage; the nurse who thinks of Mona’s life as romantic until Mona gets drunk with the nurse’s elderly patient.

            Mona is a person without worth, either invisible or seen as an opportunity, source of guilt, or recipient of appropriately measured concern. Her careless encounters with men present a discouraging portrait of the possibility of any human engagement without some level of aggression. Perhaps this is what Vardas intended.

            Three species of aggression are particularly noteworthy: unpredictable aggression, predictable aggression, and sanctioned aggression.

            The young toughs looking for hits, lays, highs, and something to steal represent unpredictable aggression. Employers, parents, and caregivers who take it upon themselves to berate, threaten, and punish are predictable aggressors: they have power over their charges and use it in predictable ways. Sanctioned aggressors are those sanctioned by the community to compel others to do something for the good of the community. Here find zealous schoolteachers, like Samuel Butler, Sr.,  headmaster over Charles Darwin, who later said that Butler’s school did nothing for his mind. Here also are police, judges, pastors, militias, and rulers. Merchants who have amassed enough wealth to become corpocrats also seek to be considered sanctioned in their aggression because such classification would show that paying no taxes and meeting no regulations on their exploitations of labor and habitats are for the good of the community—making them ”job-creators,” perhaps.

            The dynamic is worth consideration: humanity divided into the camps of aggressors and vagabonds of no worth. Another depressing French film—one wants a bouncy American-style ending; one gets a corpse.

            Speaking of the body politic, perhaps Vardas had one other thing in mind.

            Thinking back over the film, and the last year or so, it is the women that one notices. Sorry guys, but we seem to be stuck in the three species of aggression. The women in the film—and in the street over the last few years, perhaps even beginning with that first rally in D.C. in 2016—are the ones who notice the invisible people in pain, like George Floyd. The women are the ones who give Mona help—even when she doesn’t congratulate them for doing it.

            Surely The Poor should be grateful for SNAP or Tax Legislation or Low Rent. But if they don’t show gratitude or congratulate us, why, we should back off. Yes?

            Again, over the last months, it is the women who have said “me too” in empathy and justice, who have helped the helpless to vote, or to get PPEs—some of them dying as they do so.  Men expect you to meet conditions—the honor culture, don’t you know—but women seem to give without conditions. And those who make it into legislatures try to make laws that do the same. Something about mercy and justice, perhaps.

            Did I mention that I’m fed up with honor culture, racism, and the three species of aggression? After millennia, let’s turn to the original caregivers for less aggressive solutions to problems created by a long history of violations. Men can learn to follow. We could do worse.