Book Club XIII

August 16, 2015

I am not a woodsman. I do not commune easily with the great outdoors. The deep, dark forest unsettles rather than edifies me. scarywoodsI am like Socrates, as portrayed by Plato in Phaedrus, and quoted by Frédéric Gros in his book, A Philosophy of Walking. “Nature had not enough to say to him.”

Wilderness walks reveal to me a bigger, wider world of indifference. Where some see bounty and accord, I sense a cosmic m’eh. For every sprig of new life, there’s death and decay from every vantage.

Let me ask you this, mother earth lovers. Would you really like a parent as disinterestedly neglectful as nature is with us? Sure, there’s plenty of food and sustenance on offer. You just have to figure out what stuff’s good for you and what’ll kill you. No. Don’t look at the bird eating that berry. Well fine for the bird, the berry could be poisonous to you. That river bringing you life-giving fresh water and delicious fish (depending on the fish and how you cook it, of course – always with the qualifiers), also rises up on occasion and floods your village for no discernible reason whatsoever!

Even as we sit here now, willfully pumping the air, the waters, the soil with life-threatening toxicity, earth responds with biblical vengeance, beginning with everything least responsible for inflicting the damage on it. It’s like killing the hostages. aphilosophyofwalkingStop doing what you’re doing, humans, or the beautiful, endangered, blue… billed… flying thing from the Amazon gets it.

Son A takes the family car out for a joyride and wraps it around a tree. Son B gets spanked for not telling his parents what his brother was up to. Doctor Spock might have some issues with that style of parenting, is all I’m saying.

I don’t see harmony out there in the hills and dales, the trees and poison ivy, the streams and alligator filled swamps. I see competition to the death, a contest we currently have the upper hand with but nothing we should be complacent about. Our demise lurks down any benign seeming path.

So, you’ll excuse me if I don’t share Monsieur Gros’ exhilarating and restorative view of mountain treks and fern strewn glen hikes.

That’s not to say I don’t like walking. I love walking.  If time is of no consequence, it is my preferred travel mode, with distance seldom factoring into the plans.

Nor should you take from any of this a dislike of the A Philosophy of Walking on my part. I liked the book a lot. It’s a nice easy read, with very little clunkiness of translation (by John Howe). Any philosophical pretensions – and how could there not be? nietzschewalkingFrédéric Gros is French, for god’s sake! – are ever so slight and very accessible. The man actually humanizes super-walker Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus Strode Zarathustra.

No, my one quibble with the book is its whiff of anti-urban sensibilities, let’s call them. Gros is all about the humanity-affirming sojourn into and through the wilds of nature. “Walking means being out of doors, outside, ‘in the fresh air’, as they say,” Gros writes in Chapter 4 titled, well, Outside. “Walking causes the inversion of town-dweller’s logic, and even of our most widespread condition.”

In Chapter 7, Solitudes, Gros encourages the solitary walk, away from other people.

So it’s best to walk alone, except that one is never entirely alone. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: ‘I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.’ To be buried in nature is perpetually distracting. Everything talks to you, greets you, demand your attention: trees, flowers, the colour of the roads. The sigh of the wind, the buzzing of insects, the babble of streams , the impact of your feet on the ground: a whole rustling murmur that responds to your presence…

Fresh air. Flowers. Trees. The babble of streams.

The only 3 chapters in A Philosophy of Walking really dedicated to city walking are fraught with friction, jostling and preening. French poet Gérard de Nerval (Chapter 17, Melancholy Wandering) wound up hanging himself from a ‘window grille’ along a ‘narrow, slimy, sinister’ staircase leading to the rue de la Vieille-Lanterne in Paris. Chapter 20, Public Gardens talks about the strict social construct of the Grand Allée “to show off a beautiful fabric and reap the fruits of their toilette.” Even The Urban Flâneur (chapter 21) is little more than a ‘walker…fulfilled in an abyss of fusion, the stroller in a firework-like explosion of successive flashes.” As opposed to the ‘great romantic walker’ like Rousseau or Wordworth who ‘communed with the Essence.”walking

I walk a lot in cities. I can easily get lost in their ‘Essence’, the ‘Essence’ of, I don’t know, 50% of the world’s humanity? In fact, I discovered A Philosophy of Walking during a stroll through the streets of San Francisco and a stop at the world famous City Lights bookstore. Like Rousseau, I too “like to walk at my ease, and to stop when I like. A wandering life is what I want…without being obliged to hurry, and with a pleasant prospect at the end, is of all kinds of life the one most suited to my taste.” I just feel little compunction to head out to the woods to find it.

And hey. I’m not alone in that. Lots of people like to be able to walk in their cities, neighbourhoods. They don’t need the great outdoors to keep themselves happy or sane or grounded. Perhaps it’s not about where you walk but just the fact that you can walk, sometimes with no real purpose other than to be walking. Simply ambulant.

That is the great thing about A Philosophy of Walking, Gros’ exuberance in laying out the humanizing effects of walking.

Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found. To walk, you need to start with two legs. The rest is optional. If you want to go faster, then don’t walk, do something else: drive, slide or fly. Don’t walk. And when you are walking, there is only one sort of performance that counts: the brilliance of the sky, the splendour of the landscape. Walking is not a sport.

Once on his feet, though, man does not stay where he is.

The key here is the slowness. What we’ve lost, according to Gros, in this hepped-up world of ours, is the ability to saunter and absorb our humanness through walking.

The illusion of speed is the belief that it saves time. It looks simple at first sight: finish something in two hours instead of three, gain an hour. It’s an abstract calculation though, done as if each hour of the day were like an hour on the clock, absolutely equal.

Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone. This stretching of time deepens space. It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar. Like the regular encounters that deepen friendship.

We walk because we’re human. Humans walk. Walking, without any particular purpose, keeps us being human.

walking2

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


Conservatives To Cities: We’re Just Not That Into You

February 3, 2011

Trying to shake free of the grip events in Egypt have had on me for the past couple days and get on with life… even writing that makes me squirm in embarrassment. Sorry about all that repression and killing of unarmed civilians, Egyptians, but I’ve got a post to write. Hold tight. I’ll be back in a jif.

I was struck while watching the situation unfold in Cairo’s Tahrir Square by the thought that governments, especially authoritarian ones, must hate cities. All those millions of people, gathering together, plotting, resisting, café latteing. While it may make for some easy turkey shoots, exerting control in cities of millions can ultimately prove impossible. Thus, unlawful assembly edicts tend to be urban oriented. Country rabble rousers are easily rounded up with a quick visit to the closet highway exit Tim Hortons location.

In between paroxysms of outrage and despair, I came across a series of articles yesterday that suggested even non-dictatorial states aren’t really that crazy about cities. It either began here or here or, quite possibly, here (which is why I love the internet. Stories nested within stories, allowing you to read about a subject for hours on end without so much as a bathroom break. Just strap on your Depends and wallow in the informational overload.)

Now, much of this has a very American slant and is not entirely relevant to us in Canada especially the views on the U.S. Senate being, at heart, an anti-urban institution due, in part, to the power wielded by the many smaller populated states. Although we have had a variation on that argued here recently about the under-representation of the more populous regions in both our federal and provincial legislatures. This discrepancy has allowed our current Prime Minister to piece together a workable minority government over the last 5 years without any representation in the country’s 3 largest cities. And all his machinations to build a winning majority have not included attempts to garner increased urban support.

Which brings me to the pertinent point of all these articles: the politics at the centre of this anti-urbanism. Conservatives seem to take a dim view of cities. Or at least, the higher density, public transit depending, non-car loving, artsy-fartsy, (you know where I’m going with this), downtown, pinko elitist parts of cities. On the surface you could argue, why wouldn’t they? Downtowners are not their kind of people and don’t tend to vote Conservative. So, fuck `em. Conversely however, it could be pointed out that Conservatives don’t stand for anything much that downtowners might get behind.

It’s a thought we touched upon a little last August when we reviewed Tim Falconer’s book, Drive.  After talking to the Sierra Club’s Transportation Committee chair, John Holtzclaw, who believes that higher density living creates a more open-minded, tolerant society, Mr. Falconer concludes that, “People who live closer together and are less dependent on the automobile develop a different attitude toward citizenship and activism.” A different attitude from one that prizes individualism over the collective as the surest vehicle toward achieving well-being.

Conservative antipathy toward urbanism is nothing new nor is it something they possessed exclusively. E. Barbara Phillips noted in City Lights the early 20th-century perception of city life was largely negative. “Alienation. Rootlessness. Superficial relationships. The loss of human connections. Materialsim. Money instead of personal relations as the bond of association among people.” One moved to the city out of necessity while pining for the simplicity of small town life.

Understandable as we still saw ourselves as a largely agrarian country. A century later, however, and that is no longer the case. Despite our wide open spaces and iconic national images of the Rocky Mountains, prairie wheat fields and (formerly) frozen tundra, we are now an urban nation, like it or not. As of 2006, nearly 14 million Canadians lived in cities with populations of 500,000 or more. That’s almost half of us and the percentage over the last 5 years certainly won’t have declined.

It’s all part of a global urban trend which makes our anti-urbanism somewhat archaic and more than a little self-destructive. As cities go, so goes their countries, and if we insist on knee-capping them with outdated approaches to planning, transit, sustainability and infrastructure, we will make ourselves less competitive and less economically viable. Aren’t those the core of conservative values?

He asks, living in a city that just elected a mayor who needs space, his own driveway and backyard. A mayor that thought it necessary to build parking for a new proposed waterfront aquarium site that the developer’s chose “… because of the (pedestrian and transit) options…” and that “… parking made the project not financially viable…” A mayor whose administration is eyeing with suspicion sustainable and green initiatives as something outside of a city’s “core services”.

Yeah, some points of view die hard and when they rise up to take control of the levers of power, all we can do is resist mightily and try to mitigate the damage until we regain our civic senses. We can also take solace in the fact that at least so far here in Canada, anti-urbanism hasn’t achieved conspiracy level status where light rail transit, sustainable development and smart growth are seen as some U.N. plot to pry right thinking Americans out of their “personal mobility machines” and into tiny, cramped “human habitation zones”. It’s a sci-fi, dystopian view of cities that conservatives seem bound and determined to make a reality.

city mousedly submitted by Cityslikr


Drive, He Read

August 26, 2010

To avoid any appearances of a conflict of interest or accusations of log rolling, I have been tapped to write this post today. I am not a reviewer of books. My métier of TV and movies is more passively pleasing to me. But since both Acaphlegmic and Cityslikr are, if not friends, than certainly amiable drinking companions of Tim Falconer, it was felt that perhaps we needed a more objective take on his 2008 book, Drive. My lone encounter with Mr. Falconer was just after he’d had a pedicure and kept demanding to see my feet which didn’t make me partial to liking his book.

Although of all of us who toil away here under the All Fired Up yoke, there’s little question that my voice is loudest when it comes to making anti-car noises. So Drive is really up my gasoline alley, as it were. It’s almost as if Mr. Falconer wrote the book with me in mind. Quite a feat since we had never met during the course of the writing.

But the author and I do share a similar non-car background. He didn’t get his full on, non-learners driver’s licence until his late-30s. I got mine when most red-blooded males did back in the day. At the age of 18 when you needed it as picture ID to get into bars and buy booze in the stores. I’ve not had much use for it since, living as I do, along with Mr. Falconer, in downtown Toronto and its wide range of transportation options. (Note to ed.: I don’t live with Mr. Falconer but rather we both live in downtown Toronto. In completely separate abodes.)

Unfortunately, a few years back Falconer broke down and sold out, buying a 1991 Nissan Maxima despite considering himself first and foremost a pedestrian. In it, he headed off on a 9-and-a-half week, nearly 15,000 K road trip from Toronto to the heart of car culture, Los Angeles, and back again; a journey that is the narrative basis for Drive. Like any good road trip (and I would never claim that there can’t be good road trips), the tale Falconer spins is a meandering affair, never doggedly adhering to a rigid map route. Along the way, we get a thorough history of the automobile and its immense impact on the development of society especially after World War II.

The subtitlely thingie of Drive is “A Road Trip Through Our Complicated Affair With The Automobile” and truer words have never been written after a book’s title. What was most startling to me while reading this book was, for every sane person who either hates cars or doesn’t put much thought at all into their existence, there seems to be a dozen who absolutely love them. I mean, really, really loves them. These self-proclaimed car nuts never outgrow their adolescent fascination with their toys.

If there’s one complaint I had with Drive, it’s that too much time is given over to these car freaks which, to my deaf ear on the subject, began to sound all the same. After yet another outing Falconer takes with the Rocky Mountain Mustangers or Gateway Camaro Club, I found myself growing increasingly irate and finally snapping. I KNOW HOW MUCH YOUR CARS MEAN TO YOU, PEOPLE! BUT THEY’RE JUST THAT! CARS! I COULDN’T GET ENOUGH OF CRACK COCAINE EITHER. I JUST HAD TO STOP DOING IT FOR THE SAKE OF EVERYONE AROUND ME!! YOU SHOULD TOO!!!

The beauty of Drive is that it seems to anticipate that reaction in many readers and delights in turning the tables on them… er, me. It’s not surprising that I reacted so violently negative to yet another pot-bellied, middle-aged car jockey waxing nostalgic about his Ford Falcon because early on in the book, Falconer provides data that shows Canadians are more prone to see their cars as little more than appliances to be used in getting to where they need to go. Americans revere their cars and treat them accordingly as potent symbols of freedom and mobility. So naturally, I’m going to see them as completely out of touch with reality and vile, brainless materialists. Thus, Falconer deftly manages to shine a glaring light on my prejudices.

That makes the real heroes of the book the ones Falconer meets who have a much more rational approach to the car conundrum than I do. Hell, some of them even like driving but have concluded that urban planning around the needs of cars is the surest way to inflict the greatest amount of damage on cities.  There’s James Kushner, a teacher at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles and perhaps the only Angelino who does not own a car. His two books, The Post-Automobile City and Healthy Cities are in the mail as I write, destined to the growing pile of books I need to get to in order to truly start understanding urban dynamics. Donald Shoup, ‘America’s Parking Guru’ (and who we featured here back in March. You may recognize my colleague’s dining and discussing partner) is a joy to listen talk so academically about the problems of parking and how to fix it. (Heads-up: we aren’t paying nearly enough for it.) His book, The High Cost of Free Parking is already on my book shelf.

But the nucleus of the post-automobile future city truly emerges in the last 8 pages of Chapter 16 (San Francisco, Man versus the Internal Combustion Engine). Mr. Falconer talks with two members of the Sierra Club. John Holtzclaw chairs the organization’s Transportation Committee and Tim Frank is the chair of the group’s Challenge to Sprawl Campaign Committee. Together they put together an urban environment where private vehicles will slowly and naturally be squeezed out or, at the very least, be severely reduced in importance. How will this come about? Our growing urbanization and need for higher density. (A ‘variety of densities’, according to Holtzman.)

Presently, density is a hot button issue but those resisting it appear to be on the wrong side. Frank argues that density could, ironically, wind up uniting right and left. He sees density appealing to the left because of its tendency toward social justice if things like mixed income housing are part of the plan. The right will take to it as denser communities make various government services less expensive to deliver and need fewer people to deliver them. Increased density equals smaller, more efficient government.

More exciting still for those of my political stripe, John Holtzclaw believes that increased density creates a more tolerant, liberal-minded society. “People who live closer together and are less dependent on the automobile develop a different attitude toward citizenship and activism,” concludes Falconer. So take heart, all you who grow dismayed in the face of Rob Ford’s spike in popularity and Stephen Harper’s relentless push to neo-con Canada, for they are fighting a losing battle. The slow march of history is on our side.

How cool is that? A political manifesto rising up from a book about cars. That’s quite something to pull off but is exactly what Tim Falconer does in Drive. So run, don’t walk (and certainly don’t drive although cycling is encouraged) and pick up your copy. The revolution (or – a-ha, a-ha — the rpms) has begun.

car-freely submitted by Urban Sophisticat