Saturday, May 17, 2014

Tending My Garden

My life is boxes. At home it is boxes and chaos tinged with the excitement of change. The prospect of lunch with George was a change I could look forward to, even as I negotiated the changes currently plaguing my life. I had been wondering if this is all there is for a while; I guess not!
At work, where our offices are bring refurbished, the usual domestic tranquility of night shift has been turned into something more closely resembling the end of days, as construction crews spend days replacing and repairing, and all semblance of order is hidden under a layer of displaced furniture. It will be good, great even when it's done but it's a hard grind.
The main road into the city, North Roosevelt Boulevard, known informally as "The Boulevard" continues to be a minefield of pot holes, raised manholes, uneven asphalt, dust and piles of dirt. This mammoth two year reconstruction job is supposed to end in July with new storm drains, new landscaping, new traffic lights and new turn lanes. It will undoubtedly be "awesome" but I cannot believe it will be done on time in a few short weeks. I avoid the boulevard as much as I can at the moment.
The weather is changing as we move into summer and rain is sprinkling around the Keys. Winds have moved to the north as though some out of season cold front has been huffing south in a desperate attempt to blow wind and rain through the islands before it is absolutely too late. As a result it remains hot and then the heat gets overlaid with the wet and the sub-tropics start to feel tropical and I remember why summers feel good. I like the wet heat of summer. I stopped by the side of the highway on my way home as the rain started to bucket down so I then pulled a  U-turn and rode back toward Key west where the rain was lighter and I got dressed in my waterproofs listening to the foliage crackle in the dark as the rain fell and spread across everything.  
I got a message from George advising me he was back in Key West having abandoned Prague for a few weeks to visit his family in the US, so while his daughter Julie napped and his wife guarded her, we men ate meat and drank beer at Finnegan's Wake on Grinnell Street. It was not a busy afternoon but I was reminded how pleasant a pub can be even with a couple of stupid television screens, and how lucky we are to have a pub with  decent grub in this small town. Finnegan's is one of my preferred sit down eateries.

George is good for me; he is an optimist. He has to be I suppose, not only because he lives in a small country at the crossroads of cultures, but because he has a child and that is a conditions that demands belief in the future. We talked about Ukraine, a few hundred miles from his apartment in the Czech capital, but it is a country as remote he says as it is to Key West. Except that winter heating fuel comes to the Czech Republic through Ukraine. Last winter was a long deep freeze, endlessly below zero, previously it has been unseasonably warm, George's optimism would prefer to lead him to the conclusion that something will be worked out; my pessimism makes me wonder how Europeans think they can sanction Russia when Russia holds the key to their energy supplies. Makes no sense. However I did read an interesting perspective on the motivations of the Russian President Putin, from Truthdig: Putin's Real Use For the Ukraine If you want a really interesting insight into the dispute in Ukraine and chaos read the article.
George tried to cheer me up with a quotation attributed to Candide, the eternal optimist and bane of young students of French literature, admonishing me that I cannot save the world that I must look out for myself, hence the title of this essay, the conclusion that the optimistic Candide is forced to come to after a novel spent discovering what shits people can be, and will be given the chance. Which advice is okay but it is not satisfying as it seems to me that even though I am doing okay, living where I want to live, enjoying my work, with a family and friends and in this I am one of the lucky ones. So it would seem that should be enough, I should not aspire to seek better terms for those left behind by our unequal society? It is I suppose one more human paradox that people should be so annoying so often yet one still feels the drive to wish them well. George was very patient with my feeling of unease poorly expressed.
In ways more numerous than I at first thought George and I are opposites, brought together by Key West on orbits whose trajectories would not at first glance seem likely to cross paths. Consider: George found himself in Prague after the Iron Curtain  collapsed and saw an opportunity to stay and prosper in a  world ready to be made anew and he did, devoted single mindedly to that endeavor. I instead lived for experience, attracted to the burning light of culture and art in a world already formed in expensive, hierarchical Northern California. I watched the Silicon revolution develop  right under my nose and I had no notion how to take advantage of it. I enjoyed the tangents from the wealth created by computing, which allowed me to take jobs, and mix work and travel, to quit and drop out and then drop in again as easily and as carefree as the proverbial grasshopper. I lived  a lot and it was good.
 
George instead built his carefully constructed life, retired early and is now setting about chasing down experiences, making children, writing books, living in spurts in Hemingway's Key West, attending seminars and readings and doing all those strenuous activities that slip past my workaday world.
And there is the question of greener grass. I realized as we talked that I have the same nostalgia for Europe that George cherishes for the United States. He sees his homeland as a beacon for Libertarian free enterprise, a place where corruption is muted and people can stretch their faculties and achieve precisely that which he achieved in Prague. Odd that because I look back at the  Europe of my youth with nostalgia. It was a place where no one starved but no one climbed too high. I grew up with the sense that we were all in it together and though that was easy for me to say as I was in the privileged class there was a comfort in everyone having their place. And even now I find myself appalled by the way poverty ripples through the US and it is accepted as  the cost of doing business. But the truth I don't want to see is that the comfy cosseted world of my youth no longer exists. Unemployment is rampant, suicide is up, welfare support is down, homelessness is back and austerity is the order of the day on a continent I no longer even know. The past, they say, is a different country; they do things differently there.
 
For George too the past has evaporated. The US he fondly remembers as part of his childhood is gone. Opportunity, climbing the ladder of social acceptance is all a thing of the past. Wealth is distributed in his imagination in response to hard work and the pursuit of liberty. The reality here is much more muted, government programs that don't work, welfare that doesn't seem to help, citizens who would have enormous difficulty following the pioneers' Oregon Trail from two centuries ago.
 Philip Pilkington on Feudalism in the 21st Century is an essay on the naked capitalism website that discusses the language of power and it is a discussion I find fascinating in its implications for all us, whether we seek a place at the table in the European centralized economies or in the Oligarch's world here in the US:
 
The fundamental idea of our current regime is one that most people have forgotten, because it is associated with Marx, and one must not talk about even the things Marx got right, because the USSR went bad. It is that we are wage laborers. We work for other people, we don’t control the means of production. Absent a job, we live in poverty. Sure, there are some exceptions, but they are exceptions. We are impelled, as it were, by Marx’s whip of hunger. It took a lot of work to set up this system, as Polyani notes in his book “the Great Transformation”, but now that it has happened, it is invisible to us.
 
The hopeful Libertarian in George's expatriate world sees corruption and cronyism in the tiny state that is the Czech Republic and he thinks back fondly to the US of his youth when sensible government regulated commerce such that humans' baser instincts were kept in check (sic!). George missed the deregulation craze of the 1980s and 1990s, the path that set us up for our brave new world of ever rapidly cycling of boom and bust in our economy.
 It  was food for thought as I went home filled with bangers and mash and baked beans refueled to carry boxes down stairs and up to the new place on Cudjoe Key. I read some statistics not so long ago that put my wife and I in the top 20% of people in this country by virtue of our government wages and our child free status. Good Lord I thought, that can't be right, can it? We couldn't even pay the mortgage without the promised modification that it turned out was like waiting for Godot. So if that is true, perhaps I am confused beyond redemption about the state of the rest of the world. Pangloss would not approve but he is long since dead as Candide was published in the 18th century, but perhaps all I really do need to do is figure out how to be a better gardener and not worry about the grass being greener elsewhere. This I need to think about.