Category Archives: Random Blogging

Planes, Trains and Buses–The Rest of the Story

Maybe I’m just not cut out for travel.

Some of you will remember my blog detailing the wild and woolly start of our trip to the West Coast–the mad dash to catch the plane, the belated realization that we’d left our car at the airport but we were returning by train…

That was NOTHING compared to the return.

My husband has long wanted to take a train trip across the Western U.S. We are big train buffs, and whenever we are in Europe or Asia, trains are our primary means of travel. Almost without fail, those trains have been modern, immaculate, fast and reliable.

Amtrak, unfortunately, cannot claim to be any of those things.

We boarded in Emeryville (just outside San Francisco) on Friday morning for a trip that was scheduled to arrive in Chicago at 3 pm Sunday. We had made (nonrefundable) reservations on a Megabus to Indianapolis for 6:00 p.m.–giving us three hours. Plenty of time.

Our first disappointment was the “top of the line” sleeper; not only were the cars 40+ years old and tired, but the design of the sleeper was baffling—when the lower bed was out, there was no room to walk and no way to use the washbasin. The upper bunk was much higher than necessary—nice for the person on the bottom, but making it impossible for the person on top to sit up. There were none of the clever storage solutions we’ve found on European trains—virtually no place to put even the most common items–and the tiny bathroom/shower left a lot to be desired.

And there was no Wifi. Fortunately, my techie son had explained how to tether our phones to our devices, but we burned through our data plan and then some.

As we went across the country, the scenery was magnificent, and the other passengers we met were interesting and pleasant. (I should note that the train appeared full–people really like trains!) But we steadily lost time; due to the condition of track, there were many places where the train had to slow down.

As we entered Nebraska  it became obvious we’d be well behind schedule. Before we even reached Omaha we were three hours late, so we made new Megabus reservations for six p.m.(couldn’t change the existing ones, thanks to that company’s requirement that changes be made five days in advance). (Did I mention that these tickets are non-refundable?)

Then we got to Omaha, where we were told that storms in Iowa the day before had washed out rail, and we were being re-routed onto a freight line’s track. Despite the fact that Amtrak obviously knew about this problem well before we left Emeryville–and well before they allowed other passengers to board in Denver without informing them of the problem–this was the first time anyone mentioned the fact that the previous day’s train was still stranded in Iowa.

The new route involved waiting for a new crew; we sat in Omaha for six hours. Although  announcements were few and far between–and, in our car, thanks to an antiquated PA system, basically inaudible–we were finally told that the estimated time of arrival in Chicago would be somewhere between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m. Monday. Yesterday.

Another nonrefundable ticket purchase from Megabus, this time playing it safe: 6:00 a.m. And given the schedule, no sleep.

The train finally arrived at Chicago’s Union Station. At 6:02 a.m. We waited 40 minutes for the checked luggage to appear (and when it did, it had evidently been dragged through a large pile of dirt.) No one was working in the baggage claim area, so there was no one to ask about the reason for the delay-or the dirt.

Our final non-refundable Megabus tickets got us on the 9:30 a.m. bus to Indianapolis.

The bus ride was uneventful until we hit the bridge repairs on I65, which brought traffic on that incredibly busy interstate to a virtual halt for over a half-hour. By which time, I was ready to throw myself off the damn bridge and end it all.

We finally got home at 2:30 in the afternoon. Dirty, sweaty, tempers frayed. We’d had no sleep and nothing to eat since Sunday afternoon. Amazingly, we’re still married….

So what have I learned, other than I’m an old broad who should just stay home and tend my (nonexistent) garden?

One of my father’s favorite sayings was: things worth doing are worth doing right. Other countries seem to get this; in the U.S., however, lawmakers seem averse to the concept of infrastructure maintenance. Our bridges are dangerously substandard, our rail beds deteriorating, our trains far past their prime. But rather than fixing our embarrassing rail system, Congress continues to degrade its ability to provide service by cutting Amtrak’s budget.

We sure seem to have plenty of money for weapons, though.

 

 

The Real American Religion?

Sightings is a twice-weekly publication of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. One of the newsletters is written by noted religion scholar Martin Marty; the second is an essay by another religion scholar. They are always thought-provoking, but I was especially struck by a recent contribution by one Bruce Rittenhouse:

My own research on consumerism supports the conclusion that the reason Americans remain attached to a consumeristic form of life is because it performs the religious function of providing them with an answer to the existential problem of meaning.

In my research, I defined consumerism as a form of life that sacrifices other consciously-valued goods in order to maximize the consumption of economic goods, despite the fact that this consumption exceeds any objective measure of need.

Rittenhouse offers a variety of research findings to bolster his contention that even the most economically challenged U.S. households prioritize consumption over savings, and he identifies the role that consumerism plays in the American psyche. He notes–accurately–that “economic goods are never simply objects of use.” Consumption becomes consumerism when the intent is to procure “social recognition,” when it is the way in which the consumer signals his or her “personal significance in a community,” allowing the consumer to “transcend personal mortality.”

In other words, in the absence of a different source of meaning, owning stuff serves that purpose– the consumerist lifestyle is “psychologically essential to the person who uses it to secure his or her personal significance.”

Rittenhouse’s conclusion is grim:

So long as American culture fails to provide a ground of personal meaning that calls for self-sacrifice for the common good and for future generations, the United States will remain unable to meet its current economic, demographic, and environmental challenges.

If Rittenhouse is right–and there is a depressing amount of evidence supporting his thesis–we have a very big problem, because the health of the American economy rests on our ability to generate consumption. One of the most persuasive arguments for raising the minimum wage is that consumption requires disposable income.

A change in the culture of consumerism won’t come without considerable economic upheaval. Assuming it comes at all.

An Expression of Our Shared Aspirations

Recent polling by veteran survey researcher Stan Greenberg has confirmed some conventional wisdom, albeit from a somewhat different angle.

Unsurprisingly, Greenberg found that a large majority of Americans support popular social programs like Social Security, Medicare and even the Affordable Care Act.

An equally predictable finding: a majority of us view government with a significant amount of distrust.

Greenberg concludes that it isn’t enough for proponents of social programs (mostly Democrats these days, although the partisan divide wasn’t always so sharp) to center their candidacies around their support for these programs; they also need to emphasize a commitment to specific government reforms.

Reform of government, then, means more than just getting money out: It should involve specific, plausible reforms that would reengage citizens in the process of government, creating new ways to make all our voices matter….

Above all, it should include a positive vision of reform of the political process, and the role of money, that does more than reimpose limits on the political influence of the very wealthy, but empowers citizens as donors and participants. And, the most difficult challenge of all, there has to be an effort to restore to the public face of government, the legislative process, a sense of compromise and shared commitment to the public good, despite deep disagreements.

All of this should fit into the context of a reaffirmation of the importance of government, not as a force outside of our lives, for good or ill, but as an expression of our shared aspirations.

“Government as an expression of our shared aspirations.” That sentence struck me. How long has it been since the voting public viewed their government as a mechanism for achieving our common goals and aspirations?

The fact that such rhetoric sounds quaint, if not odd, to contemporary ears is a measure of how impoverished our political discourse has become.

 

The Attack on Truth

A recent, lengthy column in the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoans what Stephen Colbert used to call “truthiness” and what the author calls an “attack on truth”:

There is simple ignorance and there is willful ignorance, which is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant. Normally that occurs when someone has a firm commitment to an ideology that proclaims it has all the answers — even if it counters empirical matters that have been well covered by scientific investigation. More than mere scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects a dangerous contempt for the methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth. And once we are on that road, it is a short hop to disrespecting truth.

The author lays much of the blame for this state of affairs at the feet of postmodern literary critics and cultural-studies folks who advanced the argument that truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity.

There is much more, and the entire column is well worth reading, but I think the argument against postmodernism is misplaced. (I think fear, a product of modernity’s disorienting change, has far more explanatory power.) I have my own problems with postmodernism, but there is a difference–which the author glosses over–between “truth” and “fact.” And that difference matters.

Science deals with the discovery of testable facts-– the sort of knowledge that can be confirmed or debunked by experimentation and reason. Facts are demonstrable, and the data upon which they are based can be shared with others who have the necessary skills to evaluate them. The broader meanings and conclusions we humans draw from the facts at our disposal, however, are subject to social construction.

Morality, philosophy and religious doctrines are efforts to identify truths of the sort that cannot be verified in a laboratory and must inevitably remain matters of belief. Or faith.

The author is right about one thing, however: When we choose to disregard facts established by science, we also abandon any pretense that we are searching for those broader truths, or even acting in our own rational self-interest.

When our anti-intellectual policymakers cling ever more frantically to their “willful ignorance,” we’re all in trouble.

Big trouble.

Portland

We’ve been in Portland, Oregon, for two and a half days now. If I were twenty years younger, I would seriously consider moving here.

We wanted to visit Portland because we are urban policy nerds, and knew that Portland was something of a city planner’s dream. It is. Here, in no particular order, are some of our observations:

Billboards are obviously strictly controlled; we counted exactly five between the airport and downtown, making that 45 minute taxi ride far more scenic.

Streets are a bit narrower than in most cities, and blocks are a good deal shorter–even shorter than the “short” blocks in NYC. Most are tree-lined, and in the downtown area there are flower baskets hanging from hooks on the street lights. Although there’s a grid, it isn’t rigid; there are also streets angling off in various directions. All of that makes walking around really pleasant. Plus, the urban core is amazingly compact.

Bikes are everywhere, and there are dedicated bike lanes.

Perhaps the walking and biking account for another observation: people on the streets in Portland are mostly thin.

There are tons of parks–big and small and interactive (kids splashing in park pools is encouraged). The streets are active–unlike in Indianapolis, parking garages all have first-floor retail, so there aren’t long “dead” areas. And most of the retail seems to be local–although there are some national chains, local shops, bars and restaurants (of which there are so many you wonder if anyone here cooks) outnumber them by a significant margin. (I’ve seen few Starbucks, for example, although there are regional and local coffee shops everywhere.) Hundreds of food trucks offer all sorts of creative cuisines (Mauritania has a cuisine? Who knew?)

I wasn’t able to find out how many people live in downtown Portland, but there are many, many apartment buildings, and a good deal of the retail downtown caters to residential needs. (There’s a huge kitchenware store and three supermarkets–including a Whole Foods. So I guess someone must cook….) And there are regular, rotating Farmer’s Markets; we saw one, and it, too, was huge.

Speaking of huge, Powell’s books. An entire city block. 300,000 titles in stock, new and used. We got there a few minutes before 9:00 a.m., when it opened, and there was already a line.

And everywhere you look, you see public transportation. There are buses and trolleys in traffic lanes dedicated to them–no cars allowed. Light rail. A tram to carry folks up the big hill (with bike parking at its base). Nirvana…

We spent yesterday morning riding the trolley system. The cars were immaculate, the system was easy to understand, and $5 bought a 24-hour pass, good for the bus, the trolley and the light rail. The system is obviously well-used, and by a broad cross-section of riders.

I’ve also been absolutely blown away by how NICE people here are. My husband and I stopped to look at a building, and a man asked if he could help us find something. In a shoe store, the clerk whipped out a map and suggested places we should see–and gave me her card in case I had questions. The motorman on the first trolley we rode not only offered complete directions, but let us know when we were approaching the stop at which we needed to transfer. Servers in restaurants have been equally helpful. Drivers yield to pedestrians–and each other– everywhere, and no one honks his horn!

Portland is pretty similar in size to Indianapolis, and every urban amenity I’ve described is something Indianapolis (and other cities) could do, if we had the political will. But fairness requires acknowledging assets we couldn’t duplicate, like the absence of mosquitos. A climate in which you can evidently grow ANYTHING. No humidity. Mild winters that don’t take as much of a toll on roads, buildings and infrastructure. Mountains, rivers and hills.

I’m sure if I actually lived here, I’d find things to complain about. But from our admittedly limited perspective, this is a city to envy.