Friday, August 17, 2007

Sleepwalking Strip Malls

Strip malls are ugly. Highways are (usually) ugly. Suburbia is ugly. This is what I often think. It surprises me, sometimes, that people can live in these aluminum-sided boxes with a little rectangle of stubby lawn out front and ugly pointless shutters on the windows, with ugly curlicue metal at least in one place on the property (maybe holding up the mailbox, for example), and maybe a couple of sickly trees on the property - not tall enough to actually provide shade.

This is extremely snobby of me. (At least I admit it, and don't think these sort of things all the time.)

Sometimes it surprises me how accepting the majority of New Jerseyans are being surrounded by strip mall after strip mall, no real parks to break up the monotony, just stoplight-bespeckled roads cutting towns into pieces as hulking, monstrous trucks clangingly trudge along, sighing and roaring like an elderly dragon should they encounter a hill to ascend.

It's surprising how we let our life fall into a routine. A majority of people (or so it seems) work the same hours, and thus sit in the same traffic, in order to sit in an over-air-conditioned office in front of a computer screen for eight hours, accomplishing approximately two hours worth of work (because efficiency, for whatever reason, isn't exactly rewarded) and spending the rest of the time doing what I am doing, mastering the covert Internet-Explorer-and-AIM-window-minimize.

We line up at a Dunkin Donuts where the staff and the other customers will be rude to us, to get a coffee that costs about 30 times what it would cost to make it in our own home and, if it's the Boonton Dunkin Donuts (not my favorite Bedminster Dunkin Donuts), is 30 times worse than the coffee I can make myself.

Sometimes, I look around like, "These people are zombies. I hope they go home to a better life, that they enjoy their two-hours-of-freedom-before-falling-asleep-to-Jon-Stewart each evening." Other times, I realize that though my office-job-life is temporary (usually no more than a summer long before I return to school), I have totally become one of these zombies. I, too, cannot function until I have had my coffee.

And it's not so bad.

Even in this life, this monotonous, routine-driven life in which maybe 10% of our time is spent according to our own will (and even less if one has a family to take care of!), even then, it's not bad if you know how to look for each day's gifts. Even if you don't, if you have no intention of asserting your own individuality, the importance of responsibility to yourself, whatever you want to call it, even if you don't consciously take the time to notice things like a funny bumper sticker, a stranger holding the door for other strangers at Dunkin Donuts, an interesting bird or tree or flower along Easton Ave, this life isn't bad at all.

(I mean, what do I really do when I have free time? My one day off this summer, I did nothing but watch TV, be cranky, and go to CVS.)

Today, at the rude Dunkin Donuts, I noted that one of the employees took the time to ask a customer to taste her coffee and see if it was made right- if it was the right temperature or had enough sugar or something -and then I ended up running into E., an old friend who's worked down the road yet I haven't seen her in a year.
Even if I didn't work in an office that's really a historic home, adjacent to hiking trails and a beautiful native plant garden, I still get to come out of my house every day and communicate with other people. As a result, I've made some friends. Even at the software company, not only did I make friends with my coworkers, but spending the whole day on the phone - sure I talked to some jerky customers, but there were plenty of pleasant ones, too, people who made normal conversation and jokes with me.

My dad and I were having a conversation, somehow connected to my frustrating, obsessive desire to Do Good In The World, my frustration with how much bad there is in the world - so many horrible things. I was really upset because so much happens - so many people are allowed to die - for money! Some company makes money off of things like cars with intentionally poor gas mileage or, as this article I read part of yesterday showed, things that make cell phones and remote controls function--things we DON'T NEED--and as a result, people die. There's just nothing - now I'm having trouble finding words. There's just no room in people's minds for the thought that this cruelty, this violence, is unacceptable, and they could still make plenty of money without allowing these things to happen. (I guess, as people speak with their wallets- start to buy fair trade coffee, etc- these things could gradually occur, not out of any sense of morality, just more greed, but hey, at least it's something. Maybe we'll see a world of cruelty-free electronics.)

Sometimes, I realize what large numbers of people exist that are actually capable of this violence, and I think, in despair, that this world isn't even worth saving. For a split second, anyway.

More than that, when I'm being pessimistic, I think that, overall, there has probably always been as much bad in the world today, throughout the history of...well, things capable of morality. Like maybe this world is, on average, just as bad and corrupt and cruel as that of the Middle Ages, or something. Some other time period in which we think people were inferior to us and barbaric. (Frankly, I think that anyone who happens to wear a suit, dress and speak nicely, yet profits off of violence, is pretty much a barbarian. But what are any of us? I don't know.)

Oops, I totally didn't mean for this to take a depressing turn. Should have just ended on the happy note!

Anyway, my dad said something like, This is the world we live in. This money-driven world, he meant. This is the world we live in - and that's just the way it is. The only thing you can do is try not to go crazy, try not to I guess be a victim, but mainly what he was telling me is that you can just do your best to make change in this world. That you have to - as I've been saying lately - keep making small changes, and not discredit them. Once, we were having this conversation (it comes up a lot) and he pointed out how much my piano students loved me. That I made their lives in some way better by teaching them music and by just being there, being myself, talking to them, being friends with them, whatever. (What all of us do for different people throughout our life.) Is it fair of me - is it right - to discredit this? In a way, it's like saying that the happiness of that student, just because she's one of six billion, is insignificant. I guess he's right.

So, in short, in all ways - in this obsessive desire to change the world (which has governed my life for as long as I could think of such things - I think it began when I was about seven, I would start clubs with the neighborhood kids with names like The Save The World Committee...a pack of seven-year-olds was going to save the world!), in a life of monotony and ugliness, in a state like New Jersey, the capital of suburban sprawl and previous bad planning - we just have to accept that this is our world, and we can't hope to knock it down and start all over. We just have to do the best with what we have, and to remind ourselves to look around, to see what's really there. In the midst of all the ugliness, there are our "insignificant" interpersonal communications. Smiling at someone, talking to someone, listening to what they did this weekend, matters. Hidden between the strip malls and highways of New Jersey are historic villages and natural parks - not just in the rural counties, but in built-up areas. (Like Paterson Falls - which I've still never been to.) This is the world we live in, this is the structure we're given. The key to survival is to keep alert for these small things, hidden gems of the day (or ugly city), to preserve our own sanity - and for people with a Dorothea-Brooke-complex like me, to keep looking for little, manageable changes that I can make.

1 comment:

DeciBel said...

I agree with a lot of what you have to say.

Oh, I found your blog by searching google for "always been as much good as evil in this world" or something like that. I was certain it was a quote by some philosopher. I must have misread it or something. Not that you can't be a philosopher. haha.

So anyways, that's how I found your blog. I like your writing style! :)

And you have a very positive end to your blog. I'm at a point in life where that positive end is a bit of a difficulty. I'm really obsessed (just like you describe yourself to be) with making the world a better place, because it's not the best it could be (to put it nicely). I tend to fall into a depressed mood pretty easily.

I'm rambling a bit. Probably too much for someone who's only a stranger from the interwebs.

Thanks for your insight,
Daniel