Friday, August 15, 2008

The Free Left Turn

Around here, in Western Massachusetts, there is a wonderful phenomena I call "the free left turn." At intersections controlled by stop lights, it is not uncommon for an oncoming driver, who is going straight ahead, to yield to a left turning driver, maybe even two. I moved here from Chicago, where the drivers recognize the other cars on the road as cars, rather than as vehicles with real people inside of them; and so, when I encountered my first, free left turn, I considered it a pleasant, random kindness. But this is not so; the free left turn is embedded in the driving culture; it is a system, and I frequently reap the benefits of the system when I am in a hurry.

But sometimes I worry. I have questions. Is the system a closed system? Does it operate upon some karmic principle? If I remove more left turns from the system than I put in, do I reduce the general goodwill, or does the system contain a limitless supply of free left turns? I ask myself these questions when I drive around the valley. I ask these questions because, although they are about driving on the surface, they point to more fundamental questions about culture and goodwill among men, as they say. And so I wonder, am I removing more left turns that I am putting in? Is the question even a valid question, or is culture more self-directed than the activists and hopefuls among us would like to believe?

My hunch is that culture is self-directed, and I am only driving around within its parameters. Consider culture a sphere that is rolling down a gentle hill. I am inside of that sphere. I feel none of the movement of the sphere; I only feel my own movement within it. This conception does not allow me to alter the movement of the sphere itself. Even if I removed a million left turns, the sphere would continue down the slope. Ah, but the slope!

Physics tells us that the sphere must accelerate. Gravity demands it. Physics also tells us that the sphere must change as it travels. See, this sphere does not exist in a purely theoretical space. The forces of nature act upon the sphere, the culture sphere, and so little bits of it chink off, and so too little sticks and stones become embedded in it. Over time the sphere changes, and over great time it becomes something else entirely; and so I suppose I have answered my question, but which answer do you want?

There are two answers: (a) our actions really change nothing, and (b) our actions are so slight, and so they cause slight changes. And so there are at least two conclusions to be made: (a) for every left turn you remove, return one, if you want to do your small part in "sustaining" a thing that is bound to change (if that makes you feel good); or (b) fuck it. You really are inside a self-directed sphere, and the consequences of your actions are so slight and so heavily tempered by the culture itself there is absolutely no reason to bother. So, to boil it down, you are either (a) totally powerless, or (b) pretty damn nearly totally powerless.

Well, I suppose there is an option (c), but I'm not ready to consider it now. Option (c) isn't really an option, it's more of a practical application. It compares the duration of life against the speed of change. If change is slow, but life is short, much of the above must be totally reconsidered in order to arrive at a useful thought. To expound that useful thought, to arrive at it, would require a lot more thinking, and I am not prepared to do that right now. Rather, I am prepared to wash out my bowl of chili.

Chili? That's correct. Keep your beanie hearts glued to this page, for the chili blog is coming!


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