Meta note: This one came in a bit late– I’m publishing in the order that I receive.
Forgive my tardiness and since it’s the second time in a month that I have had to say this, I have realized this is something I have to work on. That is, If I commit myself to a voluntary task, it shouldn’t be considered secondary to my other live obligations especially if it involves someone else. Talking about space, one of my favorite aspects of architecture is in fact, the spaces between the built environment and the world around it. In Indian mythology, a king received a boon that he couldn’t be killed indoors or outdoors and as we can expect, the king soon become a tyrant and one of the gods had to reincarnate himself to kill him on the threshold of the house.
Morbidity aside, I found that loophole interesting since it begs the question at what point does indoors become outdoors. Most architecture makes it quite distinct so the space that blurs the boundaries always fascinates me. Air-conditioning in America often makes such a design impossible but in South India especially in traditional homes, a central courtyard around which a house is built is very common and it works much better than air conditioning in a much warmer climate. Here is an example (there are plenty of examples in the “more like this” under the image). I bet this is very similar to homes in Mexico which is one of the reasons I am hoping to do an extended trip down there like you did. A close second is a public square. It can range from the grand St. Marks' in Venice to a small plaza outside a movie theater adjoining a Starbucks and an Atlanta Bread Company in Dunwoody, GA where my friends and I hung out all the time.
Moving on to the other topic you raised about our ability to solve problems, my experience of spending nearly half of my life in India actually makes me more hopeful about America. A few months ago, my brother and I were talking about life in India in context of my dad living there after my mom passed away. He’s not exactly a fan of the West and would like to move back whereas me on the other hand, can never think of that possibility but both of us could agree that a civic sense is something that India lacked. I can elaborate that it’s largely a lack of trust in public institutions. The oppressed classes feel it more strongly and that has led to a sense of quiet resentment among the general Indian people which at times erupts in horrific inter-religion or inter-caste riots (literally). Living in America makes me feel more hopeful and even though latest events against democracy, it’s still a country rooted in strong institutional trust, a high sense of civic sense, and participatory democracy. People, in fact, give a shit.
But of course, as you say, in the sense of tragedy of commons, it hasn’t quite worked off late to tackle the large problems that society faces like climate change, healthcare, or even gun control. But I find the root causes are in the amplification of a small minority of “shitposters” even the good-meaning ones who often trivialize talking about solutions. I sometimes come across as argumentative and am expected to “take a chill pill” but that’s mostly because people don’t want to feel uncomfortable and be questioned. And if their beliefs are questioned, they often retreat into a shell of not airing their opinions instead of being open to change. I would say, forget change but even if the historically dominant classes could muster up empathy and recognizing why others are angry, we can make progress.
Anyway, I think between the two of us, we are preaching to the choir but thanks to your experiment of making these letters public, hopefully others can read and ponder without assuming that they are being called on. Thanks once again for doing this and save for my tardiness, I hope this exchange has been meaningful to you. I certainly have learned a lot.
Elsa and I often joke about how much we love a courtyard. It’s a shame that America spread out with single family homes, but made them all boxes designed like a fortress to the outdoors. All of our knowledge of passive heating and cooling (and siting) left completely by the way side for efficiency. I love the city, and I think most of our homes should be in cities, and the American suburban form seems like all of the efficiency in building with none of the efficiency of living in a city. Cities manage to be beautiful and efficient, but our single family home seem to have chosen, at best, efficiency without beauty— neither form, nor function.
I do love the old courtyards when you can find them in Mexico, whether in older homes now subdivide or incorporated into multi-family apartment structures. The airflow and light alone seem worth it, but so is the blending of indoor and outdoor. A lot of Mexico City is clearly designed for year round comfortable weather, and quite often the indoor-outdoor distinction is more of a veil than a wall.
I find your take on our ability to solve problems at least somewhat comforting. I think it’s hard for Americans to forget about some of the “easy” stuff, that even when it doesn’t work great, is universally expected to work here. I’m thinking the postal service, water and sewage treatment, waste management, and electricity. Even places like schools and libraries, for all that we’re experiencing what feels like an unprecedented erosion in support, are still understood to be present and function well. I do think we give a shit, and most of us expect all of these things to function. We just can’t seem to agree about the why.
There’s a fine balance I think we all have to play when it comes to pushing folks on their beliefs. On the one hand, silently letting small things go by create the underlying conditions for changing what are acceptable beliefs. When someone posts about how they needed to vote via provisional ballot (that was accepted and counted) because of some small issue at a polling place and how that causes erosion of trust in the voting system, how do I respond? On the one hand, in a rational space where we have shared understandings and beliefs, I can have an intellectual conversation about how small inconveniences and errors can cause people to question the efficacy of a bureaucracy. On the other hand, that’s not what this person is saying. And even if that’s what someone is literally saying, that’s not what our current conditions cause others to hear. How important is it to be the voice to say, “Hold on a second, this is very normal, there’s a process, you did vote, your vote was counted, this is everything working in the careful, cautious, correct way that we want. This isn’t a moment to lose trust, this is a moment to understand how these systems function exactly the way you’d want to build trust?” No one likes having to be that person every time. And yet. And yet. And yet.
Where I grew up, casual racism is rampant, and despite having long had large populations of immigrants, mostly from groups that were shit on just like the current wave of immigrants until 70ish years ago (primarily Irish, Italian, and Jewish), anti-immigrant sentiment is rampant. The current, disgusting incarnation of the GOP is rampant. When I go home to my parents, or when I see comments from people I grew up with, I am assaulted with casual opinions that are all just opening a small door to the truly terrible thoughts. The casual prejudice, which we spent so much time in school discussing as one of societies great ills, is everywhere. I can’t help but to challenge it often.
But there is a point at which I can no longer be heard if that is all that I am. There is only so much labor and work I can put into that fight without burning myself out and burning out what tenuous relational currency I had to be heard in the first place. It’s tough to draw the line. I know that for folks like that to truly change their minds, for them to change, they’ll need to be questioned, over and over again by people they trust for decades so that they start to think, “Maybe something is not quite right here.” You have to chip away at beliefs, making the fissures and cracks for self-doubt to creep in.
Keep chipping away.