Friday, July 31, 2015

The Conversation

It has already been close to two weeks since the Stratford trip.

I was a bit nervous about missing the bus and left a bit early.  I actually had close to half an hour to spare, so I stopped off at work first.

I wasn't terribly surprised that the bus was full, but I was secretly glad when this pair of women, who had planned to chat the whole time (and would have been sitting near me) split up.  The woman who sat next to me tried to get some work done on her smartphone but the display was too small.  I offered to lend her a few sections of the paper that I still had with me.  I was planning on reading Coover's Pricksongs and Descants.

I can't quite remember what set it off, but perhaps it was exasperation at the delay and then the seemingly endless video display before the driver finally took off, but we started talking about the relative merits of the art scene in Vancouver vs. Toronto.  I said it was quite sad that opera was not thriving in Vancouver, and it seems that it is likely to be extinguished soon (they are trying just a short festival season and no programming the rest of the year, which seems destined to fail).  I think we talked a bit about how the TSO was slightly underwhelming for a city this side, and the VSO punches above its weight.  (Though I just read that Dale Barltrop is moving back to Australia permanently, which will be a huge loss.  I felt quite privileged to see a number of concerts where he was featured.)

We somehow got onto the fact that I was a transportation planner and then talked a fair bit about unrealistic expectations (both on the part of the public and the planners) and how almost everything in Toronto is complicated by the amalgamation and the low tax regime insisted on by the suburban voters.  But fundamentally, there is no easy fix, and Toronto traffic will always be bad unless the region gets very serious about rezoning and redeveloping a number of clusters outside the downtown core.

The conversation kept going into odd directions, and we dwelt several times on some of the downsides of US culture, particularly rise of religious fundamentalism in the US* but also the fascination with guns and the fact that the 2nd Amendment makes it impossible to do anything about it.  Then Chicago and its issues, both deep segregation and looming pension problems.  In some ways, the Illinois constitution is even more limiting, and has put the state into a really deep hole.  This ties in with ideas I have been kicking around about how inter-generational equity is essentially impossible when the current population (mixed with a slavish adherence to the primacy of contract law) can tie up future generations indefinitely.  Just look at Greece. Indeed, we did talk about the mess that is Greece and the fact that the EU is not willing to sponsor poorer countries for generations.  Also, just how helpful is it for the IMF to come around and lecture Europe about debt relief (when Greece's lenders already took a massive haircut) when the IMF turns around and says that its debts are sacrosanct.  At that point, I thought they lost the right to criticize others.

We actually ending up talking quite a bit about the huge problems with the structural transformation of economy, and how overall "society" benefitted from free trade.  Unfortunately (and probably predictably) the real benefits were not redistributed or used to prop up safety net for those who were net losers.  Robert Reich was a bit of an optimist in The Work of Nations (from around his time in the Clinton adminstration), but since then he has become quite pessimistic about the impacts of free trade on the working class.  Just in general, we in the west could not have nice things, like day trips to Stratford, if resources were spread out equally.  I know this intellectually of course, but when I really dwell on it, I start to feel guilty and it does put a damper on my mood...

We sort of ended with a darker prediction of how bad things will get, particularly in Europe, when global warming generates attempts at mass migration several times above what they see now, along with struggles over water (to say nothing of the impact of a sustained sea rise).  We both agreed that there will be a general global catastrophe unless we move away from carbon-based economy, and its probably already too late.  Ontario is probably better positioned than most of the rest of the world, but there will still be some terrible impacts here.  I suspect I feel this more than she does, simply because I am more of a pessimist and, being younger, I will have to deal with these messes for longer than she will.  The conversation was starting to peter out, but we talked a bit about China.  Unfortunately, I got the name wrong at that time, but the author of Concrete Dragon admits that what the Chinese are doing at the moment is incredibly environmentally destructive, but at the same time they seem to offer the only meaningful escape from the carbon economy, since they are probably the only country with the resources and will to actually make solar power panels cheap enough so it is truly competitive with oil and we can make the transition to a post-carbon economy.  That's a very slender reed on which to hang one's hopes, but I guess it is better than giving in completely to despair.

Since this woman was clearly into documentaries, I told her about a powerful one called Last Train Home, which is both about the terrible human impact on the rural villagers who move to the outskirts of the cities where they have almost no rights, but also about the fact that almost the entire country tries to go home at the same time at Chinese New Year and all transportation systems grind to a halt.  Unfortunately, I got the name of the documentation wrong as well, but I think she had enough clues to find it if she wants to look it up.

And that was how I spent the trip to Stratford, chatting with a complete stranger the whole way in (hopefully not disturbing others too much).  We only exchanged names at the very end of the ride!  It is definitely not like me at all, but it was actually fun and probably the most intellectually stimulating talk I've had in years, just due to the length and breadth of topics covered (of which I only touched on a few).  Maybe moving to Poucher, where people are generally more outgoing, has had a subtle influence on me.  Certainly my mother was very outgoing and could talk to strangers pretty much anywhere, which was always mortifying to a more closed-off teenager like myself.  In general, taking changes has led to good outcomes for me, so why I don't interact more with strangers is a bit peculiar, but it is a deeply ingrained habit for me now.

I did mention to her that she might want to check out the Hamlet in Withrow Park, since she said she loved the tragedies, but I didn't force it.  I thought this conversation was lightening in a bottle, and if you tried to recreate it, it wouldn't work.

As it turned out, I was still able to read the Coover book and finish Keane's Good Behaviour and even read Dürrenmatt's The Physicists during my short stay at Stratford, so I might actually have been bored on the way back had I stuck my nose in the book and read on the way there.  Just something to consider for the future.

* This actually led to an interesting but inconclusive discussion of what to do when one is a secular or secular-leaning person in a red-state, or more extreme case of Iran.  Democratically, it may be the case that a majority want religion imposed upon themselves (and everyone else) but there may not be much room for dissidents.  Minority rights are always so hard to square with the overall political process.  I'd say that even in the US and Canada, acceptance of the validity of different views is decreasing.

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