I don’t want to escape from reality;
I want reality to escape from me.
(Pearls Before Swine (1969), “Sail Away”)
I write this in anticipation of traveling tomorrow from the suburban outskirts of my hometown Toronto back to the relative sanity of Powell River. For the last two weeks and then some, I’ve been out here visiting my father, family, and friends, doing the Christmas-holidays thing, and occasionally finding moments of actual rest and relaxation. I don’t want to go on at great length in a topic that others — notably James Howard Kunstler — have covered so eloquently; but my main sensation from having spent this time here is that this suburban explosion is a terrible mess that won’t evolve gracefully, if at all.
Yesterday I walked around the ‘neighbourhood’ for something to do. Where I am now is on the edge of some extremely rich little pockets of houses which it seems to be a mistake to call homes. Some of these are absolutely gigantic and overwhelming constructions, often in the style of a French château or English manor, with three- or four-car garages as standard equipment. One after another, they stand well back from the street, many behind pretty secure-looking gates with intercoms. (The rumour is that there is a lot of Russian mafia up this way, and the overall look and feel of the neighbourhoods nearby certainly suggest nothing so much as ill-gotten gains and a bad conscience.) Some have garages under the house. Many have three and even four floors, and the detailing is of the type you get when you can say “Spare no expense” and really mean it. Many, many of these houses have no visible signs of current occupation: window shades are drawn against the outside world; no cars sit out front; certainly there is no homeowner shoveling the driveway or arriving home with groceries. Of children there is no sign. I’ve walked around this neighbourhood many times during previous visits, at various times of the year, and the lasting impression is one of isolation, loneliness, and sterility. If there are children in these houses, and if they play together, it probably is not spontaneous and unsupervised. There are parks they can walk to and play in, but I never see anyone there except for dog-walkers. (Say what you like about dogs — they seem to be the prime force for promoting physical fitness in our many sprawling suburban enclaves.)
These pockets of extreme wealth and opulence are surrounded by streets upon streets of architecturally bland houses on much smaller lots, usually thrusting their two-car garages out from the façade, creating a streetscape in servitude to the automobile. These houses are almost entirely devoid of architectural interest, and it is uncommon that the owners have done much to overcome this lack with landscaping, paint, or any other attempt to make the house look like the dwelling-place of unique human beings. One after another, different yet uniform, they line a street or cul-de-sac with blank windows, garage doors, and unusuably small front lawns. Throw in some greying snow and a louring winter sky and the overall effect is one of desperation and depression.
No matter whether you happen to live in one of the cookie-cutter mini-mansions or in one of the grandiose real ones, you’re living in a place where almost everything requires the use of a car. My father can no longer drive, so much of my time out here has been spent as a pedestrian in a place not built for pedestrians. It’s not good. A few days ago, for lack of anything better to do, I walked northward up the main arterial until I had had enough. I was hoping I could find a decent indie coffee shop or café, a non-chain or used bookstore, a public space like a library or community centre, or anything out of the ordinary that you might not find on any other large street. Apart from a handful of holdouts against the relentless expansion and sprawl — an old burger joint or mom-and-pop mini-mart — it was one long string of mani-pedi outfits, nail salons, driving schools, tax consultants, chain pizzerias and other fast-food dispensaries, muffler/transmission repair shops, strip malls, mini-malls, mega-malls, and all the other requisites of a society on the move. This mix of commercial services extends for many miles in all directions, becoming sparser moving north and denser moving south towards the city. Further out, it’s almost all housing in huge expanses of highways, arterials, and residential roads; out there the shops and other services can be very far away and there are no parks or public spaces whatsoever. If you want to get some exercise or interface with other humanoids, you can just hop in the car and select the entertainment modality of your choice.
This way of life is a hallucination. What is going to happen as the hallucination starts to crack and fall apart? We have at least one full generation of people raised in this sort of isolation: trained neither to expect nor desire constant interaction with other people for any sustained period of time; able to satisfy their needs at a whim, by getting in the car and driving to the right place no matter how far away; immersed in a home life where everyone has private inviolable space and gadgets to fill the long hours; surrounded by a denatured natural world and doing their part to fill it with ever more toxic waste. I want to be clear that I don’t assign all responsibility to those who live in this way; but we have collectively engineered and supported a system of transportation and housing which satisfies superficial needs and desires while disregarding the natural world and human physical and psychic well-being. The consequences are becoming extreme. Living in a collective hallucination, each person atomized and apart from the community, can only give rise to all kinds of disorders, such as the gamut of psychological and mental illnesses that characterize city living now: ADHD, depression, eating disorders, road rage, excessive alcohol and drug use, and on it goes. It’s obvious that a huge amount of obesity, diabetes, and all other kinds of systemic and immune-system disorders are likewise linked to a lifestyle which reduces the time spent outside, preparing and cooking healthy food with loved ones, or otherwise occupying — as more than casual and careless tenants — the bodies we have inherited from generations of ancestors.
The hallucination, though, is of such vigour and verisimilitude as to leave little time for reflections such as these. It will continue in full force until it stops continuing. When it breaks up what’s next?