5 11 2007

Seen from a northbound window of the Chicago Red Line elevated train, an old wooden apartment building sports a row of new solar panels on the roof. Half a dozen panels with pipes promised hot showers for the building tonight. The southbound Red Line home has a green roof on the west side of the tracks. That green roof is about two years old–old enough for prairie grass to have seeded itself way out in the middle of the flat beds of succulents.

How did those roofs get decked out in current concern? plan “b” has seen similar experiments on her own building’s roof prevented by the force of raised eyebrows and “not in my lifetime” or “over my dead body.” By what miracle were two groups of people along the Red Line route able to agree to try something different on the roof over their heads?

This is what it feels like to be living on the historical cusp. “Over my dead body” buildings literally rub up against new developments spreading lots of green on their marketing gardens. It’s happening with greater frequency just now that the tip-topiest condo developments make the biggest claims to being squeaky green. Someone has to tell us that living 50 stories in the clouds is the new “sustainable.” Airspace has become the new bamboo (“renewable resource”).

Just two years ago the curiously concerned had to scrounge hard to find “seminars” (i.e. free and open to the public) on “green” or “sustainable” technology and “heat islands,” (environmentalist’s new name for superpaved urbs and sub-urbs). The crowd that showed up at those meetings two years ago tended to be the same people every time. Sprawled there among the regulars, plan “b” sometimes felt like the unpopular kid at the Sock Hop. It wasn’t hard to get a seat, you didn’t have to go early and it was not the “hot ticket” had there been a ticket.

Just two years later, in the November 4 New York Times, William Yardley slipped the “…the ‘s’ word [sustainability]…” into his coverage of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ two-day Climate Protection Summit in Seattle. Two years back thinking about changing the way cities built themselves hardly qualified as avant garde. Chicago City Hall already had a maturing green roof on it and a city program to get the roofs out there greened and Mayor Daley was growing himself a reputation as the “green” mayor. But but in the pre-President Oscar Nobel days Red or Pink were more likely on most people’s minds than Green, which was still a color notoriously impossible to wear. And “sustainable”? What the heck was that? This week-end Chicago concluded its annual cultural tizzy, the Humanities Festival. This year the festival was dutifully themed green and if the Chicago Humanities Festival was compelled to be green it means the trend has peaked.

Which brings plan “b” to a recurring problem.

For ALL big ideas there is a lonely avant garde (A.G.) enjoying varying degrees of poverty and crankiness (not unrelated). Having ideas ahead of their politically, financially or culturally marketable time is an exciting, nevertheless tragic flaw. It is often called by another name: Bad Timing.

There is also sort of Junior Avant Garde (Jr.A.G.) that finds such ideas later, often independently, but well ahead of the time of “common knowledge.” Each person in this somewhat over-stimulated and ill-tempered Junior group finds a different way of living with the difficulty of finding few or no people who want to play.

Uncomfortable as living as Avant Garde or Junior Avant Garde may be there is something worse, at least in plan “b’s” strong yet pliant opinion. The more annoying moment comes months or years later, when the “idea” becomes useful to people who have have figured out how to apply it (money, power, etc.). These are coincidentally the people who are meanest to A.G.s or Jr.A.G.s. These people often come a generation or more after the A.G.s and Jr. A.G.s and somehow got wind of “the idea” which was then cleared for release into the air of the times.

In no time at all everyone wants it and it becomes a timeless basis of western civilization.

So plan “b’s” question is how does one live with an idea once it has become popular; once everyone is talking about it; once it is a requirement to pontificate upon it with suitable “gravitas” or one will not:
find a mate;
(check one).

As the cycle completes itself there is discernible annoyance with the current fad to green. It’s hard to say if that comes from snobbery or from plain hard feelings (where were you all when we wanted to talk about these things?). Maybe some like provocative ideas because they want to be alone. But maybe they like the fun of not saying what they’re supposed to say next.

That’s really what today’s plan “b” is about probably, if one rises above one’s personal discomfort which, let’s face it, who cares? How do we protect the really important ideas once they come to the front of everyone’s mind? They do need protecting and powerful ideas, solutions, suggestions, alternatives, etc. etc. can be shown to rise above the co-optation of them. It occurs to plan “b” that that’s really what our public discourse is all about: playing through the pain of the fad phase of the big idea and getting at how or what parts of it might be just our cup of tea.

Off we go! Have a jolly day, all!

Here’s the website for the U.S. Conference of Mayors:





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: