On ‘urban supremicism’ and the end of opportunity cost

I have been following Greek citizens’ response to the collapse of their economy and their likely exit from the Eurozone. Some, doing the hard work of their forbears, have returned to the land. Others, like Gregoris Skouros (see “As Economics of Everyday Life Erode, Some Greeks See Little Hope” [New York Times, Sept. 19, 2012]), have tried to start an escargot farm with a view to exporting snails to wealthy buyers in France and Italy. The idea that the modern city may not be the place in which one leads a good life is now coming into view.

Last month, my friend Dougald Hine spoke at Future Perfect, a once-yearly festival concerned with sustainable living, about what he calls “urban-supremicism.” On my construal, his urban-supremicism view consists of two claims. One is that migration from the country to the city, during the onset of industrial capitalism and since, was not an inevitability; in many cases, migration came as the result of coercion and exploitation, not because of individual choice. The second is that life in the modern city is not, all things considered, intrinsically better than life in the country. If the migration was not inevitable, then it can be reversed; if life in the city is not in all respects desirable, then it can be brought into question.

I skimmed a story in Bloomberg about Task Rabbit, a service that allows users to outsource individual tasks–the simplest errands, the greatest drudgeries–to the lowest bidder. You might pay me $20 to clean your house on the fly. I noted in yesterday’s New York Times that beauty salons and mobile-manicure providers are now “on the go.” According to one beauty salon owner, “Urban women are so busy with jobs, family and life, and it becomes harder to find a couple of hours to carve out to go and see your stylist on a day and time that works for both the client and the stylist.” Apparently, irony is no longer in vogue.

Dougald invites us to consider the qualitative difference between cooking food for loved ones and making food at a restaurant; between giving a handmade gift and buying one online; between massaging a lover’s back and paying for one; between growing one’s food and running a credit card at a supermarket. Here on the Upper East Side, nannies walk children to Central Park, dog walkers walk dogs around the block while professionals spend their days in Midtown, Fresh Direct delivers groceries to owners’ doorsteps, personal assistants arrange family schedules, and tutors see to children’s homework.

We have to ask what it feels like to engage wholeheartedly in one kind of activity in comparison with another where this ‘another’ is of an entirely different order. What does it feel like to live according to nature, and what does it feel like to fight your way through a massive, standardized, bulk-sized CostCo? Perhaps, in what promises to be a post-growth world opportunity cost will no longer have the final say in the matter.

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A pastoral dirge

Dearest A,

My god what a beautiful day. On leaves with filtered light, goddess spiders, succulent wine and caressed notes. Words just don’t suffice.

Merci mon beau ami for being in my life.

Love,

C

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Unspeakably beautiful our day together. Thank you, dearest C. And how lovely your new picture.

More tomorrow once my internet returns to life.

Love,

A

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Dear C,

Well, I’m sitting here in that wickery corner chair you know. The bamboo one crisscrossed with blond bone and red berries. On my left are your photos; on my right the outdoors, I suppose. I’ve perched my computer on my thighs flattened by my tippy toes. In this spot, I can get good–OK, fairly good–internet reception. Good, good, blah blah vibrations.

I’m reminded of young boys holding up those tinfoil bunny ears. The TV antenna might work all right until you took your hand off and tiptoed back to your carpety seat. With the crash came the fuzz. So there you were again, gentler or less patient or both.

It’s just after 2 p.m. and I’m still waiting for my new modem to arrive. Hence my tippy toe window seat. (My ass is starting to hurt something fierce.) Earlier, I sat in the dark of the dining room and spoke with P by phone. I’m sure I sounded the fool. Before that, I’d moved the last plant out into the courtyard. That bugger was SO heavy and large, those fat billowy leaves reminiscent of Arabian Nights. I thought I’d break something: the wall, an antique painting, my back.

Today is nothing like yesterday, is it? Then the pastoral, today the Gothic. Then the bucolic, now the sultry. Now I feel itchy. I ate the rest of the chocolate. I want to go for a run in the rain. Or maybe I want to cry a little.

Last night I slept fitfully. Half-awake, I’m brushing my hair. Who does that? I do I guess, and I’ve no idea why. I’m half-awake and detangling, my head a quarter off the pillow. What’s that all about? Is this my sign that says I’m concerned about others?

Good Lord do the leafy trees sway! I’m sure I had something important to tell you but, while scribbling away, I must have forgotten it. Oh yes, this simple truth: I’m thinking of you…

A

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Dear Andrew,

Fell asleep last night around 9:30, my head reeling from the day, the wine still coursing in my blood and the sun’s heat radiating from my skin. I slept strangely, awaking with a start at 12:50 a.m. thinking of P. I opened my laptop and she was there. Now I know the full story and hope to be of some comfort.

When I woke up this morning I was almost thankful for the rain. Washing, cooling the intensity of yesterday. I’m still marveling how time was suspended, 15 minutes felt like a lifetime. My head on your lap, your hand on my shoulder: I don’t remember the last time I felt life coursing so loudly. Yes I think I could cry a little too.

Imagining you on your wicker chair, the one I remember dragging out on your roof, with glass in hand, hoping not to tip over your plants in the doorway. This Baudelaire quote came to mind when reading your post from this morning: “One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters…But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.” There are not many people I feel Iike I could get drunk with. But with you yes.

C.

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Dearest C,

How did you guess? Yes, I am still sitting in my wicker chair and feeling just as out of sorts now as I was when I first wrote you. The contrast between yesterday and today is still jarring: the beauty of mere being, of being in friendly, fecund fields (where was the shepherd? where the traveling goats? where the midsummer night?), of loving lightly skin and sun, of– juxtaposed with the infinite sorrow of world-sundering change.

(O brave woman…)

I think often (and just as often misquote) Frost’s poem about the country boy who lost his hand and died. My version of the final line reads, “And they, since they were not the ones dead, returned to their affairs.”

And how do we return to our affairs, how after the fields and the forests, the hay and the lake? And how do we return when another–our mutual beloved–is reminding herself to breathe? What do we owe her–what words, what thoughts, what caresses?

I guess, far off in New York, I do my part by running around in search of modems. Do not fret: I have my case number, my little billete, my confirmations. (Did I mention that the old modem worked just fine? Oh, but upgrades! We must have upgrades!) Or by not taking showers for 2 (or is it 3?) days straight and feeling as gross, as encrusted, as greasy as can be. Or by eating cocoa and frozen blueberries and agave nectar together for most every meal. (I think I am getting sick and jittery from the chocolate. My tendons are all quivery and my eyelids refuse to close. Is this a problem?)

Goddamn it: it’s just so still out there right now. I ask only that you leafy trees breathe.

O let’s go back to the fields. Let’s write in praise of lassitude. Let’s sing a song to drunken love. Or will it be enough if we listen to the 6 o’clock church bells and cry a little or a lot–as much in joy as in sorrow?

With love,

A