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The Urban Geographer – Walk softly and carry a good new year's resolution


Here’s a game you can play this holiday season. You can do it at home in front of your television if you like. It’ll be fun, I promise. And you can decide how long you want to play. Ready? Here goes.

Pick a movie, any movie. As you watch it, pay close attention to the focal shifts in the cinematography. In most movies (Hitchcock’s Rope is one exception), the camera cuts sequentially from one scale to another. In any one scene there might be a close-up, a two-shot, a medium shot, a long shot, a crane shot, and so on. In less than 10 minutes you’ll notice that, despite the movie’s apparent continuity, the camera actually reframes the story constantly.

I bring this game up because I want you to think about how we have an inherent ability to frame awareness at different levels. Yet some of us go through an entire lifetime as if we only had one lens to look at everything.

In her book The Creative Habit, the choreographer Twyla Tharp contends that each of us has a favorite focal length for framing the world around us. The one we prefer reveals a lot about self-image and the value we assign to reality outside ourselves.

Some of us, like Martha Stewart, are focused on the details. Nuts and bolts, buttons, table settings, thread counts, daily changes in our faces or body weight — these are common subjects of concern and obsession. The primacy of these things could indicate a constricted worldview, I should warn you.

In another group, there are people who see from a wider perspective. The panorama is their preferred format. Here we find the lovers of elaborate constructions and processes, natural or otherwise. People who design airports, aircraft carriers, subways, all kinds of complex systems, fit this type. (Oops! I’m forgetting meteorologists and landscape painters.) Context matters to these people, and individual items are seen in relationships.

There are other viewing options, of course. But now I’ll ask you two questions: At what focal length is your own life unfolding? Are you happy going through life with this lens?

The great Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen (1910-61) made this suggestion: “Always see an object in its next context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” I’d take this advice. Start by imagining yourself in that chair, then the room, and so on. Before long you’ll be well on your way to a greater awareness of interconnection.

In any single thing there is the implication of a larger structure, and every situation is simultaneously local and general. The detail insinuates the whole and our ability to find ourselves in some kind of connected awareness makes life not just interesting but meaningful, too. No one stands alone. An intricate web joins us all in a life-sustaining identification with our environment. Physical, psychic, and spiritual health are bound to the natural sphere we call home. The connections are always there, despite the lures of mindless consumerism and material status that add no real value to everyday life. When we give them more attention than the real-life world we inhabit, they can only lead us astray. If we all continue like this, what serious trouble lies ahead?

Instead, adopt a guiding metaphor: circle, spiral, web, network, perpetual-motion machine — whatever your imagination needs to motivate you. It’s important to visualize the larger framework that links you to the health and wholeness of your community and environment. Why wait like a clueless nudnik for the collapse of a wasteful lifestyle? Your creative intelligence is always available to identify activities that elevate the mundane to a higher purpose.

I’m remembering Arthur “Hap” Veltman, the well-known downtown developer, on this 18th anniversary of his passing. I learned a lot about him when I was a creative consultant on some of his projects. Usually, our meetings would be on the sidewalks between his office and a nearby job site. Along the way he’d always pick up candy wrappers and other trash discarded carelessly by others. Skipping the lecture on human laziness and stupidity, he just walked the litter to the nearest trashcan. By this simple act he showed how one person can easily bring the pragmatic and qualitative together through engaged awareness.

What’s the nicest end-of-year gift you can get yourself? Here’s my heartfelt wish for you: Shift up to Überconsciousness and get involved in something that matters. Find that higher self, without the dead weight that keeps you from having some genuinely human experiences. Be happy!