Unsuspecting readers! Indulge me as I try to find my feet in this first blog post not bounded by the tyranny of cute little girls’ smiles and antics.
My working day begins by confronting the arbitrary whims of the MBTA Green Line D branch motorpeople: will they open all the doors, letting those with passes wave them generally in the air and climb in faster, or will they open only the front door and insist that everyone tap their card? This transcends what people at MIT like to call “America’s Aging Infrastructure” (though the D Line trolleys certainly qualify) and gets more at how we can create systems to restrain the inherent cussedness and random behavior of our fellow men and women.
One such system is the well-known bus rapid transit of Curitiba, Brazil, where air-conditioned cylindrical platforms allow passengers to pay before the bus comes and walk on and off, sparing everyone the load time and the increasing wrath of the operators as they ponder just how many people are dodging the fare. I’ve never been there but have often thought, if the MBTA weren’t utterly broke, wouldn’t this be a great way to shelter T riders while waiting for the train, make the MBTA more money on fares, and help everyone chill out?
It just takes a drop of thinking about Brazilians’ World’s Fair-like commutes of the future to realize why people have so frequently imagined an escape from their dystopic lives to Brazil–although more recently the collective consciousness is catching up to Brazil-as-dystopia–and who better to illuminate that North American fantasy of escape than Elizabeth Bishop?
Fled from the Maritime Provinces and New England of her youth, she spent years in Brazil and wrote many memorable poems about its people and landscapes, often as occasions to think about the nature of home and belonging. In “Questions of Travel,” Bishop is a traveler in a place where there are “too many waterfalls.” What a wonderfully cantankerous line to start a poem, or a postcard back to Worcester. How is it to ride uncomfortably through the long-dreamed-of destination?
Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?
The details of Brazilian flora and fauna–birds chirping away in decomposing tropical cathedrals–fall into themselves as links in a centuries-long relationship between the fantasizers of Brazil and the crudeness and beauty of what is there. The traveler finally asks, “Is it lack of imagination that makes us come/ to imagined places, not just stay at home?…Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?” Bishop’s whole life is full of estrangement from oneself, from home. “Questions of Travel” is not a commuter’s poem, as there is no binary of workaday life and a brief escape (to the Azores maybe!), but rather a view into Bishop’s hard-won (and ultimately lost) life as a long-term traveler in imagined lands.
What Bishop could not have anticipated from her Eisenhower-era experience of American ascendancy (however much she sought to escape it) is today’s still-uncomfortable meme of American decline in the face of unstoppable advances by places like China and Singapore…or even, on the bus rapid transit front, Brazil! I don’t buy into this, by the way, and just staying within the transport theme there are many holes emerging in the story of China’s riding America out of town on a high-speed rail. But this week, fresh off our “debt ceiling deal,” it is harder to be confident that Americans will have the tools to work together on any public agenda.
Next post: why my wife is the awesomest woman around