Zoo Evening
Mapquest vs. Google Maps: A Difference in Opinion

On Living in Someone Else's Utopia

Pleasantville, New York, is one of those places the suburbs were invented. It figures into the books on the suburbs in two ways. It is the place the Reader's Digest moved to when it moved its headquarters out of New York City. (The first Pleasantville  Reader's Digest headquarters is now the location of the Pleasantville Police Department.) And we are also about a mile from Usonia, a utopian housing development created in the 1940s by Frank Lloyd Wright and friends. In our street of houses, built ten years after Usonia, you can see the echoes of Usonia: curved streets with no sidewalks; houses very carefully sited on one acre lots to give the greatest sense of being in the woods. In our development, called Old Farm Hill when sold in the '50s, the houses were not individually designed; rather there are about six designs sprinkled throughout. About 10 years ago, we were invited to a dinner having something to do with the Mt. Kisco Unitarian church and arrived at an address in Bedford (as I recall) to discover that they had our house. In the past six months, two houses from the Old Farm Hill development have been bought by a building contractor who, I'm told, bought them for the lots. They are apparently to be torn down and replaced by 2 million dollar houses. (Could this be the same developer who talked the town into selling an acre of undeveloped parkland on the same street? Eight hundred thousand dollars is a formidable price to pay for an acre of land.) I have difficulty imagining relating to neighbors who paid that much for their house. And perhaps I have no need to be anxious about that: such houses usually come with keycard entrance driveways. Don't even think about trick-or-treating there. And so it goes: Pleasantville, one of the places where the suburbs were invented, is also one of the places where the suburbs are being reinvented.

So here we are, an hour and forty-five minutes into August 2005. The car service picked David up to take him to the airport nine hours ago. David is probably at his hotel in Glasgow by now.  One of our annual book contracts was not renewed and our publisher's contracts person seemed to need to reinvent the wheel in order to get our other contract out the door, and here it is August and we have not yet been paid for something that was supposed to be settled months ago, and so the financial chickens  (or are they ravens?) come home to roost. So despite our longstanding plans to go to Scotland as a family, David has gone alone; this despite our longstanding practice of traveling as a family as our own little nomadic band. There is something very primal, very natural about traveling as a family. When on long trips, it has seemed to me that nomadism is a much more functional lifestyle than it is ever given credit for. But David is a science fiction editor, in some ways the very Jungian archetype of The Science Fiction Editor, and so he must go to the WorldCon.

And the kids and I remain behind in the postmodern bastardization of Frank Lloyd Wright's utopia. Because we were planning to go to Scotland, I signed Peter up for a scant two weeks of day camp which have now been over for ten days. When Peter was about three, I remarked that if you say a child outside in midday on a summer weekday, it was like seeing a raccoon out at that time of day: it meant the child was sick. On summer weekdays, buses roar through here about nine and vacuum up all the children, returning them at about five. The idea behind this utopia is that in the future, everyone will have lots of money. (This is the future; post-scarcity suburbia, you have lots of money, right?)

Part of the idea of the post-Wrightian "Winners' Circle" suburbs is that they take lots of things that came for free, that were basic elements of the of the Seattle neighborhood I was small in, and they separate those out, so they can be sold back to you at a premium price. The summer-long price of that camp that comes with the bus, that is so popular in these parts: five grand per child, last time I checked -- for five grand, you can arrange for your child to have other children to play with in the summer. Peter's day camp was considerably less, and to my mind, better, but required nearly 2 hours per day of camp of maternal driving time. And I signed him up for only two weeks back during the January sign-up period, because we were going to Glasgow.

So David gets in the black car and drives away. In my mind's eye, both kids then look at me and say Here we are; entertain us. That's not actually what happened. It being a Sunday evening, neighborhood kids ran in a pack for about two hours. After dinner, I lulled Peter and Elizabeth to sleep with a mathematics propaganda video: Multiplication Rock. It would be nice to think that a mile away, the moms of Usonia are faring better, but I know that is not the case: a Usonian mom of my acquaintance was undergoing horrible but necessary eye surgery right about now which will require her to remain in a facedown position for ten days; when discussing the difficulties of this in the Tae Kwon Do waiting room, it did not sound like living in Wright's utopia conferred any special advantages. Camp. the kids go to camp. And when they're not at camp, they're yours, all yours.

When on car trips, we have a family term: utopia, as in, Oh, look there's a utopia! You know the kind of house I mean. There you are in the middle of nowhere and there on the front part of maybe ten acres of what probably this time last year was a farmer's field is now this brick house with fancy light posts and garden statuary and a gazing globe (or maybe one in each color?) and at least one "water feature," usually the ubiquitous fountain, but maybe a custom trout pond/skating rink with that statue of a black boy fishing. Someone finally got what she always wanted. These houses were built to be utopias. A partially inground pool was built in out yard in about 1967, lasting until about 1990. (This year, the old pool area is an especially productive raspberry patch.) And okay, I confess, I've got garden statuary: a winged lion, a frog gargoyle reading a book, a couple of ammonites. This year we are lacking a water feature because I didn't bother to set up the fountain. (Given Elizabeth's track record so far this summer with getting into tempra paint, it would have been spouting "nice clean black water" in no time.) You don't have to go more than a block here to find a house with a work in progress and obligatory backhoe or  bulldozer in the back yard. Make no mistake: the processes of utpoia are still in progress here.

We tried to go to the "swmming beach" in Croton Point Park on the Hudson Friday. Where do you get off, lady? What's the matter with you that you aren't by the pool at your swim club? The beach is covered with goose shit and we were run off by the patrolling cop because you're only allowed to swim on weekends when the county provides a lifeguard. As I wrote in the comments over at Making Light:

I hauled the kids through Metro North and the NYC subway system to the American Museum of Natural History Thursday and was surprised to see very little in the way of increased security.

On the other hand, I took the kids to the beach at Croton Point Park yesterday. It may be because the park has a view of the Indian Point nuclear power plant, or it may be because the county was concerned about the possibility of drunk, rowdy teenagers. But there was abundant security at the park, including guys in military fatigues guarding what looked like a side road leading into the Metro North train yards.

We drove in and I paid the rather steep eight bucks to park. On paper, there is a nature center there, but it was closed even though I thought the sign listed hours that suggested it would be open. That having not panned out, I got the kids in their bathing suits and took them to the "swimming beach." No one else was there, except about 100 Canadian geese, nearly as many ducks, and one shy blue heron. The beach was covered with goose poop. There were lifeguard chairs and a roped off area for the lifeguards to guard, but no lifeguards in evidence.

Elizabeth chased off the geese, and Peter found fairly quickly that there were little crabs in the water and set about catching them. There was a snack bar building that was boarded up and fenced off, and a building clearly meant to house changing rooms and showers which looked like it had been closed for years bearing a sign that it was being rennovated. The situation was pretty sad, since clearly if the beach had people on it in the summer on a daily basis, it wouldn't be covered with goose poop.

I managed to avoid having a conversation with the first cop who came by on beach patrol, because Elizabeth took her water shoes off at just that moment, and I didn't want her running around on goose poop in bare feet. When the second one came by about half an hour later, he informed us that "swimming" was not allowed without a lifeguard present; from the way it was phrased it seemed that what Peter was doing, looking for crabs in ankle-deep water, constitued swimming. The guy was clearly trying to be nice; these were just the rules, it seemed. There are a couple of other beach-like areas in the park, but it seemed to me that if the same cop caught us "swimming" on a different beach, I might really be in trouble. So we packed up and went home.

(Also, it occured to me while we were there that if the Health Department came out and tested the water at that particular spot, they might close it for health reasons because of contamination caused by the abundant poop.)

I had only ever been to the park before during the Clearwater music festival, which gives it a rather different ambiance. But without the festival, it had a very police state ambiance. Homeland Security: keeing America safe from little boys catching small crabs at the beach.

The situation was clearly the result of a collision between budget cuts for parks systems and the emergent Homeland Security infrastructure. I don't think we'll be going there again any time soon.

But here we are: David's in Glasgow. The pool is a raspberry patch. There is no camp except Mother camp. The cat has a thyroid problem, I was informed last week, requiring daily medication. One misguided part of my utopian process was getting Peter a bunny. My stepson Geoff Hartwell, guitar god, is teaching at the National Guitar Workshop (a utopia unto itself) for the next two weeks and thus is not available for vacation pet care. (The beta fish and various ampbians have slower metabolisms, and some of them eat alge and so are less of a probem.)

The obvious thing to do is to hit the road. But it seems I have four, not just the ordinary two small mammals, to accomodate. Do I load two kids, a hyperthyroid cat, and a ferocious bunny rabbit into the back of the van and drive of looking for the nomadic utopia tomorrow morning? Or do I do something else? Your guess is as good as mine. The process of utopia starts here.