Saturday, June 16, 2012

I've read some interesting and thought-provoking books recently -- thanks to the new stuff shelves at the St. Petersburg (Florida) main library.

The first is Judith Stacey's Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China. I am not a marriage traditionalist: I think any consenting adults who want to marry should be able to, but on the other hand people who aren't interested in getting married (like myself and my boyfriend of 14 years) are fine without a ceremony or legal registration. However, I've only lived in this one culture, that of the modern U.S.A., and in an accepted-by-all-but-the-sternest-Biblethumpers heterosexual relationship. Stacey's book examines relationships and child-raising in different cultures -- first, that of West Hollywood gay men, but then some even less familiar to most Americans:

  • South Africa, the only country in the world where same-sex and polygamous marriages are both legal, though with some limits on the latter, and
  • the Mosuo, a minority people of southwestern China who may be the only human group not to include couples living together in marriage to raise children in their traditional way of life.

The book's exploration of these ways of life managed to bring new information and arguments to the sometimes repetitive discussion of what marriage and family can be and should be. It's really fascinating to read about how the non-heterosexual-monogamous minority groups interact with the different majorities around them; I was rather amused South African marriage law's attempt to accommodate the original African "customary" plural marriage while still encouraging European-style monogamous marriages, leading to the result (if I understand it correctly) that only a black man can legally have multiple wives, but not a white man or a woman of any race, despite the racial and gender equality legally prescribed in the South African constitution. (Future legal challenges may get interesting.) And then there's the Mosuo, who used to just leave everyone living with their family of origin, so children are raised by their mother, with her own mother, siblings, and extended maternal family, whether or not the father is continuing to see the mother or not (even if he is, he still lives with his mother and family of origin). To some degree this lifestyle has survived intense government pressure in earlier years of China's Communist government, and even become sort of a tourist attraction now under less-repressive regimes. These are cultures that might have something relevant to say in the modern U.S. marriage debates, as well as just being interesting examples of ways people live.

The next is On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (And Ourselves) by Jonnie Hughes. The author is a British man who frames his discussion of how ideas change and grow within his trip with his brother across the U.S. and Canada looking at such things as changes in barn architecture among settlers and differences in structure of Native American tepees between tribes. Parallels between how Darwinian evolution shaped the plants and animals of the Great Plains and how the needs of Westerners shaped the origin of the cowboy hat, or any of the many other examples of cultural changes Hughes cites, become clear when you look at them from this angle (and the author being British means he has a fresh view of some cultural things that North Americans are so used to as to never consider). Whether or not you can believe in the idea of a "meme" as an entity akin to a "gene" that can exist independently of the organisms that contain it, this book is a fascinating look at how things change.

The final book I felt strongly enough about to blog is Taras Grescoe's Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. I am an American rarity: someone without a driver's license. Outside of a few northeastern cities, it's commonly accepted that it is "impossible" to get by without a car in the U.S., and zoning, building, planning and transit work on this assumption. Of course, this screws over the too-young; too-old; people who are blind or otherwise physically unable to drive; and those who are too poor to afford car, insurance, and gas (plus weirdos like me who just never seemed to be able to learn for no obvious reason). Public transportation exists but rarely makes anything remotely convenient; even here in St. Petersburg, some areas of which pre-date cars, my "local" service center for the county Worknet program is an hour and 3 minutes away or an hour and 5 minutes by different bus routes. (Google maps says driving to the same destination would be 16 minutes, or 21 in current traffic conditions.) And my experience is that St. Petersburg has better transit than say, Tampa, which is a lot more spread out.

This is partly due to the cultural status attached to private car ownership. The book's introduction starts by quoting Margaret Thatcher: "A man who, beyond the age of twenty-six, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure." (Bitch.) These attitudes are preventing a lot of places from making it possible to reduce car pollution, urban sprawl that takes animal habitat, and even obesity rates by cutting down on individual car use.

So I like reading about places where non-private-automobile transportation (not necessarily "public transit") works, and Grescoe catalogs a wide variety of them, as well as a few where it's not so successful. Subways, trains, buses, and bicycle commuting work for people all around the world, allowing them to avoid spending on gas and parking even if they do have their own cars, spewing fewer pollutants per passenger-mile than individual cars, and in some cases even letting them get things accomplished during their commute because they don't have to spend that time controlling the car. But there's no one-size-fits-all plan for every area, and some of the functioning systems Grescoe visits were arrived at after trial and error led to urban blight and gridlock. So Straphanger is a very interesting historical-and-current look at how people get where they need to go, and something people should read in places (such as here in Florida) where transit systems like light rail are being suggested as possibilities.