The Geography of Bliss; Eric Weiner, 2008

Geography of Bliss

 

 

 

The Geography of Bliss

Eric Weiner is a self-described mope and longtime foreign correspondent for National Public Radio. Since the time he ran away from home at the age of five, he believed that happiness is just around the corner.

The Geography of Bliss considers the influence of geography on personal happiness. You could call this approach: “Better living through geography.” In this book, Weiner recounts his worldwide search for happiness. These are some of the things he discovered:

  • There is such a thing as the World Database of Happiness, and it’s directed by Ruut Veenhoven, Robin Williams lookalike and Emeritus Professor of Happiness Studies at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
  • While smoking hash (for research purposes) in Rotterdam, he found that hedonism and tolerance, although correlated with happiness, didn’t equate to happiness.
  • You can find contentment in Switzerland, and also boredom.
  • Bhutan has a government policy of GNH—Gross National Happiness.
  • Our GDP includes things that make us unhappy—like assault rifles.
  • It’s not all about money. Qatar has plenty of money, but—like all nouveau rich—Qataris possess a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity. Because Qatar is growing so fast, it has to import its culture.
  • Temples in Japan are routinely destroyed and rebuilt; yet people still consider them as old as the day they were first built. The essence of the original structure remains. (Planners—try this at your next neighborhood meeting.)
  • “We are shaped not only by our current geography but by our ancestral one as well. Americans, for instance, retain a frontier spirit even though the only frontier that remains is that vast open space between SUV and strip mall.”
  • Iceland has a large and proliferate arts community because of its social safety net. People are allowed to fail. When we let go of our fear of failure, we take more risks. Icelandic people are able to reinvent themselves many times over without worrying about the things Americans worry about, like stability or healthcare.
  • In developing countries, people who move from the village to the city are happiest.
  • Moldova is one of the unhappiest places in the world, not because it’s poor, but because it has no national identity.
  • Traffic has never been associated with happiness.
  • “It’s never a good sign when the best thing to recommend a place is that it’s near other places. Just ask the residents of New Jersey.”

Weiner ends his odyssey in Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville is one of my favorite places of all time. It may be one of the happiest places in the United States. But there is tension in Asheville: “Tension among the old-timers who don’t want anything to change and the newcomers who want everything to change and the people who have been here for ten years and want to lock the door behind them.” Weiner should have been a city planner; this pretty much sums up every neighborhood meeting I’ve ever been to.

Weiner argues the point that happiness is not deep inside you, as the self help industrial complex would have us believe, but out there—somewhere. “Where we are is vital to who we are.”

Maybe, someday, we’ll be adding happiness elements to our comprehensive plans along with land use, housing, and transportation.

From Amazon:

Part foreign affairs discourse, part humor, and part twisted self-help guide, The Geography of Bliss takes the reader from America to Iceland to India in search of happiness, or, in the crabby author’s case, moments of “un-unhappiness.” The book uses a beguiling mixture of travel, psychology, science and humor to investigate not what happiness is, but where it is. Are people in Switzerland happier because it is the most democratic country in the world? Do citizens of Qatar, awash in petrodollars, find joy in all that cash? Is the King of Bhutan a visionary for his initiative to calculate Gross National Happiness? Why is Asheville, North Carolina so damn happy? With engaging wit and surprising insights, Eric Weiner answers those questions and many others, offering travelers of all moods some interesting new ideas for sunnier destinations and dispositions.

 

 

Where the Bottles Break; John Gorka, 1991

Jack's Crows

Jack’s Crows

In 1991, Rolling Stone magazine called John Gorka: “the pre-eminent male singer-songwriter of what has been dubbed the New Folk Movement.”

In a rich baritone voice and alt-country sensibility, “Where the Bottles Break” takes aim at planning’s greatest bugaboo—gentrification and repeat offender—Donald Trump. There is no mistaking Gorka’s stand on the subject with this lucid denouncement of the changes that inevitably come with wealth and growth.

Where The Bottles Break, selected lyrics:

“Further west it’s been gentrified
They turned biker bars into flower shops”

“It happens when the money comes
The wild and poor get pushed aside”

“The buyers come from somewhere else
And raise the rent so you can’t hide
The buyers come from out of state
And they raise the rent”

“Buy low sell high
You get rich and you still die
Money talks and people jump
Ask how high low-life Donald what’s-his-name
And who cares
I don’t wanna know what his girlfriend doesn’t wear
It’s a shame that people that work
Wanna hear about this kind of jerk”

A Man in Full

A Man in Full; Tom Wolfe, 1998

Man In Full

A Man in Full

This is a book about greed, race, power, and failed real estate development.

Protagonist and antihero Charlie Croker, epitome of the white southern cracker, is a prominent, yet fading, Atlanta real estate developer. He thinks a lot of himself. Gazing out over the Atlanta skyline from aboard his private plane, he mentally pats himself on the back: “I did that! That’s my handiwork! I’m one of the giants who built this city! I’m a star!” No, he’s not currently running for president.

Charlie is old school. He can’t relate to a changing world, as evidenced by his annoyance with the term “paradigm shift”: “The damned word meant nothing at all, near as he could make out, and yet it was always ‘Shifting,’ whatever it was.”

As a developer, Charlie has a particular disdain for planners: “Nobody could object to Planners: even the most dysfunctional welfare case in the Capital Homes could be a planner.”

He isn’t much fond of architects either: “From his perspective on board his private plane over Atlanta, he knows the Atlanta skyline by the builders, not their architects…what were architects but neurotic and ‘artistic’ hired help?”

Charlie’s masterwork on the outskirts of Atlanta, an edge city middle finger to Atlanta’s downtown, proves to be his undoing. Joel Garreau’s, Edge City provided the inspiration for this failed development: “Edge city…Charlie closed his eyes and wished he’d never heard of the damn term…another developer had given him a copy of a book called Edge City by somebody named Joel Garreau. He had opened it up and glanced at it—and couldn’t put it down, even though it was 500 pages long. He had experienced the Aha! Phenomenon. The book put into words something he and other developers had felt, instinctively, for quite a while: namely, that from now on, the growth of American cities was going to take place not in the heart of the metropolis, not in the old Downtown or Midtown, but out on the edges, in vast commercial clusters served by highways.”

Wolfe describes Atlanta’s ambition to be a world center and outlines the racial motivations behind the city’s path of development, including its history of corruption, urban renewal, and the Olympics.

Wolfe’s insights on urban development don’t stop in Atlanta. In this book, he outlines the iterations of an eastern Costa County, California, city from New York West, to Black Diamond, to Pittsburg. The other protagonist and true hero of A Man in Full, Conrad Hensley speculates that the next name for the city will be 7-Eleven: “It was now one vast goulash of condominiums and other new, cheap housing. The only way you could tell you were leaving one community and entering another was when the franchises started repeating and you spotted another 7-Eleven, another Wendy’s, another Costco, another Home Depot. The new landmarks were not office towers or monuments or city halls or libraries or museums but 7-Eleven stores.”

Tom Wolfe is known for stories that define an era. What Bonfire of the Vanities did for greed in 1980s New York, A Man in Full does for real estate empires collapsing under the weight of their own debt in the 1990s. For those of us still reeling from the not-so-great recession of more recent times, this story is still pertinent.

Wolfe rolls in the weeds with his characters, providing the details that give context and understanding to a subject. After reading A Man in Full, I can now honestly say that I know more about working the night shift in a cold storage facility than I ever thought I wanted to know.

Wolfe is often credited with pioneering the New Journalism, a style of reporting similar to the Gonzo Journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. He has been known to shadow his subjects over extended periods of time, a reportorial approach he calls “saturation reporting.” Eschewing the advice commonly given to new writers to write what they know, he tells them to go out and have a life in order to learn something new. “To me, the great joy of writing is discovering. Most writers are told to write about what they know, but I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.”

This would seem good advice for planners—to go out and discover other places, other cultures, other people.

 

Jacket Copy:

The setting is Atlanta, Georgia — a racially mixed, late-century boomtown full of fresh wealth and wily politicians. The protagonist is Charles Croker, once a college football star, now a late-middle-aged Atlanta conglomerate king whose outsize ego has at last hit up against reality. Charlie has a 29,000-acre quail-shooting plantation, a young and demanding second wife, and a half-empty office complex with a staggering load of debt.

Meanwhile, Conrad Hensley, idealistic young father of two, is laid off from his job at the Croker Global Foods warehouse near Oakland and finds himself spiraling into the lower depths of the American legal system.

And back in Atlanta, when star Georgia Tech running back Fareek “the Canon” Fanon, a homegrown product of the city’s slums, is accused of date-raping the daughter of a pillar of the white establishment, upscale black lawyer Roger White II is asked to represent Fanon and help keep the city’s delicate racial balance from blowing sky-high.

Networks of illegal Asian immigrants crisscrossing the continent, daily life behind bars, shady real estate syndicates — Wolfe shows us contemporary America with all the verve, wit, and insight that have made him our most admired novelist. Charlie Croker’s deliverance from his tribulations provides an unforgettable denouement to the most widely awaited, hilarious and telling novel America has seen in ages — Tom Wolfe’s most outstanding achievement to date.